Infusing Tradition With Innovation

Photography by Jeffry Raposas. 

Leading-edge digital tools with a backbone of traditional techniques that pioneer authentic pieces of art are the outcome of the new Jewelry and Metal Arts major at Academy of Art University. The highly anticipated department made its debut in Spring 2013, and is now going on strong heading into its fourth semester. It is rapidly expanding and has become a driving force of many collaborations within the departments in the school. Students fully immerse themselves in classes that give them a wide perspective of different techniques, as well as career building skills that they can utilize in their personal and professional work. Offered as both a Bachelor and a Master of Fine Arts program, the original and innovative work that is created in this department is refreshing.  

Faculty and students often refer to the major as JEM, but don’t let the charming acronym fool you: this is a tough major that exposes students to a variety of difficult techniques. Department Director Charlene Modena says that although we have “… a lot of traditional techniques, our focus is on contemporary outcomes.”  Some of these techniques include ceramic sculpture, centrifugal and vacuum casting, rendering, and enameling, which is an ancient material. Essentially, enameling is “the art of fusing glass and metals to create colorful designs and surface enhancement,” according to the course catalogue. The second-level enameling course further explores the technique and combines it with the metal work skills that students have learned in other classes to create sophisticated bodies of art. 

In addition to these historic techniques, the major now offers the most innovative organic 3D modeling and printing and digital design laser cutting classes. Gordon Silveria, who is the Associate Director of Arts Technology, created these classes. State-of-the-art equipment like the CO2 laser cutter and Zbrush, a 3D modeling software, “place emphasis on conceptual designs that depart and expand the ideas of traditional jewelry and wearable forms.” These exciting new classes have students exploring completely new dimensions of their work.

Unleashing creativity without boundaries is the ultimate goal of the art produced here. Director Modena puts great emphasis on the importance of organic creativity and the individual’s unique voice. 

Bag by Ashley Lagasse, BFA Jewelry & Metal Arts.

“We are all aware of trends, but our students are taught how not to be bound by convention, and how to avoid the trap of blindly following fashion and art world trends,” she says. “Rather, they are encouraged and coaxed along a path where they can develop a distinctive voice in synergy with critical thinking, and the ability to always ask why? All of this takes place while they engage in an artist’s intimate dialogue, which includes, not excludes, culture at large.”
The focus is on “how you are influenced by what goes on around you, but also what goes on inside you; it’s a point where these two meet, a quality of bringing out who you are, which is a very organic process,” she adds. 

The work that the students in this new program produce is humbling and, indeed, highly individualistic. They have been wowing us with their intricate and elaborate designs and are frequently collaborating with students from the photography, styling, and fashion design departments; most notably, the collaborations between fashion design students during the academy’s shows at New York Fashion Week and the Spring Show in San Francisco.  

The 2014 Spring Fashion Show featured three collaborations between fashion designers and students in the JEM school. Zoe Cope, who graduated Spring 2014 with a degree from the department, showed her work at the Spring Show through collaboration with undergraduate fashion student Jaide Lennox, from the Fashion Design program. 

Insect brooch by Kaori Chiba, BFA Jewelry & Metal Arts. 

Solder station at the Jewelry & Metal Arts department.

Cuff by Dale Beevers, MFA Jewelry & Metal Arts.

Lennox explain that a “surrealistic desert vibrant in color and abstract in shape” inspires her designs. Cope is morphing her jewelry to work with the fashion designer’s concept of the desert by creating forearm, bicep and wrist cuffs.  The armor jewelry is inspired by sacred geometry and created by using etched metal and laser cut Plexiglass. Her process is detailed. “First I generate graphic geometric designs in Adobe Illustrator. I print and etch the design on copper, shape it, and cut Plexiglass to fit into the geometric shapes.”

Plexiglass is a material not often found in high fashion jewelry and looks bold and unconventional. “I then color the metal with hammered gray spray enamel and use a dry brush technique with black acrylic paint to give the pieces a slightly ancient feel,” says Cope, who thoroughly researched sacred geometry instead of just winging it. Although she “struggled with using exact sacred geometry designs for the etchings, [she] decided to follow [her] gut and creative eye and ended up making designs that were way cooler than anticipated.”  Overall, the designs are graphic yet understated because they are all gray, which balance out the vibrant colors in Lennox’s garments. Collaborations between talented designers like Jaide Lennox and Zoe Cope show us the new generation of trendsetters.

The JEM major calls the 410 Bush Street building its home, and has three rooms that allow students to work on their projects during and after class. Currently, there are “eight part-time faculty [members] who teach every semester or every other semester, two part-time instructors who only teach online (although the classes they will be teaching haven’t started yet,  and two instructors…who teach the digital 3D modeling classes,” explains Director Modena. There is a constant buzzing flow of creative energy when one enters a JEM classroom. Students are engaging, interacting and feeding off of each other’s creativity. The major has formed inseparable friendships – and even business partnerships.
Zoe Cope and Ashley Lagasse, another alumna from the JEM department, have taken their expertise and similar ideas to develop their own jewelry company called Birds .N. Bones. 
The two ladies first met in a casting class that they were in together, where their first jewelry piece came alive. 

“My first mold that I ever made was a rib mold, and it’s our highest selling piece [at Birds .N. Bones],” says Cope. The Birds .N. Bones website, featuring their line of necklaces, rings, and earrings, was launched on Halloween 2013. Which is suitable since they have a witchy and dark feel.

Brooches and rings by Wavy Yucen Tang, MFA Jewelry & Metal Arts. 

“With muses like birds, bones, taxidermy, gothic novels, earth and life sciences, the jewelry of Birds .N. Bones lends itself to imagery of witches and other supernatural beings wearing these pieces,” Cope describes. The process of creating these pieces, however, is a world of its own, “we start with finding bones that we like in nature, make a mold, and cast them in metal,” says Cope. Then come in all of the valuable techniques that they had learned in the JEM department, utilizing sautering, which is gluing metal together with metal for the clasps.  
Managing a full-scale company is a task within itself and this major has well prepared them for it. “Branding has been a huge thing for us and our success so far. We really knew who we were as designers and what company we wanted. It’s really helpful that all of our pieces online are listed with their scientific name and that’s from Lagasse’s previous degree in Biology and our love of earth science,” describes Cope, who was studying Advertising before she switched her major to JEM.

Currently, the two are working on a spring collection that is influenced by the character Khaleesi from Game of Thrones’, the “mother of dragons.” They are inspired by this theme and are using the molds of badger teeth and claws to market them as dragons, a very clever take that will undoubtedly be successful. Lagasse knows they are “not the only ones out there casting bones…but we’re really building a brand,” she says, “and the fabrication level is really superb and sound.” Indeed, there is a sleek and sophisticate feel to their pieces that speak to a market in which there is demand, and they are rapidly on their way to success.

Like these two talented ladies, graduating with a degree from the Jewelry and Metal Arts department at the Academy has given JEM students a competitive edge because students are prepared for a career in the field. However, the faculty does not push them in a specific direction but instead gives them the skills and knowledge to make their own decisions. 
Director Modena says, “Many students go on to work in galleries, or to work for other artists, trunk shows and craft fairs, and develop their own work through their websites.”

Necklace by Dale Beevers, MFA Jewelry & Metal Arts.

There are different career options that a student can take. Talented and hard-working alumni have gone on to become very successful with their careers. Alumni Elliot Gaskin has become a “one-of-a-kind limited edition” jeweler creating custom work that was featured at the Velvet da Vinci gallery in downtown San Francisco. Others have become entrepreneurs and opened up their own businesses like Anna Sheffield, who has built an empire out of bridal and fine jewelry.

These success stories are much a part of hard work as they are talent. Great art comes from being intimately in touch with your creativity and raw emotions, and letting it come out in your work. The School of Jewelry and Metal Arts nurtures that creativity and allows students to fully embrace it by teaching them traditional as well as contemporary techniques, which are the foundation to becoming a great artist.