Beyond the Visible: Conversation with Paul McClure

Published: 15.04.2021
Marie-Eve G. Castonguay
Edited by:
École de joaillerie de Montréal
Edited at:
Edited on:
Paul McClure, at the installation of Slice: Biodigital Jewellery exhibition at Craft Ontario Gallery in Toronto, ON, 2020..
Paul McClure, at the installation of Slice: Biodigital Jewellery exhibition at Craft Ontario Gallery in Toronto, ON, 2020.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

For over a year, Paul McClure has been developing the series exhibited in Slice: Biodigital Jewellery, which was first presented at the Craft Ontario Gallery (Toronto, Canada) in the fall of 2020, and then at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h (Montreal, Canada) this spring. In this interview, which was conducted in February 2021 on behalf of the École de joaillerie de Montréal (Montreal jewellery school), McClure discusses his creative process and the conceptualization of this new body of work.
Paul McClure. Coccobacillus, Cocci and Spirillum Slice, 2020. Silver and laser sintered nylon, 8 x 5 x 2.5 cm (each).
From series: Slice.Photo by: Paul Ambtman.

Since the beginning of his career, Canadian artist Paul McClure finds inspiration in the infinitely small, the visually indiscernible universe that makes up our bodies and that which emanates from them. His works depict various cell structures and microbes, simplifying their shape and colour to create sleek and playful objects. McClure not only reveals the invisible, but more importantly, he gives a whole new aesthetic to that which normally disquiets and repels. In addition to investigating the physical world, he raises questions about the notion of beauty and its inherent link to attraction and repulsion, and thus brings a moral aspect into his work. In this period of pandemic, an exhibition dedicated to the world of microbes is ironic to say the least. Yet, it was before our world was turned upside down that McClure undertook a research residency at Birmingham City University, where he began the body of work featured in the exhibition Slice: Biodigital Jewellery. (1)

The new body of work you will be presenting at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h fits within your continuous exploration of the microscopic world of bacteria, viruses and cells. How would you define the new direction you took with this work?
The microscopic world of the human body serves as a framing device within which I explore forms, materials, and techniques. By zooming in on these microbial forms I’m not only asking questions about the physical body but also existential questions about mortality, beauty, and life beyond the visible. As a full-time educator I don’t get a lot of time to make art, and when I do, I always run out of time before I feel I have fully explored a new discovery. For this reason, my work evolves gradually. In that sense it isn’t a new direction – it’s a continuation. Recently I’ve been using a cutaway technique to visualize the internal structures of my forms. I’ve increased my use of digital technologies to design and make some components in combination with traditional jewellery methodologies. And I’m working at a larger scale than I have before.

Paul McClure. Vibrio: Green Pink Microbes, 2021. Laser sintered and dyed nylon, stainless steel, 9 x 5 x 3 cm (2021). From series Slice. Photo: Paul Ambtman

You started to develop this body of work during a residency at Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery in the UK. What kind of equipment were you able to access and further explore while you were there?
Yes, I was very fortunate to spend 4 months at BCU. The School of Jewellery (SoJ) is a wonderful hive of learning for all the related fields (goldsmithing, silversmithing, art jewellery, jewellery design, fashion, horology and gemmology). Birmingham itself is a city full of jewellery making – traditional manufacturers, independent studios, and cutting-edge technologies. I went to Birmingham to research CAD/CAM, and specifically to use the Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM) technology of additive manufacturing. The SoJ has an industry partnership with Cooksongold (the UK’s largest supplier to the jewellery trade) to enable student access to a DMLM machine – basically a 3D printer for silver and gold.
I also had the opportunity to learn more about how the SoJ educates the next generation of jewellery designers and makers. We have established a new partnership between George Brown College and BCU so that our graduates can go there to complete a degree. So this was also a learning and networking opportunity for me as an educator.

DMLM silver build model in final stages of print, exiting from silver powder.
DMLM silver build model being removed from printin.
Completed silver build model, fused to stainless steel build plate.
Photos by Paul McClure

What prompted you to centre your work around digital technologies?
I am a generalist when it comes to the craft of jewellery making. Digital technologies are important tools to learn for designer/makers in the 21st century. I want to stay current and I want to have some fun with something new and challenging. I am also drawn to the precision, the detail, and the geometry inherent in the digital.

Do you feel like there is a relationship between the themes you are exploring and the processes you are using to create the work?
One of the processes I use is cutting away or slicing through forms to reveal something inside. For me the slice is a powerful symbol and action. It represents a curiosity, a way of understanding through looking. If we think of it in terms of anatomy, the slice is also a threshold between life and death, between the animate and inanimate. Using computer modelling makes slicing much easier, it allows me to try out various slices to see what surprising pattern is revealed before committing the time and labour that handmaking demands. The new series of work, Slice, also alludes to the method by which computer models form, virtually slicing them into thousands of cross-sections that the 3D printer then builds layer upon layer, slice by slice.
Digital technologies also lend themselves well to working in multiples and variations. There is a nice correlation there to the multiplicity and mutations of microbes. This is something I explored with the new collection of 3D printed nylon brooches.

The use of bright colours, always in stark contrast with the neutral tones of metal or, in this case, with the black 3D printed nylon forms, is a defining element of your work. Knowing that colour can be highly symbolic, how do you usually choose the colours you are to include in each piece? 
Computer modelling and rendering software produce exceptional visualizations that can be cut away, made translucent, reduced to wireframe or rendered in vibrant colours. My work references these digital aesthetics, transmuting them into the tangible world. There’s an incredible satisfaction in realising an object that you spent days looking at on screen. The bright colours also reference the scientific and medical visualizations I use in my research. These visualizations are often highly aestheticized with colours to make them more easily understood and certainly more attractive.
Obviously, there’s a very playful quality to my work and the use of saturated primary and secondary colours brings joy to these jewels. Afterall, the English word jewel has its etymological origins in the Old French jouel and in turn the Latin gaudium, meaning joy. We all need some joy in these dark days, no?

Paul McClure. Brooch: Vibrio, Spirillum, Cocci, 2020. 3d printed nylon, stainless steel. Various sizes. From series: Slice
Photo by: Paul Ambtman.

While on sabbatical from teaching at George Brown College, you had a whole year of residencies and research trips planned out, which was shortened by the global pandemic we are currently facing. How did these changes affect your production, and did they have a noticeable impact on the work’s outcome?
The lockdown happened just as I was returning from the UK. I was meant to be on my way to Copenhagen for another residency focussing on wearable technologies. That never happened. But I was fortunate that I could lockdown in my home in Toronto where I also have a fully equipped jewellery studio. I had been planning on producing more work with the DMLM process but that was no longer available to me. As an alternative, I was able to send my design files to be 3D printed in nylon – and that is how I ended up making all the colourful brooches. While the conceptual development began before the pandemic, a few pieces are in response to the new coronavirus.
I can’t deny the irony of taking a sabbatical to create new work based on microbes and being walloped with a global pandemic. There is also the fact that my earliest work was in response to another pandemic in my lifetime, AIDS. The COVID-19 pandemic is a brutal wave that is hitting us all in very different degrees. While it hasn’t been easy and the magnitude of deaths is grim, I am very fortunate and privileged in this crisis. I am an eternal optimist and I try to hold on to that every day.

Paul McClure. Brooch: CRISPR, 2020. Silver, with 3D printed and fabricated elements, 6 x 5 x 2 cm.
Photo: Paul Ambtman


Paul McClure. Necklace: Microbes Yellow, 2020. Silver, acrylic, nylon. 10 X 10 X 2.5 cm. From series: Slice
Photo by: Paul Ambtman

(1) Marie-Eve G. Castonguay: Slice – Biodigtal Jewellery (Montreal: Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, 2021), Exhibition brochure.


About the Interviewee

Paul McClure is a Canadian artist and designer of contemporary jewellery. His work is represented in private and public collections including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Canadian Museum of History; Design Museum of Barcelona; and National Museum of Scotland. He graduated from NSCAD University, Halifax, Canada (BFA, 1989); Escola Massana, Barcelona, Spain; and National College of Art and Design, Dublin, Ireland (MA, 1999). McClure exhibits and lectures throughout North America, Europe and Asia. He is professor and program coordinator for Jewellery Studies at George Brown College in Toronto. In 2015, McClure received the Saidye Bronfman Award, a Governor General’s Award, Canada’s foremost distinction for excellence in the visual arts.
McClure’s jewellery interprets the body at the microscopic level to reflect our humanity in an era of medical advancement. The fields of biology, pathology and genetics inspire his work and reveal our increasingly digital, biotechnological understanding of life. Formats and concepts from the history of jewellery and ornamentation ground his contemporary reflection on the human body. In wearing McClure’s jewellery, the invisible body becomes visible adornment.

IG: @pmcclurejwly

About the author

Originally from Quebec City, Marie–Eve G. Castonguay is a jewellery artist, writer and curator based in Montréal, Canada. She holds a diploma from the École de Joaillerie de Québec (2011) as well as a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jewellery Design and Metalsmithing from NSCAD University, in Halifax (2013). She is an alumna of the Artist-in-Residence programme at Harbourfront Centre, in Toronto. Her work was showcased in various exhibitions throughout Canada as well as in various countries in Europe such as France, Romania, Spain, Austria and Greece. On top of her artistic practice, Marie–Eve strives to be an active member of the arts and culture community and gets involved through writing, curating and initiating various exhibition and outreach projects. She co-founded MetalAid, a Canada-based organization which aims to support and promote Canadian contemporary jewellery, and currently acts as the Art Jewelry Forum Canadian Ambassador. Since 2018, she works at the École de joaillerie de Montréal as the Projects, Events and Communications Officer.

IG: @mevegcastonguay