The Contemporary Jewellery World is a Highly Diverse Landscape. Interview with Jason Stein by Klimt02

Published: 02.11.2020
Jason Stein Jason Stein
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Jason Stein. Sculpture: Hostile Defense Artifact, 2020. Electro-formed copper. 15 x 15 x 15 cm. Photo by: Jason Stein. Jason Stein
Sculpture: Hostile Defense Artifact, 2020
Electro-formed copper
15 x 15 x 15 cm
Photo by: Jason Stein
© By the author. Read Copyright.

I was drawn to the world of contemporary jewellery by its many conceptual layers available to be explored and utilized within the consideration of one's own identity such as the idea of functionality and practicality, physical interpretations of the subconscious and unconscious ideas and desires, and questions of beauty and aesthetic value.
Tell us about your background. What were your first influences to be creative and become an artist and what has drawn you to contemporary jewellery?
My journey as a jeweler and metalsmith began early in my childhood. My father and maternal grandfather were both engineers and skilled makers and builders in their own right, and instilled in me a love of tools and working with my hands, while my mother was a talented craftsperson who believed in the power of the arts and exposed me to museums and eclectic cultural experiences. I played on my father's workbench by taking apart old discarded machinery and electronics components, and soon received my own workbench where I collected materials scavenged from the trash and dumpsters to create wire puzzles, decorative items, and small artworks.

My older sister Erika had taken jewellery classes and pursued a degree in education and art, and I followed in her footsteps. I was fortunate enough to attend a high school with a solid art program, where I took my first jewellery class and fell in love with the processes, tools, and materials. I was drawn to the world of contemporary jewellery by its many conceptual layers available to be explored and utilized within the consideration of one's own identity such as the idea of functionality and practicality, physical interpretations of the subconscious and unconscious ideas and desires, and questions of beauty and aesthetic value. I am also deeply fascinated by the rich history of precious metals and gemstones in society, their extraction from the natural world and the resulting structures and forms that are created, as well as the linage of craftsmanship, hand-skill, and use of tools to control and manipulate these materials throughout history.

What are your general thoughts on the contemporary jewellery world, (education, market, development...), where do you see chances and where are dead ends?
From my point of view, the contemporary jewellery world is a highly diverse landscape that stretches across many different and varied spheres of influence and artistic focus. However, within this broad spectrum of diverse talents and conceptual underpinnings, I find that people tend to be somewhat paradoxically isolationist in the sense that most, but not all, choose an area within which to orient their studio practice that gives their work the appropriate context and meaning. While this can be seen as a safe way to ensure that one has artistic relevance and is obtaining the appropriate response from the group participants, there is the real potential for this to turn into a feedback loop.

People feel compelled to make work that upholds and validates that particular community standards for what constitutes “good” art, appropriate aesthetic considerations, and valid conceptual perspectives. This can occasionally lead to work that seems derivative, and even as many artists choose to explore the same themes, the results can often feel like they follow a particular lineage or self-refer to the work of others in the group. Who did it first? Who can own an idea? What is the nature of originality in the age of digital reproduction and social media? How can artists make a claim for creative authenticity when exploring parallel aesthetics and working with the same eclectic materials? Is found-object jewellery still authentic if you found the materials or inspiration for their use in a social media post? There are no easy answers.

Ultimately, the market, the buyer, and the curatorial community decide what work is elevated and what work languishes in second-tier “inspired” categories. In the end, it is up to the individual artist and maker to defy labels, continually challenge conceptual and technical boundaries, and choose their ground. Stillness is death.

Work by Jason Stein. Necklace: Temporal Resonance #5, 2020. Steel, brass, polyester cord. 11.4 x 3.8 x 2.54 cm. 

Thinking about your career, what role do technology and the digital play in your artistic development & communication?
Technology and digital forms of creation and manipulation certainly have a place in the world of contemporary jewellery work, particularly in the realm of custom design and commercial jewellery production. I view these technologies as another tool in one's toolbox that can be used in order to achieve the desired result. This is especially useful when the final form of a piece is fully planned and thought out, or one is designing around a fixed constraint such as a gemstone or feature element of known size and dimensions, and the actual process of making a piece is just the linear solving of technical problems.

However, with most of my studio work, I seldom have a solid idea of precisely how I want a piece to look or behave. Rather, I have a general sense of the result I’d like to achieve and the various processes that I believe will get me there. I employ the concepts of chance and failure in my studio practice through the exploration of the casting process and the subtle and subversive manipulation of found objects and materials. I push materials and processes to their breaking point, and then use the resulting textures and structures at the starting points and components for new pieces. By allowing the results of my experimentation to dictate form and design, I stay in a zone of constant manic problem solving and the surrealist juxtaposition of disparate elements and combinations. For these reasons, while I am deeply fascinated with CAD and 3D printing as disciplines on their own, I have yet to fully incorporate them into my general studio and creative practice.

One of the digital technologies that I have found most useful in my studio practice is a smartphone and Instagram. These have allowed me to capture ideas and review multiple iterations for a particular piece and various configurations quickly without making permanent choices or modifications that eliminate possibilities. While I was originally hesitant to join the Instagram community, I can honestly say that the process of taking studio, process, and inspiration photos and video for editing and posting has taught me how to “see” in a visual design language I had previously left under-developed. 

How has your work changed over the past few years and what are you excited about these days?
After completing graduate school and obtaining my Masters in Jewellery/Metals in 2010, I began working at a traditional jewellery store that specialized in antique and estate jewellery, where I learned the trade of jewellery repair, restoration and refinishing, diamond setting and remounting, and custom design. This was a very challenging period for me, and while my skills and base of knowledge increased, my personal studio growth and exploration slowed down significantly and I was not producing any creative new work.

In 2016 I took stock of my situation, and I re-focusing my efforts to rebuild my studio practice and return to exploring the ideas, concepts, and materials I was passionate about with the goal of rejoining and engaging with the larger community of contemporary jewellery and metalsmithing. I began teaching college-level jewellery and metalsmithing classes in 2017, and this marked a shift in my overall approach to my work.

Previously, I engaged with my studio practice as an artistic mercenary, looking for exhibitions, awards, and opportunities first and then creating work to fit a specific theme or desired style. While this was enjoyable for me on the level of having a hyper-focused approach to creative problem solving with clear design constraints and not getting locked into any particular style or conceptual framework, it ultimately proved unfulfilling.

Since then, I have developed several bodies of work that I continue to explore and experiment with to this day: rough organic forms and surfaces developed through the unpredictable nature of the casting and brazing processes, industrial shapes and structures that explore ideas of control and confinement, and the subtle manipulation of found objects to create juxtapositions of obfuscated function, intent, and personal identity.