TRANSITIONS - Melissa Cameron

Interview  /  Artists   Making
Published: 16.10.2014
TRANSITIONS - Melissa Cameron.
Sanna Svedestedt
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© By the author. Read Copyright.

Three years ago, Australian born art jeweller Melissa Cameron packed up her workshop in Melbourne, moved to America and settled down in a house on one of the many lush hills of Seattle. Some years prior to that, Melissa had done another major move as she transitioned from a career in interior architecture to becoming an independent art jeweller.
We were able to get together in her workshop to talk about how these changes has affected her as an artist and to find out more about the jewels she creates from laser cut metal and recycled objects.

- It gets designed upstairs, made downstairs and the photographed back upstairs, Melissa explains as she leads the way down the steep stairs to her home studio.
- I set up the habit of having the computer in one room and the studio in the other a long time ago. When you are at the bench you need to be at the bench. It is easy to get distracted. Normally I spend two hours by the computer in the morning, then I come down here. I try and fit in at least four hours a day by the bench Monday to Friday. Then sometimes I get really excited about a piece and I just want to come down and do it again on Saturday! I am conscious about that I am in a very gifted position at the moment, that I don’t have to produce something that I don’t enjoy or buy myself time at the studio and I think that makes me very aware of what I am doing and how I am doing it.  I do have a qualification that everything I make has to have a jewellery outcome. I put that pressure on myself as an artist and business person. It is hard to have an output that sustains you if you don’t finish things. I guess that is my designer background showing through.

Melissa’s work is a combination of new technology and traditional techniques. In 2009 she started experimenting with laser cutting.  By working in AutoCad, she creates drawings of the different components, visualizing in her mind’s eye how they will be strung together into unique objects. The drawings are worked over and over again until the most supreme version of the idea is achieved and then finally printed and laser cut out of thin sheets of metal.  

- Laser cutting is a useful creative tool. I can play with the different parts as a puzzle. I could do it all by hand cutting the pieces as well but then I wouldn’t get as much time to play with the parts. This is a better use of resources I guess. I do object to people saying that the computer makes it easier… I wish we were past that! Some people are neglecting technology, but it is like having any other tool. Would you stop using your kiln or buffing wheel because that was new technology? It would be ridiculous.
"I think in fact the opposite,
we are obliged to use the technology at hand
because otherwise we might become obsolete.
If that happens, then the jewellery world has lost.
- We need to keep up with the times. It is each person to themselves. If you don’t want to use the technology, then that is fine, but I don’t know if you qualify to judge the technology until you have tried it.

For Melissa there wasn’t a straight path leading towards making jewellery. With a strong desire to study at university, the fine arts field was an alluring option, although Melissa admits that in the beginning she just didn’t think she had it in her to get accepted to the art department. Finally the choice landed on architecture and interior design.

- I didn’t think that I could draw. The funny thing is you get into architecture and for the first year you just draw. For the first year of architecture they make you go and sit on the street and draw buildings so eventually I had to learn how to draw properly, says Melissa.

After working for a few years as an interior architect Melissa decided to go back to Curtin University in Perth for a post graduate diploma, this time in jewellery production.  The program was focused on learning studio techniques and production requirements to make items quickly and figure out how to set up work for ease of production. After graduating, Melissa continued to her Master of Fine Arts degree in Jewellery and Metals, this time at Monash University in Victoria, Australia under the lead of Dr. Marian Hosking. Here the jewellery programme was closely enveloped with the other branches of the art department and the jewellers needed to find their voices amongst the photographers, sculptors and painters in the joint critique discussions.
"I know that was when I switched from being a designer
to being an artist. I was being trained to be able to mix it with
all the other art professionals and I became an artist,
specializing in jewellery.
- Education does train how you view jewellery. I think that the work I make now is still between the two.  I am still passionate about architecture, it interests me how we work with space. But in terms of making things I really love working with the body and with metal. I am interested in expressing myself as an artist and being able to do it on a platform that is both really visible and very versatile. I think contemporary jewellery is only just beginning to understand how it can spread bigger messages using this canvas. For a long time we have been interested in jewellery being the message, but now I think it is going to become more and more that other messages are being put onto that same platform. With that comes opportunities that you can’t get in other art forms. It is not a matter of contemporary jewellery being accepted by other art forms, there is the ability to move beyond that and embrace the power that we have from what we do. It is an exciting time for jewellery. There are a lot of people that seem to be scared because a lot of jewellers are coming out, but with that comes a challenge for every new person to be interesting and different. People wouldn’t be going into universities if they weren’t interested in jewellery as a topic. If a lot more people are being educated and interested then that is going to be a good thing for everyone.

After finishing her master’s degree, Melissa landed an Australia Council Art Start grant that helped set up her first studio. In 2011 Seattle hosted the annual SNAG conference and rumors of a good metal community in the North West spread overseas. When the American company Amazon searched for programmers in Australia, Melissa’s partner Bruce got scooped up and the couple was offered an opportunity to move to Seattle. It wasn’t a difficult choice, although a move was likely to impact on the artistic work.

- When Bruce asked me if I wanted to move to Seattle I thought, well there are worse places for jewellery in the world, why wouldn’t I? My work has changed with the move. I think just being in a country that is not your own puts your mind into places you wouldn’t have thought about while you were still safe at home. The political and social environment in the US is quite different to that in Australia, so that has had direct impact on what it is that I choose to represent in my works. Even the “coat hanger pieces” of Australia and America - since I live here now I had to do America as well... It totally changes the tone of the piece. It was just a small gesture, and I can’t even tell you if the coat hanger came from Australia or America, it is a multinational commodity. I think even my color palette has changed. Seattle is quite a grey place, a lot of the houses are painted blue grey which is a contrast from the dominant clay colors of Australia.

Today Melissa still regularly exhibits and sells work in Australia. When we met in Seattle she has just returned from a trip to Germany working on the Heat Exchange project, which finds her working again with Elizabeth Turrell. But does she see specific styles and aesthetics in the different countries?

-  I think there is an American aesthetic. Early on I characterized it as technique heavy. It is more common to go to university rather than technical college for jewellery. At the technical schools you need to pay up front, it is a very expensive course but you become a competent manufacturer. This is just my gut feeling, but because that option is harder to find, people that would have gone into another direction have gone into universities instead, and there has been an emphasis on people producing very fine, technically competent pieces, in a university context. So it happens that in the US you get a lot of pieces where people are trying to show of every single skill that they have, in once piece of jewellery. As a part of that but on the flip side, the older generations of makers are a bit frustrated with the Europeanization of jewellery at the moment.  I have actually heard someone say “If I have to see another thing hanging of a piece of red silk I’ll think I’ll start to throw punches”. The belief is that if you are not making a chain for that piece to go on, then that is a loss of technical skill…but then it is also trying to adapt to an international aesthetic, which is perceived by some as being what they are not. Having said that, at Cranbrook you are under Iris Eichenberg and at SUNY New Paltz you are under Jamie Bennett and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray and both are really good schools but maybe they have a more European influence. I think with that there is a double edged thing. If you make these “new” jewellery works, then you might not be accepted in your community and you are probably not appealing to those people who were the traditional buyers in that community. So you are generally striking out on your own.
We have walked back up the stairs and are standing in the room where Melissa does her computer based work. A large table is filled with different objects, pots, pans and metal boxes that offer seemingly endless opportunities for her recycled pieces. 

- I questioned whether I would continue the laser cut work. I was getting tired, but now my work is getting bigger and more sculptural. Pieces than can be on the body but they don’t have to be. That can develop a new kind of narrative, says Melissa.
-  Sometimes I simply use the term “artist” when I introduce myself, I recently had to go through customs and that is the easier way. Sometimes when I go through customs I say jeweller. But this time I had a suitcase full of enamel and very large metal pieces and I thought in if they are going to open my case up later on it will be easier to say artist. Context does matter. The idea of being an artist means that I can make any statement that I want to make in any format. That it happens to be in jewellery is easier to explain than doing it the other way around.

Photos by Jonas Carboo