Powerful Objects

Powerful Objects

Susan Cummins Illustration

Susan Cummins, Art Jewelry Forum founder and board chair; Illustration: Tina Berning, kokoartagency.com

Editor's note: A shorter version of this interview appeared in the magazine with the headline "Peer Group." 

To the list of challenges facing contemporary art jewelers, working in isolation ranks just beneath paying the bills. How does an artist find her audience or connect with a compatible curator? Susan Cummins helped found the nonprofit Art Jewelry Forum in 1997 as a way of bringing together various players in the field – from makers and collectors to art historians, gallery owners, and museums. Equal parts booster, educator, and matchmaker, AJF advocates by awarding prizes, publishing books, organizing trips and studio visits, and maintaining a content-rich website.

AJF, of which you are the board chair, approaches the field of contemporary art jewelry from many angles. How would you summarize the mission in a word or two?
Education. Everything we do is pointed toward education. And along the way, it’s about giving the field legitimacy by writing about it and analyzing it. Everything on the website – interviews with artists, reviews of books and exhibitions – creates visibility and helps people to see what’s going on in this world, which in turn helps grow the audience.

You used to have a very well-regarded gallery in Mill Valley, just over the bridge from San Francisco, that showed painting as well as primarily American jewelers.
Yes, being on the West Coast limited my ability to get to know the European scene. After I closed my gallery in 2002, I started to branch out more. In 2005 I went to this big event in Munich called Schmuck (which means “jewelry”) and Amsterdam, the two major cities for jewelry in Europe. And that was the beginning of meeting all these people whom I would get to know so well.

Is the European scene quite different?
It’s much more established as a real, serious, artistic endeavor. In Amsterdam alone there are four museums that heavily collect jewelry. And there’s a museum in Pforzheim, Germany, that is completely dedicated to it. There are also many more publications that come out of Europe about jewelry.

Where does that leave the Americans?
What’s interesting about the Americans is that they often had to teach themselves. There was this tradition of trying things out – maybe you learned a bit from the welder down the street who works on cars, and you adapted it. And I think that gave us a freedom, which maybe the Europeans didn’t have quite as much.

Is this still the case?
Now it’s a bit of a mixture. The Europeans are little freer, a little less tied to traditions. And the Americans have, I think, become really obsessed with technique. And there is also a lot from New Zealand that interests me, partly because of the materials they use. There’s a whole movement called Bone, Stone, and Shell, and I like these materials; I’m just naturally drawn to the work.

In your house you have an impressive collection of some 350 pieces acquired on behalf of the private family Rotasa foundation, which supports various nonprofit organizations. What do you look for when deciding what to collect?
I don’t collect according to who I think is the most brilliant or doing the most advanced work or making an historical move forward; others are focused on that. I choose pieces that I personally respond to. And that is directly influenced by my background – being a West Coast person, studying Buddhism, and being drawn to nature.

Is there a particular artist, or artists, who speaks to you?
The East German artist Dorothea Prühl, who is 78 and taught for much of her career, epitomizes the type of jewelry that I like. Her work in wood is very powerful, and has a connection for me to the very beginnings of jewelry and why people wore it.  Kat Cole is another. And Gabriel Craig, who is doing a lot of social and political work with jewelry in a very interesting way, has more of a social practice around jewelry that’s unique and refreshing.

I read that you are not a fan of actually wearing jewelry yourself.
It’s true. And it makes no sense. But I regard these pieces more as intimate objects of art. I love small, intimate things, and I love objects that have some kind of meaning or stories around them. It’s not ornamentation as much as a talisman, imbued with a kind of power. One way to comprehend the mysteries of our existence is through the relationships we attach to these small, but very powerful, objects. That’s the part of the jewelry world that particularly interests me, not the decorative part. I also appreciate the limitations of jewelry. Really, I like everything about it, except wearing it.

The AJF takes small groups of collectors on trips every year, such as this October’s visit to JOYA in Barcelona. What are your goals when you travel?
We do a lot of research up front, so we can meet the most important people in a locale, be they makers, or collectors, or curators. So you’re going to see the best of the best, and also some younger and some emerging artists, because there are people who like to discover work before it becomes too well known, or too expensive.

Any memorable trips that come to mind?
We went to Estonia and Sweden last year, and the Estonian jewelry scene is just fantastic. Who knew? They do a lot of stone carving, not gemstones, but stones intrinsic to the country. I loved Kadri Mülk, and I’ve started collecting her work pretty seriously. With the help of her former students, she’s really put Estonian jewelry on the map.

In terms of your education mandate, AJF has also published three books in as many years.
Yes. Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective was put together by Damian Skinner, our editor at the time. It has a lot of history, and explores how to really look at jewelry and interpret it. Ben Lignel, our current editor, followed that up with Best of the AFJ Interviews, a collection of our popular artist interviews culled from the website. And our third book, Shows and Tales: On Jewelry Exhibition-making, looks at the history of jewelry exhibitions and display.

I understand that you also support young and emerging artists in some very tangible ways.
Yes, the AJF Artist Award of $7500 is an international competition open to makers of wearable art jewelry under the age of 35, and also comes with exhibition and sales opportunities. This year’s winner, Seulgi Kwon, is from Korea, as was last year’s winner.

Your website is a wonderful place to get lost, one can follow so many different threads. 
And now we’ve started publishing a lot more articles relating to jewelry and culture. For example, Liesbeth de Besten is writing about what the Queen of the Netherlands is wearing, and we’re going to write about Margaret Thatcher and her pearls. A piece called “Kiss the Rings, Bitch,” delves into the ceremony of kissing the papal rings (and also talks about The Godfather). And Marthe Le Van wrote about the Oscars – and that zipper necklace that somebody was wearing. Once you start to look, you see that jewelry is everywhere.

Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco.