At 17, Yufei Song stood at the Air China gate in Beijing, preparing to leave behind her life in China. She grew up taking ballet and appreciating fine objects and art, and she would have liked to have pursued her artistic interests in college. Instead, at her parents’ request, she was headed for business school in Atlanta. “I was a little bit scared,” she says, recalling that moment seven years ago.
In one of her suitcases was an unusual parting gift from her mother: a plastic bag filled with nine small cardboard boxes of staples. “My mother thought that when I would first get to Atlanta, I would not be familiar with the place. What if I needed staples for school purposes?” Song was reluctant to take them, since the staples were heavy and took up space, but she didn’t want to argue with her mother.
Once she arrived at Emory University, she stuffed the bag in the back of her dorm closet. The staples survived every dorm-room switch she made.
By 2014, she had earned two bachelor’s degrees in business administration – one in marketing, the other in film and media management. Satisfied she had some practical training, her parents allowed her to add a graduate degree of her own choosing. Following her long-held artistic dreams, she enrolled at Savannah College of Art and Design to pursue a master’s in jewelry. The new career direction made sense. “My grandmother had a little side business in Beijing selling jewelry. I had always liked these items as objects,” she says.
One day, “sorting old stuff in my apartment,” she found the bag of staples her mother had given her years before. By now, the boxes “looked really ratty,” she recalls. “I had an emotional moment when I saw them again. They suddenly carried very personal meaning to me.”
Song’s artistic brain began to whir. She had been on the lookout for interesting materials; now, what had once been a burden presented itself as a treasure trove of possibilities. She began to play with the base metal, clustering and arranging the staples in various ways. She soldered the staples together, then laser-welded the bigger pieces and added silver components to connect the individual clusters as necklaces, earrings, and brooches. Eventually she added a small sculpture of the material to her portfolio.
Since graduating in March, Song has been exploring another material from her personal history: laces from ballet toe shoes. “I dip shoelaces into wax, form them into the shape I want, and then cast them into silver,” she says. “I like that you can still see the texture of the material [in the final piece], and I would like to explore this some more in the future.”
“Our professors at SCAD always ask why we study jewelry,” she says. “For me, creating jewelry is a way of documenting my fascination with objects and the background stories they hold. My goal is to bring the objects back to life, but in a different shape than the one they had existed in before.”
Mulch and Movement
Location, location: At SCAD, Song started working with mulch, a material she saw everywhere. She collected mulch chips from three sites – downtown Savannah, Tybee Island, and Savannah River Street – to create three distinctly different necklaces. “I thought it was interesting that, even though the mulch probably all came from the same manufacturer, the different places where it had been placed gave the chips their own characteristics over time,” she says. Material she collected from the city center remained almost unchanged, whereas mulch taken from near the river turned out to be heavily damaged by pollutants in the water.
New life for laces: Song’s longtime passion for ballet found expression in a series of necklaces she created at SCAD. “Rond de jambe is a term from ballet that describes a circular movement you do with your leg,” she explains. “I wanted to find a way to translate this movement into jewelry.”