Exclusive Interview | Joanna Campbell

"I like the concept that jewellery serves to extend the radiance of the wearer."

Auckland-based Joanna Campbell merges the lines between artist and maker. Her creative outlet, as much for herself as it is for the community, seems to flow from a place of tradition, both intuitive and necessary. Drawn to objects that are beautiful and functional, Joanna's collection is delicate on the eye, yet made from robust materials. 

To celebrate the arrival of a stunning range from Joanna Campbell, such as her sequin-strung necklaces and lace-moulded rings, we spoke to Joanna about her creative processes, her affinity with dressmaking, and her recent show at Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi. 

What is your background and how did you begin to make jewellery?

There has always been a strong making tradition in my family. I made my first piece of jewellery when I was about 11-years-old, it was an synclastic curved cuff made from copper, a shop was keen to stock them at the time which I guess, on reflection, may have planted the seed for me on making a living out of jewellery. I had a very hands-on childhood, my Dad could build or fix anything, he built our family car, it was a 1929 Model A Ford. It didn't have a roof for a while, and we lived in Wellington! We also helped Dad build all our boats, we built optimists and starlings. I also remember when I was about 14 years old I bought a car off my boyfriend at the time, I couldn't even drive, but I fitted new brake pads into it using the manual as a guide, with no help from Dad! So I'm sure I got some good making genes from Dad, but I'm also quite a practical person and if I wanted something I would make it. I made most of my clothes at high school. I ended up working in clothing production for a few years. Then I went and did jewellery night classes and totally loved it, I was in my element, the small scale engineering and problem solving really appealed to me but so did the materials and the creative expression. So, I decided to study a Bachelor of Design at Unitec. I was a woman possessed, I thought I had died and gone to heaven, those days were so formative, I had an amazing tutor, Pauline Bern, and it was such an exciting time in the jewellery department.

Your jewellery collection explores certain haberdashery objects such as the measuring tape, the sequin and the vintage lace. Can you talk about the significance of these objects and why you wanted to explore them through your own medium?

I have always been a home dressmaker, and was a machinist, and worked in clothing production, so the haberdashery objects were familiar old friends, and I like the idea of exalting these mundane domestic objects that were familiar to generations of women. With the tape measure bangle, I just really liked the idea of turning a useful ubiquitous object into a wearable precious object. I think the Haberdashery objects are actually quite a sentimental for people, they are a link to the past, they stir up memories of dressmaking with sisters, mothers, aunties and grandmothers. I like to bring these objects out of the draws and re-frame them in a more contemporary way, at the same time placing the pieces on the body speaks of links to the past.

I also have an interest in textile design, and have produced a few designs in the past. I have a love of pattern and surface decoration. One of the original textile designs I made is just in the process of being entered into the collection at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It was natural to use my knowledge and love of textiles in my jewellery, and clothing and jewellery have a lot of interesting connections. I started off fraying, drawing threads and manipulating silk organza embossing it into metal. I used to trawl through vintage and antique stores looking for unusual pieces of lace, I guess I was really trying to capture a certain quality that is becoming increasingly rare these days. I also have this thing about trying to make metal more fabric like, wether it's pleating the metal or trying to make metal drape like an old viscose crepe or weaving a fluid grosgrain ribbon. The qualities of antique fabrics really appeal to me and I try to imbue my jewellery with these qualities. Silver and gold are such soft metals and are so perfect for receiving an impression. I started collecting antique lace at the beginning of my career and have used it to add texture and variety to my surfaces. Reacting to the modernist notion of decoration being superfluous, I see lace as interesting because the structure and decoration are one and the same. The lace I use is so old that it is literally falling apart so I'm kind of recording an impression of the lace just before it disintegrates. Colour is another thing I'm interested in. I'm currently experimenting with anodised aluminium. When aluminium is anodised it opens up the surface of the metal making it porous so it's able to suck up dye like silk. I find this concept really exciting and have got lots of things I want to try out.

I loved reading that your work is seen as 'bridging the gap between maker and wearer'. Can you tell us about your process in designing your jewellery pieces with their future wearer in mind?

I usually make what I would like to wear, I originally made the cuff ring because I have quite long fingers and I wanted to make something that would suit my hand, and it just so happened that it appealed to other people. I start off with an idea that is usually material or process driven and work from there. I like the concept of generosity, not just in a literal way, but being generous in what you offer up, I'm defiantly not a minimalist. I kind of like the concept that jewellery serves to extend the radiance of the wearer.

Can you tell us about the space in which you work from? Any working necessities? Natural light? Radio?

Certain times of the day, making things by hand is not the easiest way of earning a living, it's definitely a passion. After I've walked my son to school I go straight into the workshop, which is down the back steps, among the bird song. I always have the radio on, Radio New Zealand is essential listening for me. My cat Jet usually comes and hangs out with me. I don't drink coffee so if I'm doing something tricky a bar or two of dark chocolate will become necessary, and green tea — I drink a lot of green tea. The day often goes by far too quickly and I have to run up the road to the school pick up. Sometimes Juno will hang out with me working on his own jewellery project but mostly it's mummy duties, swimming lessons, soccer, homework etc.

How do you like to enjoy your weekends during the winter months?

One of the things Juno and I love to do is take our boat Pipiroa down to French Bay and go exploring around the bay's. We also love hanging out with family, my brother and his boys often come over and all the boys have a great time making wooden guns, and looked for eels in the stream. We all like to cosy up by the fire, share a meal and watch Star Wars, which everyone in our family is obsessed with. I love the West Coast beaches and don't mind a bit of weather, the Piha waterfall is a favourite family walk. If the weather is really bad Te Uru Art Gallery in Titirangi is always a great destination. I have a show on at Te Uru until the end of the month.

Joanna Campbell jewellery is now available in store and online at Tessuti. 

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