Renee Zettle-Sterling is an artist from Ridgway, Pennsylvania. Her educational background includes receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Fibers/Papermaking and dual degrees from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; a Masters of Arts in Jewelry/Metalsmithing and a Masters of Fine Arts in Sculpture/Installation. She is currently an Associate Professor of Art and Design at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan where she teaches several classes including Three-Dimensional Design and Metalsmithing/Jewelry. Renee is known for her investigations in several diverse media and procedures. Her work has been represented nationally and worldwide in shows ranging from Philadelphia, PA to Tokyo, Japan. The inclusion of her works in publications such as Metalsmith Magazine and multiple Lark 500 series books establishes her as an essential representative of the craft field. She is a unique, talented and vital figure in the craft community and inspires many.
RM: Your pieces use an array of different techniques and media to convey your ideas. How did you first approach combining media? Do you find that there are certain things that translate better through other materials than metal?
R Z-S: Well, I think I first started mixing media immediately upon entering undergraduate school, where I majored in fibers and papermaking, which is a field that lends itself to mixing materials and media. I also studied fashion design for about a year. I loved all of the fabrics and the accessories. I feel as though I have a really varied background compared to most artists. Even though I sometimes lack confidence in working with metal, I feel fortunate that my background has given me a vast repertoire of assets that I can pull from.
I think about painters and how intimidating it has to be just to start on a painting, with the looming blank canvas; it seems overwhelming and debilitating to me. I find comfort in my process. Before I get started making the work, I have material culture to pull from. I have always been interested in the material world and the associations that objects such as cups, scissors, and combs provide. I need objects to play with, because they give me a place to start—a springboard of sorts that clay or canvas do not offer. Using found objects and mixing media allows me certain freedoms that I do not feel with just using one material.
With the “Actualities of War” series, most of the forms are made primarily out of metal and the same goes for the “Objects of Mourning” series that I’m working on currently. There is more metal being used in these forms, because conceptually I am using the associations that metal has in the sources and inspirations that I want to reference. There’s this heaviness. Metal is a major material in war, as seen in tanks, guns, and bullets; in this case pretty much everything is made out of metal. Metal has a somberness that I wanted to explore, but when I’m dealing with lighter topics or more spiritual topics I would rather use more found materials. With the “Objects of Mourning”, there’s something about the metal and the ability to darken the copper that can help me articulate a sense of sadness, as well as reference the past. I really enjoy mixing the colors of the metals, rather than making everything out of one color of metal. Here I’m talking about all these materials that are available to me, a whole world of material that I can use, but I’m unfortunately a really scattered and unfocused person, so I have to give myself rules.
RM: What brought you to the idea of creating functional objects?
R Z-S: I haven’t always been interested in functional objects. I studied Sculpture/Installation in graduate school, and honestly did not give it much thought. I was more interested in material explorations and exploring issues of identity. For me the transition happened due to issues with the scale of working in sculpture. This began to disinterest me and I also felt disconnected to the materials. Working in metal allows me to have a focus. There was something about the scale and intimacy of working with metal, and the association that the tools I was using that was intriguing to me. I have never felt like I could speak as fluidly creating installation work as I do creating site-specific body forms. The body also became a focal point for me. Our relationship between our bodies and everyday objects inspires the forms that I started to make and that I am currently making. So it was this kind of bouncing around and finding an outlet for my ideas that was a perfect fit.
RM: What is your process in designing the mechanisms for your pieces?
R Z-S: I would sit for hours trying to figure out how to make a pair of scissors for the “Devices for Contemplation” series. You think, “ok, scissors are simple”. It has a fulcrum. It’s easy. Well it was not, at least not for me anyway, because I am not mechanically-minded. I would do paper maqettes and do drawing after drawing to figure it out because I want them to move fluidly.
My process is usually always the same; it starts out with sketching and moves to playing with the physical components of my pieces. I like to have a lot of elements at my disposal, so I do a lot of casting of plastic objects, such as toys, tool, and domestic parts, then I can start putting things together. It’s really hard unless I can physically sit at my bench and put things together in a real immediate way. My process at its most basic level is just tinkering. But it really starts with sketching (shows sketchbooks). This is one of my sketchbooks. Actually they are more sourcebooks, because I do not do that much serious sketching as much as I collect images and take notes. I Google constantly. I’m also interested in gadgets and inventions from the 1860s or 1870s. I like objects that are a little quirky, that you can’t quite place, and the simple mechanics involved are really interesting to me. My pieces will go through multiple phases, and usually change slightly from the original sketches and original ideas. Flexibility in my process is also important; I never want my process to become static or controlled. Even though I am working with metal, I always want there to be room for my humanness to show. Room for error, change, spontaneity, and honestly are necessary. Research on the objects that I am referencing and reading about the philosophy of objects is also the corner stone to my process.
RM: How do your ideas translate into your large-scale installations? What is the process that leads from an idea to a realized installation?
R Z-S: I think it goes the other way around. I went from making installations to working in metal and creating devices and body-oriented pieces. Installation Art has had a huge impact on the way I think about my work and display. I rarely send my work out to a gallery without very specific modes of display. For example, the “bubble blowers” were displayed on round tables that were painted the color of dirt and there was artificial grass on the tops of each table. Each piece had its own space within the artificial grass. Along the wall were tightly cropped images of my son playing with bubbles and mixed into these images were also images of several of the “bubble blowers”. The images and the grass-topped tables created a context of sorts, and allowed the viewer to create connections, without giving away too much of the work’s meaning.
With the “Actualities of War”, I displayed each piece on rounded topped pedestals that were lined up, like soldiers at attention. On the tops of the pedestals were cropped, subtle images from my research and each of these images of war reinforced each piece. You could see the images, but not too much, so as to not overwhelm the work. A corrugated metal wall separated the “Actualities” from my research. You could listen to my interview with the veterans, and I also had large Plexiglas panels with printed letters from soldiers to their friends and family and vise versa. What was really unexpected about this exhibition, which had a lot to do with the way I chose to stage the work, was that it became a war memorial of sorts. It was so solemn that no one spoke above a whisper. Sometimes you don’t really know the true affect of your work until it is completed and on display. I hate seeing my work under Plexiglas; it creates too much of a separation between the physicality of the work, the content, and the viewer. You can’t get close, can’t see the detail… It’s like looking at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and you have to stand from that roped off area far away.
Because of the nature of the metal and the intimate scale you can get caught up in just focusing on the surface and the details within the form, and forget about the relationship the forms are going to have to the environment. Studying Installation Art has helped me to better consider this issue, and forces me to ask myself questions regarding display throughout my artistic process. How will the presentation of this work effect it’s meaning? How am I going to stage it? How much is too much?
RM: Are there limitations in creating the functional parts of devices, such as the “Devices for Contemplation”?
R Z-S: I don’t think there are any serious limitations in creating the devices. Like I said earlier, I need the limitations that working within a series affords me: I’m lost without them. Moving from one series or idea into another is a very organic process and is a product of research and mindfulness. I try to pay attention to what the work is telling me, and I try not to focus too much on pushing my agenda on the work, or micro-manage the work. I also never limit myself to a number of pieces within a series, it naturally transitions from one series to another. Although I work within a specific theme there are overarching themes, such as identity, spirituality, and attempting to comprehend our humanness that runs through my work. “Actualities of War” are about identity, specifically how war impacted the veterans’ identity, and how a personal narrative is important to the understanding of our humanity. “Studies in the Ephemeral” and “Devices for Contemplation” are about our relationship to our senses and how they help stimulate memory and they tell us who we are. In “Artifacts from Self-Making”, I am questioning the power that objects hold and how we are shaped in relationship to objects and their context. So you can see that there are consistent threads that run through the work, but there are times when I’m asked to create work for a theme exhibition. This is outside my normal approach to my practice, it is different, I actually have to sit down and think, “Oh, what am I going to make”. I think that discomfort is good for me and it is good to keep questioning my practice.
RM: How do you feel about the presentations of your pieces that require interaction, such as “Studies in the Ephemeral” and “Objects of Mourning”? If looking at them in a gallery setting, I would want to know if I should interact with the pieces or just contemplate them.
R Z-S: That question always comes up around my work a lot. “Why don’t you do performances with them?” I think I get this question, because the work actually moves and they actually do things. I am okay with them being performative objects that reflect on function and interactivity. In many ways I view them as metaphors. This reflection on function helps to create the meaning within the pieces. On a practical level, some of them are so delicate, you couldn’t have viewers pick them up and play with them: the work would be destroyed. I like that viewers can imagine themselves within the functional structure of the work. I typically present the work next to images of the work being used. I think this allows the viewer to see the connection between what it does (the form) and the metaphors I am trying to create. Images are crucial to the understanding of my work. I think the images are important to all artists, especially artist working in the third dimension, because it’s the way our work lives on. It’s the way it’s presented and staged. How often do we actually get the opportunity to look at real works of art? We see it mostly through images. I also think the power of images is really important in terms of understanding the context of the work. I think about Andy Goldsworthy’s work, and the necessity of photography to his ephemeral practice. My relationship to an image is not as allied as his is to his practice, but it is important in terms of representation.
Currently, I’m working on “Mourning Project: Liminality”, which requires that I physically engage in the making process every day. I am pretty good about consistently working, but through this project I have been creating and wearing a brooch a day, for a year. Therefore my practice and the mediation and reflection that this project provides, becomes more interactive and more fully a part of my everyday life. I am hoping that through this experience, I can start to consider ways in which my work can become experiential for the viewer. So far this process has been really good for me and there’s a Zen-like aspect that I am really responding to. Everyday I make and contemplate this one thing (the loss of a loved one). I have had a lot of loss in my life and I’ve waited a long time to talk about it, because I didn’t want it to be overly personalized. I think work should function in a universal way, even if it comes from a really personal place. It’s been interesting.
The 365 brooches will be sewn onto 121 feet of satin and velvet ribbon with beaded numbers marking the days. I am hoping that the work can be displayed all along the gallery wall, creating a metaphorical cut or scar. Basically, a whole entire year will be displayed in length. This length of ribbon will allow flexibility in terms of what I can do with it at different venues. For instance, I can decide that I would rather hang it vertically or wrap the outside of a building. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities.
RM: “When does that series finish?”
R Z-S: It’s done the 21st of June. That’s when I started last year. It will be on display the 20th of June, so I’ll be sewing the last brooch on during the opening day.
RM: Your work has been featured in many books and magazines, such as Metalsmith and Lark’s 500 series. Do you feel that this exposure has affected the direction of your artwork?
R Z-S: I get excited when I see my work in print, but it hasn’t really changed the way that I make my work or the way I approach my practice. I do, however, get frustrated, because at times I feel a little marginalized, because I do not typically make jewelry. There are quite a few galleries in the jewelry/metals world that I can’t show my work, because I do not make jewelry or functional craft objects. And on the opposite spectrum, I work with materials that are associated with the craft world, so there are a few more spaces that I cannot show in. Sometimes I feel like I am stuck in between worlds…literally. I do not want you to think that I am complaining, it is more of an observation and I am grateful for the spaces that do show my work, such as non-profit spaces, art centers, and university/college galleries. So you can see why I like Lark books and Metalsmith magazine. Printed material lives on for more than a typical four-week exhibition. The publication opportunities have not made me rethink my work, but the gallery situation has made me reevaluate making jewelry. It is hard because I am content with playing with the idea of functional things. Truly functional things, such as jewelry, scare me because they really have to function in the real world.
RM: In the series “Artifacts from Self-Making”, you have found a way of taking very familiar objects and altering them, making the viewer question the object, and possibly the world around them. Is this a desired effect or a pleasant byproduct?
R Z-S: Yes, that’s the desired effect. I’ve been playing with found objects, making things that look like scissors, or making things that look like bubble blowers. But in “Artifacts from Self-Making” I wanted to deal specifically with the found object, and it is my hope that the work is as much about the object as it is about my interaction with it. (I wanted to find that balance). Aside from dealing with the performative aspect of the object, I am also interested in the associations that the objects carry and how objects really are reflections of us. There’s a great book about our relationship with objects by James Elkin called The Object Stares Back. I also like several essays by Clive Dilnot on this topic, especially The Enigma of Things. They both discuss how objects are cultural and personal signifiers and they define who we are even though they are our construction.
The work was technically easy to make, but unbelievably difficult to consider and develop. I didn’t want them to be overly corny or overly obvious. I wanted them to resonate and express universal content, so it was important that I had a prior relationship to the objects. It would not have made sense for me take an object from another culture or an object that I have no real understanding of and alter it. In many ways the process was very personal. This relationship with objects and my particular approach to them has always been there, but it took a student interviewing me to fully understand this intense relationship. After the interview he let me read his paper, and it all came together for me, because he summarized my approach to objects in a really beautiful way. He called me a “philosopher of objects” and, it was funny, because I thought, “I guess I am”. I had just never put it all together. Oddly enough that moment helped direct my approach and I began to create this body of work. All this time, I had been working around them, but never specifically dealing with the objects themselves. “Artifacts from Self-Making” has allowed me to consider deeply the layering of associations that an object is instilled with, but also my physical relationship to the objects in my life.
RM: It seems like you have shifted over the years from using mainly one type of material on a piece to combining several. Did you gain a confidence or lose a fear to accomplish this?
R Z-S: I have never felt really confident as a metalsmith, because I never really had that hardcore training. I came late into the field with zero experience. But I am confident with working with found materials, because that is what I’ve been working with for a quite a while. Teaching metals and taking workshops has definitely helped me become a technically stronger metalsmith. I think it has to do with helping so many students, with a multitude of technical problems. In the beginning, when I was teaching metals, I was right along side of them trying to figure it out, but. Over the years I have gained a better grasp of technique and a broader skill set. Now I have a lot more answers and I’m more confident. But, seriously, in the beginning, I was right along side the students problem solving. I also think that I have a lack of confidence in being a metalsmith, because I’ve never been one for craftsmanship, but it’s a challenge that I really like.
RM: How do the new materials that you choose to work with get selected?
R Z-S: In the beginning of my studies, I used to hit the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Dollar Stores, which are great places for finding small plastic objects and odds and ends. I’m constantly thinking about where to get materials for casting. I do a lot of plastic burnouts and I rarely make a mold, unless I need to make more than one. I also like to have a library of cast objects so that I have flexibility in my process. I just love objects like wax lips, lip shaped lollipop holders, or anything that revolves around the mouth. The mouth is a very intimate place. We speak, take in food, and show physical affection through our mouths. For me it is an unbelievably interesting and provocative place on the body that I like to deal with in my work, so I am always on the look out for objects that reference this area of the body.
Depending on my needs, I approach the collection of materials and objects in very different ways. With the “Artifacts from Self-Making”, objects were given to me, I shopped for objects, and I also went through existing objects in my home. It is funny how cyclical life can be; after I finished the series I had so many left over objects, I had make several trips to Good Will.
RM: In your “Actualities of War” series you combined a lot of research on war veterans to enhance the piece. Did you find that the imagery and materials conveyed what you wanted?
R Z-S: I did a lot of research for that work. I even went to Europe with my Grandpa, who was in WWII. I was interested in how the landscape, for him, became a catalyst for retrieving memories. We started in Utah Beach in Normandy, which was where he started the war and we went the whole way through France, the Netherlands, and Germany. It was so amazing as it all started to come back to him and he began to talk more and more about his experience. We also visited memorial after memorial and museum after museum, and this information gleaned from the trip was critical to my understanding of what war does and its impact on a culture and the individual.
The interviews with the veterans were really powerful. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bowser, who was a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry and jumped into Normandy before D-Day. There is a famous picture of Eisenhower talking to the 502nd Parachute Infantry and 101st Airborne Division, with their faces blackened, hours before jumping into Europe. Mr. Bowser is standing in the back, right behind Eisenhower. He is still alive, but it is sad because most of the men I interviewed have passed away, except for three. Those interviews still stick with me forever, they were so powerful and each distinctive. Some of the men were reluctant to talk with me, because what did I really know about war or their experiences? But I was honestly interested and I think they sensed this, so eventually they would ask me to come back, even multiple times. For some of the men they seemed reticent, because it was not something that they always talked about. The piece with the toy army guys coming out of the faucet in the form of a drip was my response to this experience of talk with these absolutely wonderful men. It starts as a drip, then it got bigger and bigger and bigger; they became more and more willing to talk and share their stories. The research for this show was pivotal in creating the work and maintaining an honest approach towards illustrating their experiences.
The research and work for this show really started to get me down. I was watching video after video of documentaries and reading so many books on the topic of war or on the psychology of killing. I am not sure that the work specifically reflects this, but I was interested in how this intense experience changed their life. I was affected by just absorbing this information second hand, so I have no idea how they came back from this experience. How they managed to move on after an experience such as war is unbelievable. So you can imagine that I was hoping for the work to be seen by non-artist. I sent images of the work to West Point’s art gallery and several other military academies. They were very nice in their rejection letters; nevertheless I was disappointed because I thought they might find the work interesting and meaningful. But you know, I just keep on moving forward. They say that 50% of being an artist is making, and the other half is getting your work out there and getting it seen. I have this habit of just making. I make a lot of work and I don’t stop to push the work, until recently I’ve become more mindful of that. I have to slow down and spend that time and get that work shown and get it out there. I definitely learned from that experience and disappointment.
RM: Lena Vigna wrote of you on Art Jewelry Forum as such: “Soft and sweet, her pieces are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar—with stitching and little beads and things we would like to keep close but reconstructed in a way that makes them seem a little alien.” I feel like this is an accurate way to describe your intentions. Do you agree?
R Z-S: She’s talking specifically about the “Objects of Sentiment”, but I also see this in some of my other pieces. I think there is warmth or coziness to my work, even when I approached the more masculine topic of war. That tension that she’s talking about in the work comes from, which I always try to create in all of my work, is the deconstruction of the ordinary. All of the fabrics in the work were deconstructed and than sewn back together. They are bundled and tight and there’s a tension in that. The forms aren’t loose and easy. This work posed conceptual problems along the way. I find it exciting, but difficult, to maneuver through objects and ideas that are sentimental like beadings, vintage fabrics, and lace. Ideas that relate to the sentimental and nostalgic can become stagnant. What do we do with sentimental things? We keep them hidden away where nobody can see them or out of immediate distance and touch. There’s something that is kind of lifeless in a sentimental objects and by deconstructing them I’m trying to breathe an altered, more metaphorical life into them. I also find humor an important element in my work, which helps create that contrast in the familiar and the unfamiliar. I enjoy taking serious topics such as the ephemeral and transcending nature of spirituality and inserting slight humor through the use materials or the specific forms the work takes, such as bubble blowers or scissors. Humor is so healing and so universal. Even after my brother died, I remember laughing about a shared experience with my mom and sister and if felt so odd, but so unbelievably important. Even in the darkest moment, I think that humor exists and is necessary.
RM: Do you think that each person can perceive your pieces in different ways?
R Z-S: Yes, but I also want my message to be clear. I constantly tell my students that if you want to get your idea across…simplify, simplify, simplify, simplify. Don’t congest it, conceptually or formally, with all these other things. But I think that it is important that the work is open to interpretation; everybody comes with different experiences to the work and different relationships to objects and forms. Because my work comes from such a personal place, I am really aware of creating work that is also universally understood. When you present really personal work, people can become uncomfortable, put off, and disinterested. It becomes a one-liner and only interesting to the artist who created the work. I think that art should grab your attention and hold it there, and like an interesting person, reveal its self slowly. I definitely think that works of art should operate on multiple levels or associations. When I think about your question I cannot help but think about the “Artifacts from Self-Making”. There are several pieces that I think are funny and quick to interpret and than some that hold your attention for longer, that create questions for the viewer and make them contemplate their relationship with that object. I think when you are making 40 of something, like the “Artifacts”, it’s okay to have those pieces that don’t exactly move you. They might make you chuckle a little bit, but they don’t move you. That’s why I like to work within a series, because it becomes bigger than the individual piece. I’ll show them individually in group shows and such, but I work in a series for a reason. I enjoy looking at the bigger picture and the meaning that is created over all.
RM: Do you allow your pieces to be sold? What kind of market is there for your devices?
R Z-S: I really do not sell my work, I would rather keep it and continue to show the work and build my resume. But I have sold some of my work, mostly into collections at Grand Valley or Bowling Green State University. A couple of years ago, a collector from Russian saw one of my pieces in the 500 Vessels book and bought one, which was very exciting. They actually wanted the one that I didn’t like. I just wasn’t interested in it. They bought that one and I thought “sure I’d get rid of it—I’d be happy too.” But I really get more mileage out of showing my work. Once I sell a piece, that’s it, it is no longer mine to do with as I please. But, honestly, most of my work is in the spare room closet, when I am not showing it, and really it’s doing me no good by sitting in that closet. In some way it’s like a child and no, I do not but my son in a closet. I just don’t want to get rid of it; I birthed this piece and poured so much of my energy into it, I don’t want to see it go. I have a really hard time with it. I am not interested in being a studio jeweler/artist. Some artists are very good at it and they make very good work, but it is to stressful to create work in order to make a living and put food on the table. I am not interested in making work for a price, because on some level I would feel like I could not make what I want. That’s why I teach. I love teaching for many reasons, but I also teach because there is a freedom within an academic environment that allows me to make whatever I feel like making, however crazy. I am very reluctant, but I do it every once in awhile and when Tom Muir comes to you and says he wants to buy your work, I say “yes”, heck I would probably sell him my soul. It is a real honor and pretty exciting.
RM: How do you choose what “familiar” objects to base your pieces on?
RM: It seems as though your pieces handicap the wearer’s movement. The pieces hinder you instead of helping you. Do you agree?
R Z-S: That was definitely my approach to several of the pieces in “Survival Tips” and several of the “Studies in the Ephemeral”. I was making these contraptions that either help or hinder you physically within an environment, but I’m more interested in that psychological space. In quite a few pieces the forms look as if they’re hindering you, not helping you——but they really are. They are allowing you to contemplate, quieting the mind and finding personal insight. One of my favorite pieces is a piece with a large white doily that allows the wear to peer through; it creates a veil, which is both a private and public space. It allows you to reflect back on yourself and looking through that white doily is also like peering into the past. I have a real interest in objects, such as doilies and hand fans, because we no longer use them in our daily lives, as we once it. Those beautiful, decorative objects are completely lost from our vocabulary, our visual vocabulary. I try to reference these objects because they create a fracture in my work and also reference the past. It makes me sad that we no longer use hand fans—how could we, we are too busy texting. I love that there was an etiquette and language behind the use of hand fans. How you opened it, moved it across your face, or fluttered it communicated something to the observer. The patterning in doilies can also become a tool for communication. A doily can have imagery that also tells a story and many contemporary artists are using text within the patterns of the doilies, creating different avenues of communication.
RM: Your pieces are brought to a high level of craft. Do you find this difficult in any way?
R Z-S: I’m interested in my forms communicating ideas and I feel as though my work exhibits an appropriate level of craftsmanship. I am just hoping that my work is well crafted enough that someone is not walking away from my work saying, “oh my god, that’s bad”. The craft should never get in the way of the reading of the work, that’s ultimately what I strive for. I also make every attempt to be as good of a metalsmith as Sue, Cappy, and so many others in the field, but I know that I am not a “metalsmith’s metalsmith”. I try all the time, and I hope that I’m getting there. It is an unbelievably humbling experience when I sit down at my bench and attempt to make something—it is a constant struggle from start to finish. I just hope that struggle is not entirely evident in the work. I like it when work looks effortless.
Renee Zettle-Sterling’s work can be viewed at http://zettlesterling.com/