Putting together any sort of jewelry exhibit is a massive feat. The exhibit by historian, curator and metalsmith Sasha Nixon, “A View from the Jeweler’s Bench: Ancient Treasures, Contemporary Statements,” is especially impressive because of the historical and archeological context she provides for every object. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to speak about the history behind the exhibit and plans for her next project. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with historian, curator and practicing metalsmith Sasha Nixon. She’s the creator and curator of a gem of an exhibit, “A View from the Jeweler’s Bench: Ancient Treasures, Contemporary Statements” at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. Sasha received her master’s degree in decorative arts, design history and material culture from the Bard Graduate Center. Her exhibit was selected from several proposals submitted as part of the master’s program. She’ll tell us more about it today. Sasha, thanks so much for being here.
Sasha: You’re welcome. I’m happy to be here.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. So, you have the unusual combination of being a hands-on metalsmith as well as a jewelry historian and curator. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey?
Sasha: Sure, I have been making jewelry since high school. I was one of the fortunate few that had a metalsmithing and jewelry class available as part my high school’s art program, and I continued to do that all through undergrad. My degree was in anthropology, but I spent every spare second in the metalsmithing studio. After that, I did a short stint in an MFA program for metalsmithing and jewelry. The program just wasn’t a good fit for me, so I ended up taking a break, making it on my own, and after a while, I ended up at Bard Graduate Center. I decided I wanted to learn more about the history of what I love to make, and I started at the beginning, really, with archaeological jewelry first.
Sharon: So now you make jewelry as well as curating this exhibit. I know you work at Museum of Arts and Design in putting exhibits together, so you combine both of your loves.
Sasha: Yes, and this exhibition really combined all of my varied knowledge and experience, the making side and the curatorial aspect, and the archaeological and anthropological side of things. Anthropology’s the study of culture, and I’m very interested in why we adorn ourselves. I was able to explore that as part of this exhibition as well. It’s really unique in that way, that I was able to combine all of these.
Sharon: Having seen it, it’s an awesome exhibit. I was full of awe that somebody could pull it together, because I know you were on your own for the most part, besides the fact that it’s a fabulous exhibit. What you did is mindboggling. How did you get the idea, and did it have a long incubation period before it crystallized? How did you feel when you were notified that you were chosen?
Sasha: That of course felt wonderful, a validation of sorts. I was very excited that I was going to be able to make this a reality, because at that point, I was very invested. I think this idea was very important and needed to be seen.
Any exhibition is a large group project, essentially, and throughout the process I had some wonderful support. This came out of my thesis project from the Bard Graduate Center, so through that whole process, my advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, was instrumental. I would not have been able to do this without her support and guidance. Then, once it moved from that stage to becoming a physical exhibition, the Bard Graduate Center has a wonderful staff, and all of them were very supportive and really went the extra mile. All of the museums we worked with were really wonderful and gravitated towards the idea and realized its potential and supported us, which was key, because we were operating on a tight schedule.
I had been working on some aspect of this, feeling out ideas, for about two years. Before that, these were ideas that I kept coming back to for probably decades at this point. I was working with them in depth at Bard Graduate Center for about two years, and then it went through a crystallizing period of about a year. I found out that it was going to become an exhibition in May, and then the exhibition opened in February of the next year. It’s not very long when you’re talking about the timeline of an exhibition like this, with loans from so many institutions. It usually takes much longer. So that was a test, but it all worked out.
Sharon: It’s going through July 7th, so people still have a chance to see it, and hopefully they will. You’re right; it is a fairly short duration because it didn’t just start in 2019. Who knows, maybe it will be extended, but it is a short time period to put all that time and effort into it.
Sasha: It’s one of the wonderful things about exhibitions and one of the unfortunate things. There you are, putting your heart and soul into something ephemeral and it’s only up for long. I think this is a great run for an exhibit. There are many exhibitions that are only open a month.
Sharon: That’s true.
Sasha: What’s also really great is that we were able to print an exhibit guide, so those who visit see that right away and have the knowledge contained in a way, which they can reference in the future.
Sharon: The catalogue is fabulous. It’s awesome in its own right. So much detail went into it, in terms of following the exhibit and going into even more detail than what’s posted with the items on display. Did you write the copy for that?
Sasha: I did write the copy, and then it went through many cycles of revisions and edits with the fabulous team from Bard Graduate Center. They really came up with a spectacular text in my opinion, but yeah, it started out with my idea and the text that I wrote for each object. Then, of course, I was told, “Sasha, that’s too much,” so we cut it down a little bit to make it more manageable for the visitor. But each of these pieces is so rich; it’s hard to decide what to keep and what not to.
Sharon: It may be relatively short, but it’s an in-depth discussion of the piece and how it fits into everything. It’s an illuminating catalogue to go along with the exhibit.
Sasha: It was important to me that each piece of jewelry in the exhibition had its own chat. I wanted to make sure that each was given individual attention, because as a jewelry historian, when I go to a jewelry exhibition, often they are grouped together and that group will receive one text in an effort to cut down on the amount of text in the exhibition. That’s a factor that everyone has to deal with when creating a jewelry exhibit, but I think sometimes the pieces of jewelry suffer, because you might not ever learn why a particular piece of jewelry was chosen for that exhibition.
Sharon: You definitely succeeded in explaining things. I’m curious, when they talk about the cycle of a project, they talk about the excitement, and it’s wonderful at the beginning, but there are some moments when you just say, “Oh my god, I can’t do this. This isn’t going to happen.” Did you go through those phases, and what kept you going?
Sasha: I think I had some moments where I felt overwhelmed, but I was very determined that this was going to happen and that my vision was going to be present in the show that people ended up seeing. I really devoted myself for about a year in that execution. I was committed to that, and I was doing freelance work in order to free up my schedule so I could go to meetings. I really dove headfirst into it, and afterwards, I was just exhausted, because when you commit yourself to something that entirely, you need a rest afterwards.
Sharon: I’m sure you’re enjoying it now and just glowing.
Sasha: Oh yeah.
Sharon: The exhibit is called “A View from the Jeweler’s Bench: Ancient Treasures, Contemporary Statements,” and you said it was really important for you to talk about this, to tell the story of marrying the old and new. Could you tell us about what you wanted people to get from this exhibit?
Sasha: The first thing you see when you walk into the space is the jeweler’s bench and a video of jewelry being made. The making process was very important to me, coming from the jewelry-making background. I think how a piece is made is important to understanding any piece of jewelry in front of you, and I think that knowledge is sometimes lacking in the scholarship on jewelry history. This was my small effort to illuminate the making process, the part behind that spectacular piece of jewelry that you’re looking at, which is often not shown. The making process for jewelry is great, because it has continuity with the past, like the tools. The way we make jewelry really hasn’t changed much since antiquity, and the fact that we can trace that back is amazing. I thought that would be a wonderful thing to show the public.
Surrounding the bench, I have groupings of jewelry. I chose 12 contemporary artists who use ancient and historical jewelry in some way in their own practice, and I let their work dictate the ancient, historical pieces that were included in the show. I really wanted to put the two together. Contemporary jewelry and ancient and historical jewelry have a wonderful back-and-forth, and they remain relevant to each other, to our perception of jewelry today and how jewelry functions in society, and I wanted the public to see that.
Sharon: You certainly were able to communicate that in the exhibit. I was also thinking about the fact that you, as a maker, and especially doing this exhibit, must see jewelry in a very different way when you look at a piece. It’s different than the way I look at it. We might both appreciate the beauty in a piece, but you’re probably thinking about, “How did they do this?” I’m sure you have so much more of an appreciation for what it took to make it look that way.
Sasha: I definitely appreciate all the work that goes into creating these pieces, and I definitely appreciate a technically virtuous piece of jewelry, for sure. I think it’s important to take into account how much labor and love go into these handmade works, and that is part of why understanding how things are made is important. Everybody talks about knowing where your food comes from. This is very similar. It’s knowing how what you’re wearing is made, because then you appreciate the handmade.
Sharon: We talked about the fact that you were one of the few people in your classes whose parents were encouraging them to pursue their art and their passion, while everybody else was going against the grain of what their parents wanted. Can you tell us about this and how it impacted you?
Sasha: I don’t know about everyone else, but my father is a sculptor and runs a gallery near New Orleans. At the time, as an undergrad, when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, I really felt like I was the only one whose parents were pushing me towards an MFA, but it’s just not the standard, really.
Sharon: No, but you were very fortunate. Some people would rebel and say, “No, that’s not what I want do,” but it’s nice to go with the flow and not have to fight.
Sasha: I kind of have. I studied art history, as opposed to having gone through with an MFA. I started an MFA program and I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. Now I’m studying the history of the things, as opposed to purely making them, so I have rebelled a little bit.
Sharon: Well, you made it work. It’s a nice balance. You did it your way, but it wasn’t like, “O.K., I’m going into investment banking.”
Sharon: What’s next for you then?
Sasha: Right now, I am working for the museum. I’m also working on a piece for Metalsmith magazine, which I’ve written for before. I am also working through ideas for New York City Jewelry Week this year in the fall. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing yet.
Sharon: It’s in November this year; it starts on the 10th?
Sharon: I am definitely looking forward to whatever you come up with for that. I’m sure it’ll be very well done and very informational. Thank you so much for being here, and to everyone listening, we’ll have Sasha’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewerlyJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
END OF AUDIO