In the word of art jewelry, the work of Portuguese artists and jewelers is often overlooked. Cristina Filipe, a Portuguese artist, professor and researcher, set out to change that with her recently published book, “Contemporary Jewellry in Portugal: From the Avant Garde of the 1960s to the Early 21st Century.” She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her journey to publish the book and the support she got from Art Jewelry Forum’s Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Cristina Filipe, speaking to us from Portugal. Cristina is a leading figure in the Portuguese art jewelry space. She is a professor, researcher, artist and author of the just-published volume “Contemporary Jewellry in Portugal: From the Avant-Garde of the 1960s to the Early 21st Century,” which is amazingly well-researched and comprehensive. She’ll tell us more about this work and the many hats she wears in general. Cristina, welcome to the program.
Cristina: Sharon, thank you so much for inviting me.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. You wear many hats. You’re an artist. You’re a professor. You’re an author, and you’re a thought leader when it comes to contemporary jewelry in Portugal. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? How did you get into jewelry?
Cristina: Yes, with pleasure. I bought jewelry when I was studying jewelry when I was 18 years old, and it was really an accident. It wasn’t planned. I planned to do architecture studies, but I was searching for a quick independence from my family. I wanted to be on my own and I found this jewelry course in art college. In talking to friends, we were reflecting that jewelry is an item that is easy to produce in a handcrafted way. You can control and supervise the design and the production, so I decided to learn this field in order to be independent.
Sharon: Did you start with metals?
Cristina: Yeah, I must say that what attracted me on this course to the artistic world was very much in my personality. I identified with the art field as a person with a mentality, the behavior and the freedom of expression. I was very much into this mood of being. This college, this art school, had this atmosphere that really attracted me. The first contemporary jewelry course was started by the founders, the pioneers who started art jewelry in Portugal, but after the course, in its program, you learn the metal techniques. We learned how to use metal and this was part of the beginning of the program, so I learned that.
Sharon: So, you learned metal, but you moved into art jewelry. There’s metalwork in traditional Portuguese jewelry, but you moved into—call it avant-garde or alternative jewelry. The kind that you and your colleagues make is very different, I presume, than what you start out learning.
Cristina: Yes and no. The program was quite traditional in the way of learning the technique. At that time, you had the freedom of thinking, but the course leaders and the teachers assumed that if you were there, you already were artistic on your own. For some people like me, who were coming from high school, even though I was in the artistic area, preparing myself for architecture—I had some drawings, some design lessons, art history—there was no training in creative thinking, how to create. So, we were searching for some direction into this creative process. Because it was a very small course at that time, it was quite weak on this side. We had to search for other courses and other ways to learn jewelry after that. That was my case. I traveled to Amsterdam in the 80s after my three-year course, and I had a great experience at the Bouquehault, which showed me a new world of contemporary jewelry which was much more experimental, much more avant-garde. Our history from our past was quite unknown for our young students in the 80s. We had 20 years of history before, but our students, they had no idea.
Sharon: A 20-year history in art jewelry?
Cristina: Yeah, the pioneers I talk about in my book were doing amazing work and some sculptures as well, but we were not aware. There were no publications. We were quite isolated from this reality. The contemporary art field was considering this as artists from the contemporary art field in Portugal. They were on the side. They were well-known by certain avant-garde, other artists from the 60s and 70s, which was not our generation. Me and my colleagues at that time were quite ignorant about this reality. The two artists who created this department, they were coming from London and New York; New York during the 60s and 70s and from Martins in London with other artists, and they were not aware of the Portuguese team regarding contemporary jewelry. This was somehow a mystery and that’s why I ended up doing this book after almost 30 years. There was really a need because it was very incomplete, the art contemporary jewelry scene in Portugal. There were no publications, no public heritage, if I can say it like this.
Sharon: I was interested that the book grew out of your doctoral thesis. Is that correct?
Sharon: How did you go from being a maker, an artist, to an academic writing a doctoral thesis?
Cristina: One of the important roles along my path was being a teacher, a professor in this school. After coming back from Amsterdam, I felt I wanted to fill in the gap on this, and I said, “What about creating a new disciplined work about inviting more people into this?” And my role, beyond being an artist, became programmer, someone who wanted to change and reform the contents of the course, reform jewelry education, travel, go everywhere to workshops, become aware of what was going on in the art field. I was very enthusiastic in creating this field in the artistic theme and I was not happy that we were behind. I did it all in the 90s.
In 2004, I ended up creating an association called PIN to give the Portuguese contemporary jewelry association a platform, making it more institutional, helping jewelry have more programs, more exhibitions, more perspectives apart from only teaching. One of my frustrations was that many of our students, sometimes great students, were giving up. There was not really a market. There was not a continuous program of how to promote our field. Even during the 80s—and I show this very well in our book—there was a boom; there were the first galleries; there was a museum called Textile Custom Museum run by a university, and she did a fantastic job relating jewelry, not just to the profession, but to the custom field. She created a room in her museum where she invited different jewelry artists to exhibit their work. This was absolutely crucial for the developing of the artist’s work, but at the end of this decade, after all this boom, it went quiet. The previous generation was retiring because there were a lot of things that happened, but there was no market. The works were not selling at all and the previous generation was a bit disappointed that they could not survive off of this project. Of course, if there is a museum showing jewelry, it’s no problem because it’s part of the museum program, but if it’s a commercial gallery and you don’t sell, this is a problem. This created some limitations. Some people were giving up and some not. Some continued.
As an artist and as someone who was very much concerned about the field, and through my traveling experience and visiting artists in many institutions specializing in various symposiums—and I was very enthusiastic about these international meetings—I committed myself in 2003 in Zurich that I was going to be in charge of doing a big event in Lisbon in 2005, created by a German design association. They started these meetings in Cologne in 1994, and after two years, every year they were promoting international meetings in different European capitals. In 2003 in Zurich, no one knew where they could do the next edition and I said, “Well, let’s do it in Lisbon in 2005.” When I decided, I took it really seriously, and that’s when I came back to Lisbon and talked to my colleagues and said, “We have to do this in two years. We have to plan it really well, and we cannot do it in our names.” That’s when we started PIN to have an institution that could organize these symposia and bring people from different countries to show our work, show what we are doing and share it with this community of artists and artist historians, to show that we are alive and we exist.
In 2005, we did this big event. We had exhibitions everywhere. Our title was “Everywhere, Nowhere,” and we wanted to go everywhere apart from the common places of jewelry in Lisbon. We talked to different institutions, different museums, shops in the street, stores. Everywhere people were going, we did jewelry interventions, and this was absolutely amazing for the time. We created a great impression and we had the strength of PIN.
I started my role as programmer and curator. During the first four years more or less, I did a lot of exhibitions, lots of things, and that’s when this professor from University Catholica who was an expert in antique jewelry, he was looking to my role and to what I was doing, and he said to me, “We need someone like you who can write and research. Tell us, what is the history of contemporary jewelry in Portugal?” This was more or less in 2008 or 2009. And I said, “What?” because I’m not an art historian, as I was telling you, and I am an artist. I could curate. I could program, but to write, it was a different thing. But he said to me that the most important thing was my experience, my knowhow of the field, and he knew by his own experience that nobody from the art history field will write about contemporary jewelry because it’s too small; it’s too specific. In Portugal, there was one person who wrote a lot about design. He’s really great, and he was the first person who wrote about contemporary jewelry and mentioned the first names, but to write in detail, with all the authors, everything, we needed time and investment, and he felt there was nobody who could do it in a precise and detailed and careful way as I could. He really supported me. He invited me to do this Ph.D. He said I could apply because I had the CV, which was impressive from all my previous experience in this field, even if I was not an academic person. Of course, I had to study and prepare with an academic writing course to improve my skills in writing. This was useful and the professor who taught me this course was very useful because she fell in love with my project and she was the final proofreader for my book. Everything enchained so well, and I love my part in jewelry. Apart from my artistic work, the projects I have developed, I feel graced by the people, the relationships, the people I met, the people I learned with and this was absolutely fantastic along all these 30 years.
From there, I started researching because I knew the field. Because I knew the people of my generation, the previous generation, I started collecting texts, collecting all the things that were published. I was impressed by the newspapers; I didn’t know there were so many articles published in the 60s and 70s in newspapers, and nobody knew about that. When I started to interview these beginners, these pioneers, I was absolutely impressed by the documents they had. To be honest, they were quite isolated in their world, and they felt so happy that I appeared, and I was giving them importance, talking to them, collecting all the information they had. Through this human contact with these pioneers, I started playing with these pieces and understanding how they emerged, how things were connected. One thing was clear for me: I didn’t want to do this in an isolated way, like it was jewelry and that’s it. I wanted to put these jewelry pieces into the art field context; when and how it was made; what was going on at the same time in other disciplines. This was really creative and a challenge for me, and I had a huge passion for this research by playing with all these pieces and putting them in place. I also talked to other experts, not only to people from the jewelry field, but outside the art field in Portugal. It felt crucial to be aware of the international scene and how the international scene was vital for the Portuguese scene in the jewelry field. That’s why the fact that I was traveling so much, getting in touch with the external world outside of here, helped me to contact and to understand the relationships and end up with a book.
Sharon: How exciting!
Cristina: Yeah, thank you. I hope it was not too much, sorry.
Sharon: No, no, no. Wow, how exciting. When things start coming together, it’s so motivating and exciting. When you did decide to write the book, you had support from different organizations, one being Art Jewelry Forum. Can you tell us about the support you had for the book?
Cristina: When I was finishing my research, of course there was a dream to make it into a book, but it’s always very hard, and it’s easy to end up with 500 pages and 500 images, 1,300 pages of interviews and images of each artist I interviewed, and this would be impossible to make into a book easily. I was like, “Well, let’s see what’s happening.” Suddenly there was an application for the Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant, and I was the right person to apply. I was 52 turning 53, and I said, “Well, let’s try,” even though I was a bit suspicious filling out this application because I was expecting the judge to search for a more artistic work like an exhibition, not a theoretical work. But I was so happy to show the world my research and the fact that Cindi Strauss was one of the judges—she’s a curator and art historian, and she wrote these beautiful essays and a book for Helen Drutt, “Art as Ornament,” and made this huge, fantastic chronology. I thought she would probably like to know that I’m doing a little bit of the same on a lower scale, just about the Portuguese world, and I was very happy that someone abroad would at least have some contact with my little world and what I was doing. So, this motivated me, and I applied, and I was extremely surprised, but absolutely happy to be the one who won the first Susan Beech Grant. After that, I had this crisis and this panic of doing a small book with the money I got in a short time. I knew this would be very hard work for me, and it was clear I had to do it in English, of course, because it was an international grant. I needed to translate it, so almost all the money of the grant was just for translation. The money was not enough, but this grant gave me a lot of credibility, and not only credibility to my own work, but it created responsibility for the country to recognize what I was doing, because internationally someone recognized my work, so people here have to do it as well. I first talked with the MUDE Design Museum because they are trying to do a jewelry collection. I worked for them in 2011 to make a retrospective for Coopers.
Sharon: Coopers being the designer at one of your—
Cristina: Yeah, the designer, exactly. I was curating her show there—
Sharon: At MUDE, being the Design Museum in Portugal.
Cristina: In Lisbon.
Sharon: In Lisbon.
Cristina: You can’t see it because at the moment it’s closed for rebuilding and the works are a bit delayed. That’s why my exhibition was moved to the Gulbenkian.
Sharon: The Gulbenkian Museum there, it’s fabulous.
Cristina: Yes, so I asked for support to be co-editor of the book for the Design Museum in Lisbon named MUDE. They accepted me to be co-editor. They financially supported me, and they paid part of the cost of the book. They also planned to make an exhibition there as part of the grant, but two years later, they realized that the works were delayed and that the building would not be ready for the time of your visit. So, because I wanted to resume my commitment with Susan Beech and Art Jewelry Forum, we asked Gulbenkian to help us make the exhibition there.
Sharon: And that was a fabulous exhibition.
Cristina: Yes, and I ended up with two supports, the Design Museum and the Gulbenkian, and this was a dream, because this was the most—not the most important, but two very important institutions in Lisbon, and they were connected to this project. I was like, “Oh my god! This is amazing! Everything just flows so well.” But apart from being very happy, I was totally stressed. It was such a responsibility. In the end, I had one year to make an exhibition and edit the book. That’s why I ended up losing 47 kilos, because I didn’t sleep or eat properly, but I was totally concerned about having these things ready on September 13th. This was the goal, and that’s why the book arrived on September 13th at Gulbenkian. Sometimes it’s good to have deadlines, because when you have deadlines, things happen. I’m a perfectionist and I’m never happy with the results. I want to do more and better. That’s why my supervisor was so irritated, because instead of four years, it took me eight years to do my Ph.D. I wasn’t in a rush. Why do I have to run? I want to do it right. I want to do it carefully and I’m not going anyplace.
I think the fact that I got the grant also made me quicker; otherwise I would still be there maybe. The Susan Beech Grant was really the key to end things and to make things happen. I think it was absolutely impressive to get this grant and complete the amount of things that happened because of that; for instance, the book and the exhibition at Gulbenkian, which was important for the jewelry field and also helped me visualize what I was searching for in my book, which was where jewelry was in the context of the art field. I could not get better context. I was interested in the art field context, and Gulbenkian put me, as the main goal of this exhibition, in a dialogue with the fine art world. I just had to translate my words into a body of work made with real art pieces, translate it into how things happen, how things relate, and this was really a dream.
Sharon: I realize you had the thesis, but that you put everything together in a year is really flabbergasting.
Cristina: I agree.
Sharon: It was very well done, having seen the exhibit and looking through the book, which I have read a lot of.
Cristina: Really? Oh, I’m so happy! To be honest, I think it’s a reading book. I think Susan Beech is a bit disappointed in some artists, but I think this book should be two volumes, one with reading and one with images. I need another year for the images, because to have the body of the text done properly, for it to be good to read, without mistakes and with good readings in a synthetic way, I need lots of time to make the right choice of images together with the text. It makes the book much more pleasant, to have the images and the text. For this, I need another year.
Sharon: We’ll look for the revised version then in a few years.
Cristina: So, we ended up with the decision to make this possible for September 13th. I told MUDE and the designer, “I think I’ll tell AJF that I need another couple of months to end the book as I dream it,” but everybody said no. I had no support. “No, no, no, stop here. This is perfect.” It’s not perfect.
Sharon: Well, as you said, you’re a perfectionist, and nothing’s ever perfect.
Cristina: I know that. As the first book, people expect something a bit different, but if people read it, I think they are happy because it reads well; it gives a lot of information.
Sharon: It does, and it does have a lot of images that correspond to what you’re reading.
Cristina: Yeah, you can go and search, absolutely.
Sharon: Listen, it is impressive, the whole thing. In fact, they put it all together in one year is impressive, as well as the fact that the book was so well done, the exhibit was so well done and it was at the Gulbenkian. Could you ask for more?
Sharon: Cristina, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it. It’s great to hear the genesis of this and to hear how you got to writing the book, because as I was reading, I thought, “Now, how did she get to writing a Ph.D. from being in the art world?” Hopefully, we’ll have you on again when volume two or your revised version is out.
Cristina: Yes, I will dream about coming to—I’ve never been in the United States, and it will be great to come one day to present a book on what we are doing here. If it happens, I’ll be more than happy, but I’m so happy that you have been here, that you are reading my book and now spreading the word with your podcast. Thank you so much, Sharon, you’re so kind.
Sharon: Thank you, Cristina.
Cristina: It’s an honor to be invited by you and to have this opportunity to share my experience, and I hope my English was good enough.
Sharon: Your English was great. I know that it took thought in your putting your words together. To everybody listening, I want to make sure they know that we’ll have your contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. This wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more from people like Cristina and others who’ve done fabulous things in the art jewelry world and the jewelry world in general, 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.
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