Yes, it’ Real……..Jewelry with Saudia Young, Daughter of Pioneering Art Jewelr Cara Croninger; with an introduction by Lisa Berman, Owner of Sculpture To Wear
Sharon: Welcome back to the Jewelry Journey. Today I’m delighted to have two fabulous guests. We’ll be talking with Saudia Young. First of all, Saudia is Cara Croninger’s daughter. Cara—you’ll learn all about her jewelry and see fabulous examples and have to admit that I’ve only recently become enamored and familiar with her work. She was a real pioneer and Lisa Berman—no relation—is the one. Lisa owns Sculpture to Wear, a gallery in Santa Monica for 10+ years and Lisa is the one who introduced us to Cara. So, I’m going to let Lisa give us a little background on that. Lisa?
Lisa: Thank you, Sharon. It’s a pleasure to be back here and to meet with your audience and explore art jewelry. It’s really my passion. So even before I had an opportunity to show Cara’s work in my gallery Sculpture to Wear, I was introduced to her work and saw her work via Artware in New York. I’ll be getting into that. I know Saudia will and her work was really the catalyst for me to begin to explore my use in resins and acrylics and working with plastics. So, she was really the catalyst for me to get so excited about an art jewelry presence that wasn’t metal. I mean I loved the color; I love the texture that she used, and the fact is she was using an everyday material. So, when I had my gallery and I was in Bergamot Station and Saudia contacted me, I was really delighted–
Sharon: But Lisa, you mentioned Bergamot Station and you’ve mentioned in several conversations and I live down the street from it, so I know what it is, but most people would not know what you’re talking about, even people who live around the corner. So, tell us about it please.
Lisa: It was created almost 27 years ago. It’s a five-acre complex. It used to be home to about 25 galleries and the Santa Monica Museum Art. It’s at the Cloverfield offramp at the 10 Freeway and it has a fantastic art scene in Santa Monica and that’s where I opened my gallery in January of 1999 and that’s exactly how we met.
Sharon: And it’s made of old railway cars, is that it?
Lisa: Well, actually it was a railroad station, but also it had an ice manufacturing plant which I didn’t know. All of these old structures—they’ve maintained the exterior of the old warehouses, but of course when you enter, you see these gorgeous galleries. A lot of them are built in a really enticing way. So that’s where Sculpture to Wear had its first home. Thank you for asking.
Sharon: 27 years ago—I think of it as so new, but—O.K.
Lisa: So, I showed her work—it was probably maybe 18 years ago, would you say, Saudia? And a few shows—and my gallery manager at the time was a huge, huge fan of her work and literally was one of the Cara’s hearts, the resin heart. She would wear one to the gallery every single day and I would have to say, “Hey, you know, there’s some other jewelry that you might want to try on throughout the day and sell” and she’s like, “No, this is what I’d like to wear. This is my piece.” and that’s the way people really feel. There are talismans. There are these pieces that they wear every day and so that’s really I think the legacy too. Not only was she a pioneer, but she has a great following. There are these collectors that are literally coming out of the woodwork after seeing what we have to offer and so recently when Saudia contacted me again, we met and we said, “This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate your mother’s legacy” and I’m wearing—I want to tell you all about the beads I’m wearing and we’ll learn more about it, but this is a piece from of the Artware Shows that Robert Lee Morris hosted at his gallery Artware in New York City and it was a time when artists weren’t mixing precious metals necessarily in a contemporary way and there was a collector who had 24-carat gold leaf and gave him each a box and said, “Robert, we want each artist to use this gold in any way possible in the exhibition” and one of the pieces I’m wearing—I love this piece—is by Cara and you can also see the gold—I don’t know if you can see it here—it comes shining through—and when you see this in the sunlight, it is so spectacular. So it’s that dichotomy between the resin and then the precious gold and it is so exciting for me to introduce Saudia’s mother’s work and Saudia, you are a dynamic—and a happy, belated birthday, by the way—dynamic woman who is a singer/songwriter and she has really an incredible collection to show you today. This is the part of the—I don’t know one of two or three series. So Saudia, I welcome you to the Jewelry Journey and I thank you for your mother’s generosity of spirit and your ability to present her legacy in such a rich way.
Saudia: Thank you, great intro. Thank you very much, Lisa.
Lisa: Your welcome.
Saudia: And thank you very much for having me, thank you, Lisa, this is awesome. Thank you, Aleah. So, the question you sent wasn’t just about the Jewelry Journey. We were talking about what it was like to grow with my mom as an artist, right, and what it’s like for my sister and me and that was a very particular special experience. First of all, my mom, she was a white girl from Michigan. She came from farm country and she grew up with a big family. She was the littlest. She was the youngest and she was very precocious, and she was on the cheerleading team and she was in the 4H Club and she had her own little towel and for each contest—she was always extremely active. So when she finally made her journey to New York and met my dad who was a black actor, Otis Young, and they created us, he was on his journey of trying to make it in Hollywood which was difficult. So, they were sort of on and off and pretty I feel like we had a single-mom upbringing and it was yes, Bohemian, downtown. We started off in Little Italy, in a tiny apartment in Little Italy and actually that was quite interesting because we were in the downtown area; it’s the factory area, so it was clothing, manufacturing and dairy, eggs, everything. So, you had this sort of mixture of industry. We always sort of lived around industry and that feels really special, like something magical. Honestly, it feels like she gave us a magical childhood because of that. We were never sort of in the mainstream and in that house, I remember we found old remnants from like World War II, like fabric and just relics, clothing. What do they call it? Aprons, like cocktail aprons from the 1950’s. So, I always associate with my mom finding magic things.
So that was one of our first homes and during that time, she was actually doing work in The Clocktower and that was something that Alana Heiss who was the director of PS1 sort of commandeered and she brought in these artists who were allowed to have residency in The Clocktower and it was these huge workspaces—I mean I was little, so to me it looked like it was about ten thousand square feet, but it probably a couple of thousand square feet that my mom had to herself and it was in The Clocktower, this where she met another artist who introduced her to plastics. Before that, she had worked only with leather. She was stitching leather. She was painting, painting with acrylics, painting with oils and selling leather pieces that she had made on the street and in boutiques and she had done that since I was born. The legend is she was a cocktail waitress where she met my dad and she got fired and that was the last job she had. She was like, “Take this job and shove it!” So that was when she started creating these leather pieces that were very influenced by Native American culture and African culture. She did a lot of fringing and beading, beaded stuff. She did obis. She had a really beautiful obi belt that then carried on throughout her career. For the next sixty years, she would always introduce the obi and later on when she started working with resins, she actually created belts from resins as well as metals. She also worked in metals.
So, children, jewelry journey, we had Native American friends. We had Indian friends from Mexico, Imogene and Dominic and then did a lot of beadwork and my mom had a very intimate, close relationship with them and that influenced a lot of her earlier work and later work. As children, we also made things. We were very creative. We were always making dolls and making jewelry and creating puppets and we even had a puppet stage. So, I feel like it was more of a storytelling journey, like we were just in this world of creating and telling stores. Yeah and within this childhood—because my dad wasn’t really around a lot, she built this community around us. She built this tribe I like to tell Lisa and that included some amazing artists like Donald Barthelme, the writer; he was a family friend. His daughter is one of our best friends and James Baldwin was my godfather and Ed Beanstruck Mannis, the painter, a childhood friend, Jayne Wilder, Ben Dolphin and all of these artists; we were sort of the formal art rats. We were the children of these artists and then Ben Dolphin was a dancer and he’s now a director. He was the first one who introduced me to performance. I started performing with him as a dancer and a performing artist. So yeah, it was formative years. We thought we could do anything. She basically imbued the power of storytelling in us and basically made us feel like we could write any story. We could write our story in any way we wanted to.
Sharon: Wow! It sounds like a really—if it’s not a childhood, you’d say, “Oh my god, that makes you like a princess,” but I haven’t heard anybody describe their childhood is magical. That’s really special.
Sharon: So, I haven’t looked at examples of your mother’s work in a little while, but tell us a little bit about her jewelry. For those who aren’t familiar, tell us about what is it made of. I know they’re one of a kind. It’s interesting that you say you’re around the industry because they’re not manufactured, right?
Saudia: Right, yes, I mean well, when I say industry meaning like in Tribeca, you had these Mack trucks rolling through who were carrying eggs and butter. So it was sort of–and the streets were cobblestone and now these are the very rich, exclusive areas, but when we lived there, that was where the artist lived who couldn’t afford to live in other parts of the city and that was actually something. My mother really embraced, that sort of industrial look. Like if you were in her loft, she had things that she found on the street from manufacturers that she would use as tables and couches and when she passed, we actually gave away a lot of really beautiful items like that. She also collected old farm items like a scythe and whatever. So her materials—when she first started, it was leather and then she met this artist who was working in plastics in The Clocktower and she started doing basic work with that and she actually started off doing sculpture. She would buy liquid polyester resin and pigments, powdered pigments, and then mix together her magic formulations and pour them into make-shift molds and one of them was a light bulb. She would basically use a dead light bulb and basically inject the resin into the glass and then break the glass off once it was hardened and so here’s an example.
Sharon: That’s gorgeous! So that was one of her earlier pieces you’re saying.
Saudia: Yeah, so she did several of those and it’s funny because I just googled her because I was like, “Oh my god, I have to sound smart talking about my mom” and I forget, but she was in an artist-mix toy show at Molma PS1 in 1975 because what I want to focus on is showing you sort of little sculptures in addition to the jewelry and that’s where—she really did come from sculpture, from being a sculptor and a painter into jewelry.
Sharon: As some others do. They come from sculpture and segueway to jewelry, yes, uhuh.
Saudia: Yeah, so she’s using all kind of crazy, makeshift molds and eventually she started doing the traditional, creating a sample out of wax and then making silicon and rubber molds and during this process, she started going to the jewelry. At the same time that she was working with the liquid, polyester resin, she was also—and Lisa’s like, “She knows all of this”—she started working with acrylic which comes in chunks and sheets of different widths. So depending on how thick the sheet of acrylic is, she would cut it either with a blade or she would cut it with a saw and acrylic she discovered was the best for the clear work because acrylic doesn’t yellow and if you’re pouring polyester resin and you try to make a clear or diamond white clear, eventually through the years, it’ll yellow. So she learned that luckily early on and started working with the acrylic or the Lucite and the issue with acrylic and Lucite it’s very hard; it’s a really strong, strong, hard material and it’s really very—you have to be very muscular working with it. So, with the acrylic, she saw whatever shape she wanted or slice and then she would have to sand it. An artist early on sold her a glass sanding machine which is about six feet tall and it has a band of sandpaper that you can put on different grades of sandpaper on the band and it would have water splashing on it because plastic is toxic and the powder would just cover you if you didn’t have this water constantly spraying down as you’re working and when she would work and when her little studio helpers would work, we would be all rubbered up in our suits. It would be like we were getting ready for unfortunately a pandemic because we would have rubber suits on, a number 95 mask. You name it, we had it. So yeah, so the acrylic—and then with the acrylic, she would paint one side if she wanted colors. So she would have to get a pigment and usually those pigments would be powder which she would mix in a solvent and then she would paint on the back so that it would basically melt into the piece and with the polyester, as I said, she would mix the different colors. So, she might have her red and her yellow and then she would pour into the mold and she was kind of like a mad scientist because she had this color memory. She was really known for color memory and the relationship of the colors that would come out from her work. So, people have copied her work, but it’s been really hard to copy that and I’ll show you—I know you wanted it to be at the end, but I’ll show you an example.
Sharon: Did she sign her work?
Saudia: She signed almost everything. That’s sick, right?
Sharon: She is really known for the translucency and you talk about the colors. The way the sun hits her work can’t be copied. It’s so different from the time, especially what people thought of jewelry at the time. So, did she sign her work?
Saudia: She signed everything almost and all of the important pieces she signed for sure.
Sharon: You say important. Did she finish her piece and say, “This is important” or was it after? To me, it seems like an important piece, she’d know sometime after it was done.
Saudia: I think it was the cores. So, you saw the light bulb was the black and white core. That’s an extremely popular core and this piece that I just showed you. The cores would just be so amazing that every single piece out of that core would sell out. I think it was the cores that determined—that’s what Robert would go crazy over because Robert Lee Morris was one of her biggest fans and supporters with Artware, you know, the Artware Galleries.
Sharon: So, she was selling her drawing.
Saudia: Yeah and it’s also this connection to Lisa because Robert and my mom met at the first Sculpture to Wear back in ’74, so it’s really awesome that then my mother showed Lisa a Sculpture to Wear later on down the road and that now I’m working with Lisa, so, yeah.
Sharon: So, what’s your role? You said that sometimes you and your sister were–
Saudia: Yes, my mother had child laborers and that was sister and I. Yeah, we would do basic sanding and polishing, especially if she got a big order. At one point, she did a show with Kansai Yamamoto and I got to do a hundred hearts in five days or something and she was known for basically figuring out what she wanted to do and then finally at the last minute, she knows and so we would all have to go into production to make it happen.
Sharon: In terms of like the creation of colors? Would this look as a blue or no?
Saudia: No way, uhuh, no, she was a dictator, thank god. She knew exactly what she wanted. She chose all the colors. She created everything. We would do finishing work. We could work on things like the slice bangles. Those were a little bit tricky because if you took off too much, you ruined it. She was always like coaching us to have it be the exact shape that she is projecting and then she literally would say, “O.K., that’s really nice, but that’s you and you should go do your own line.” That’s totally fine and so my look was different from her look. Her look was very sensuous and when it was faceted, it was the Cara Croninger look. Yeah, no, we did not have influence on her, except just being her beautiful, little brown girls and maybe we influenced in that way, spiritually or something, but not in terms of colors or shapes or anything.
Sharon: At the time, were you aware that she was a pioneer, that she was doing something different? Were you like, “Hey this is—“
Saudia: I think we thought because we were amongst so many artists, amazing people, that we just thought that was the world. We thought everybody’s parents are creative. I knew that she had a very independent soul and that we were sort of isolated in a way that other kids might not have been, so yeah. I wasn’t thinking, “My mom’s a pioneer.”
Sharon: Isolated because you had a different atmosphere you were growing up in or—I want to say isolated.
Saudia: Yeah because we were often with her when she was doing her work, we would be with her and how can I explain it? She wasn’t a soccer mom. You know what I mean? She was always in her work, so we were in her world, so we were always in that art world which in a way is a little isolated because artists, the good ones, are always working. So that’s why I think we became storytellers ourselves because what else were we supposed to do if we’re sitting in the studio in The Clocktower is put on your roller skates, roll around, create plays, go visit the artists in each studio.
Sharon: When you say the Clock—I’m not a New Yorker. The Clocktower, I take it—I’m thinking of the place in San Francisco where it was full of—I don’t know if the building is the name—but artists’ lofts basically. Is that what it was, the Clock?
Saudia: Yeah, it was a municipal building. It still exists. It’s a huge building in downtown Manhattan on Broadway and Leonard Street and it had a clock tower on the top and somehow it was relegated to being art. I don’t know if there were other parts of it that were still being used as municipal offices, but all of the top floors were studios for artists and you would get a residency and be able to work there for I guess practically free for a certain amount of time. So yes, so that’s what it was. It became an artists’ residency.
Sharon: How did this free environment or this innovative, creative environment influence who you are in your music today? I mean do you think you’d be doing it differently or how did it influence who you are today?
Saudia: I think it influenced me, as I said, is that I see everything as a story. It just really excites me, whether it’s historic, whether it’s real, like what we’re going through right now with George Floyd and this—my god, we’re all living through a really serious change in our country. So that or just telling a story, the story of the little prince. That was one of our favorites for her to read to us. That energy, that storytelling energy and curiosity I think has carried through and into my work as a singer and an actress and a writer. So, she’s definitely totally with me. She completely influenced me, her and my dad because he also was a storyteller.
Sharon: Interesting. We’d love to hear the stores and see the jewelry, see some of the pieces that you think represent her, your favorites that do tell a story out of her stuff. You have some pieces that you want to show us.
Saudia: In addition to what I’ve just shown, here’s one piece. As I said, she started off doing more sculpture. This is actually me. This is a portrait that I’m guessing she carved it out of wax and clay and what else can I show you? It’s another piece; it’s a fetish and she did a little fetish series, fetish sculptures.
Sharon: Is there something inside here or is it just the color inside there?
Saudia: It’s the color, yeah, but Sharon, can you see that it’s wrapped with—there’s a cord wrapped and there’s a little, tiny piece very similar to fetishes that you would see in Native American jewelry? I guess he’s a bear.
Sharon: That’s beautiful.
Saudia: And then behind me you have this. This is a silk scarf she painted on silk and that’s from 1980 and this sculpture right here, can you see that? That’s a fish fetish sculpture. That’s polyester resin and this is just dyed twine on wood.
Sharon: So, did she sell her scarves or did she—the one in–
Saudia: Yeah, she sold her scarves. Yeah, she sold them in Artware and a couple of other galleries.
Sharon: Wow! This must really be a collector’s—I mean they are all collector’s items, but those must really be collector’s items. I mean she probably–
Saudia: Let’s look at this.
Sharon: Fabulous colors. Ooo, wow!
Saudia: Yeah, I decided to focus on the more sculptural stuff for you-all because Lisa a lot of the jewelry you know what I mean? This is wearable art, but this to me really is something that should be hung up on a wall.
Sharon: Tell us about the necklace which can be worn.
Saudia: Yeah, this could be worn. This is actually a smaller of her—I mean her necklaces can be huge and the beads can be huge, and you asked did we assist her. So, we assisted in things that were the classics, the classic basis like hearts and bangles, but beads, she always did the beads. All of the polyester resin bangles, she did herself. The acrylic that had sort of a standard shape, then we could work on those.
Sharon: Really beautiful!
Saudia: These are really rare actually. I don’t think there is any other necklace with this shaped bead. Usually her beads were round, and this is more going towards an egg shape.
Sharon: Did she have the color scheme in mind before she started out? I mean did she think, “O.K., I’m going to do what I want. I really want to put red, white and blue together, or whatever, pink and purple.” Did she have that in mind or was it just the way it came out?
Saudia: No, I mean I think she definitely had a color pallet in mind before she would pour. Of course, then because it’s viscous or whatever, the material would also do whatever it wants. Like she would guide it to a certain extent, but also it would sort of—when colors would blend, sometimes surprises or often surprises would happen.
Sharon: Yeah, no, nice surprises it looks like.
Saudia: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean the black and white is sort of—that’s an obvious basic result, but the others, yeah, that’s pretty basic.
Sharon: Oh yeah! Oh wow!
Lisa: Saudia, can I add about this?
Lisa: So, what Cara was doing essentially is she was painting and sculpting simultaneously because she had this mold which was three-dimensional and she’s adding this color. So, it was a sculptural painting that was evolving and then in essence while it was in the mold, she would let it be, so to speak, and then when it came out of the mold, there was that second phase—or I don’t know what phase it was really—where she gave it life—the shape. She would have the color and posturing in the mold, but the way she finished it—and I think the use of the material is something that a lot of people are not quite familiar with. They think of sculptors as just [unintelligible] and each one of these—it’s very important that every single bead that Saudia was showing you literally is worthy of having her signature on it. It’s hand-sculpted. It is hand-carved. It is hand-shaped and even the earrings that I put on during this time, these are all—they’re hand-bored; they’re sliced; they’re made. For me, it’s very exciting to see this and again, you’re wearing a sculptural painting. Each of her jewelry pieces are sculptural paintings, so to speak, or a painting that is a sculpture. I mean it’s hard to intertwine them, but that’s really the essence. I really want people to understand that aspect of it.
Sharon: I think it’s also really important to understand that nobody else was doing it then. Today, this sort of thing, it’s Lucite or whatever, but it was just so new at the time and so innovative. If we saw a piece today, it might not catch our eye in many ways just because we’ve seen dozens of them, but not realizing that these were hand-done, hand-carved and that sort of thing.
Lisa: And of course Saudia can speak to this further and I definitely would like her to, but as a curator and seeing work for so many decades, it’s important for my role as a curator and as an educator of studio jewelry is to tell the audience about her work and for them to gain a better understanding. The pieces that you’re seeing nowa-days, Cara’s work was the catalyst. It had never been seen before. Robert Lee Morris’ enthusiasm for her work is palpable as well. So that’s why it’s important to tell her story and as a sculptor and Saudia had no idea about her show in 1975 at PS1. That just says it all. I mean right there that is fantastic.
Sharon: Well, for us non-New Yorkers, PS1 is a public—it’s a public school. What is PS1? Is it a public school?
Saudia: PS1 was an art institution and still is an art institution founded by Alana Heiss, who was a good friend of my mom and she actually brought her into that show and she brought her into The Clocktower because she also was coordinating The Clocktower. She was a mover and a shaker on the art scene. So, it says, “PS1, one of the largest art institutions in the United States, dedicated solely to contemporary art. It is located in the Long Island City neighborhood, a borough of Queens, New York” and it’s still in existence. It was founded in 1971.
Saudia: So, they do performance; they do visual, all types of work there.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I know PS is often public school in many nomenclatures, so I was going, “What does that have to do with anything?” Interesting.
Sharon: So, tell us what your plans are to carry on her legacy.
Saudia: Well, my plans are to continue making reconnections with people like Lisa, amazing movers and shakers, to try to secure a retrospective of her work which includes her sculpture and her jewelry, to get a book, some type of published entity, a book—I would love to see a coffee table book catalogue. Somehow give her a home. Give the work a home where people can enjoy it and see it. I really don’t want it to be hidden away in storage or something. Her work is very—as Lisa said, it’s very sensual. It’s spiritual. People love to feel it, to wear it, to hold it, to collect it. This ring is a bronze archer ring and I’m not going to start producing work or anything. It’s basically the work that she made. That’s it. That’s what’s available. So, there’s a certain percentage of it. I’m trying to figure that out with Lisa actually, what percentage can still be sold, but my dream, yeah, is to have a home for the work. One of her favorite artists and one of my favorite artists, Isamu Noguchi, he has this little museum in Long Island City and it’s this sort of Nochuiland where you can go into the sculpture garden and see his huge works and then you can go inside and see his tables and his lamps. So that’s my dream that somehow, I don’t know where, when or why that she would be housed where you can really see the full dynamic of all of her work and also be able to touch it and buy it.
Sharon: Before we close, what else would you like us to know about her work or your plans?
Saudia: Well, she would definitely be in the Black Lives Matter march. She was very political. She was really political. So was my father. She was such a humanist, such a wonderful, wonderful woman and really loved, so I’m really glad that you’re giving me this opportunity to continue to put her work out there, but yeah, I think she would be really happy with what’s happening in terms of everybody coming together in this some of multiracial unity behind humanity, so yeah.
Sharon: O.K., I’m glad that we’re giving her—more people have the opportunity to learn about her work and what kind of innovator she was and your role in it. I mean that I can’t even imagine what kind of life she lived. I know that right now you have a very fluid sort of life. You’re in Connecticut, New York, going to back to Germany, then hopping around the world and I thank you so much for being with us today and to everybody listening, this has been the Jewelry Journey and please if you like us, review us and you can download us wherever you down your podcasts and we’ll be back next time with another fabulous, interesting guest in the world of jewelry. Thank you so much.
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