Essay

Eléna Gee, One Day’s Work

An excerpt from the writings of Eléna Gee in 1986, edited by Elle Loui August for Objectspace, 2019

Eléna Gee, One Day’s Work An excerpt from the writings of Eléna Gee in 1986, edited by Elle Loui August for Objectspace, 2019

Day after day I sit at my window, staring out at the crowd of trees guarding the drive. We are hidden from the street, my house and I, down a right of way. We are cushioned in soft green trees, protected from the passing eyes of strangers and the busy chatter of traffic. Inside the house I sit in my basement workshop, wrapped in cloth, cocooned in onion skins of personal space and wooden walls, encased in an outer crust of concrete, grass and trees like one of those pale, white grubs you sometimes find bound in layers of wood pulp.

In this workshop I spend my days punctuated with cups of coffee and radio music, dreaming of objects then making those dreams come true. Sometimes I look out the window, up to the sky as a sparrow or a star-scattered starling flits silently past, then I turn back to my work because I earn my living this way, making beautiful things for beautiful women to wear, or interesting things for interesting women to wear, depending on how you look at it.

My workshop is well ordered, a careful container for all the tools and materials I need, each in its own space, clearly labelled. The walls are honeycombed with drawers and shelves, each one hiding a different secret; the guilty parts of dismembered animals, vicious acids trapped in bottles, a vulgar taste for trashy treasures, an extravagant taste for expensive treasures, or just objects hiding from fine prying fingers of dust. Pull one open at random, almost anything could appear. Nearest my workbench you will find shelves of metals stacked in sheets, filed like office paper, for metal is the scaffolding of my work. Breathe in and metallic molecules flow into your mind, grazing memory to set your teeth on edge.

As well as silver, brass, copper, steel, aluminium, I use other metals that most people have never heard of: golden gilding metal; not-quite-white nickel silver; dull-grey titanium, the Cinderella metal. Wave a magic flame over it and it suddenly wears rainbows of brilliant colours. Each metal has its own characteristics, its own personality – just like people do – its unique profile of colour, weight, hardness, melting point and many other qualities. I have worked with these metals for so long they have become colleagues whose peculiarities I understand well.

Behind the metals stands the cupboard of the long bench, an apartment building for organic materials. These leftover memories of once living things include many different shells – some I found on summer beaches, others bought from importers. There is a stack of flat grey saucers of clam shells brimming with creamy pearl, and paua sent from the South Island where they thickened against battering ocean waves. All wait their turn to be cut into pieces like lengths of fabric. Beside them, small shells of many colours tumble together in boxes, their owners leaving only a faint dead fish smell.

In the corner lies a miniture builders hoard, a stack of ebony bought from a flute maker. A small red laquered cabinet slumps awkwardly on the other side of the floor, holding its burden of stones. Pull open its top drawer and secret little boxes rattle and whisper tales of garnets, sapphires agates and pearls. Search lower and you will find crumpled paper bags full of rough stones. Look at these and you might think that the earth is cracking open, breaking up slowly piece by piece for here is the evidence; chunks of midnight blue sky glitering with golden stars, pieces of daylight turquoise sky washed with pale clouds, watery slices cleaved from lakes, forests and fields, frozen in rock, flakes of petrified pre-history.

Spare shelves and odd corners contain yet more materials, sheets and coils and jars of plastic, slabs of glass stacked like books, drawers of textiles, dyes, paints, a crate of leather hides hidden from the bleaching sun. All of these things are my savings, my security, my store, the hoarded acorns of a squirrel. 

Today I will make a large necklace. While descending my workshop stairs I consider the idea in my head, it is a vague idea. When I try to look at the details they fade away, I cannot quite grasp them. They are just beyond the reach of my imagination. This particular idea evolved from my experiments with pieces of shell, considering these pieces as if they were metal and then seeing new possibilities. Instead of setting the shell like a gemstone, I want to make it independant, to hold its own form, to cut and join it as if it were metal.

My current experiments are with paua, a shell named after the creatures that made them. Unlike metal sheets they have curved planes, limited size, are brittle and immalleable, the rich curves of earth and moon, as they endlessly circle each other, pulling between them swelling hills and rolling waves. Our tiny man-made environment of planes and squares seems just a blemish on the face of that vast persistence.

Taking the pieces of a sphere and laying them flat like a two-dimensional atlas, the curved plates butt into each other becoming valleys and hills. I could glue them edge to edge into a patchwork or overlap them like large fish scales, inlaying them with hinges so each plate moves seperately, making the finished plate more flexible. I decide on this last method and select my three shells. From each I saw a wandering shape, midway between a circle, a square and a triangle.

I put coffee to brew on the element in the fume extraction cupborad while considering the three pieces which lie on a fresh white sheet of paper on my design and ideas table. It stands under the high back window, the one so close to the sloping ground that hugs the back of the workshop that snails crawl through it at night if I forget to shut it. I carry my first cup of coffee for the day over to the table, pick two snails off the wall, throw them outside, then layout the paua pieces overlapping to form an oblong. Taking a baby whole paua I have been planning to use, I place it leaping sideways a few inches up.

I travel around the workroom collecting materials, bags of shells, coloured knitting silk, scrap metal. I scatter some of them on the paper as food for the growth of my embryonic necklace. Settling in front of it I watch to see what it will incorporate, my eyes darting about looking for connections. I try various shells finally deciding on one of the white cones with the finely coloured lines. The idea of using red is beginning to dawn rosily, tugging gently at something at the back of my mind.

I realise that the necklace should be strung on thin, transparent plastic tubing over fishing line for a fine floating effect, and that its right side should remain bare. Objects there clutter away from my internal idea, which then fades. When I make a move in the right direction my imaginary image clarifies. Now the transparent nothingness of the right side is too obtrusive, an embarrassing silence in an otherwise flowing conversation.

I come back to red. Enamel here seems too harsh. I try a piece of silk. On an impulse I go to the drawer which contains the miniature pots of enamel paint and brush a few slashing red strokes up the side of the paua plates. I have never used paint on jewellery before but there is no real reason not to. A few touches of yellow soften the gash.

I place a lightly domed piece of titanium inside the paua, an eye in a socket. It should have negative spaces so the crinkled pink paua underneath will show through. I cut a shape in the thin grey card, curved at one end and jagged and ragged at the other. A small wing. I place it in position.

I take a sheet of the metal to my bench. The radio music has become boring. Leaning over I switch to a more interesting station. Then study the titanium. A patch of grey metal from an aeroplane. My father was an aircraft engineer. In the early days of aviation, he used to stich the canvas wings of aeroplanes, then stretch them over the wooden skeleton and rivet them round the armless holes as if he were making a denim jacket. Wooden birds once flew the skies. Now they are made of metal, riveted all over like avian robots.

I saw out the titanium wing, changing sawblade several times as the hard metal wears them down; then file the edges and, taking my block and hammer, shape the piece. After sanding and drilling it is ready for an acid etch. A minute in the acid and the fume cupboard is all that is needed. The metal comes out shining and clean with a surface of fine crystals which will colour with great intensity.

Back at the workbench I play the gas flame lightly over the titanium until it turns various shades of blue. I concentrate the heat on the wing tips. The blue pales, turns lemon then pink. It needs more. It is not riotous enough. I engrave marks with a diamond drill, then recolour them.

Returning to the design table I position the piece. I take the three paua pieces, file and machine sand them, and begin to make hinges for them. Cutting pieces of silver tubing to size, I drill out recesses in the paua to hold them, then glue them in position. I take a tiny skein of measured white silk thread down to the element and tie-dye it red, then yellow. The shells are drilled, the three paua plates, by now assembled, are on the design table in position with the other pieces. Taking the water-blue fishing cord I thread all the elements on it. I hang the necklace on the wall and stand back to look at it. It is all shining hope, boldness and life.

Eléna Gee (b. 1949, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a contemporary jeweller based in Henderson, New Zealand. Gee is one of the leading figures in the contemporary jewellery history of Aotearoa New Zealand. Closely associated with the groundbreaking local jewellery movement commonly referred to as Bone, Stone, Shell (after the title of a major 1988 touring exhibition), during the 1980s and 1990s Gee developed an accomplished body of work that was singular in the field at the time.

Using a range of materials that included plastics, stone, precious, semi- precious and industrial metals, locally sourced and found materials, Gee made work that departed from the formal concerns for which the Bone, Stone, Shell era is best known. Challenging her materials rather than seeking to elevate them, Gee prioritised abstraction over formalism to pursue an inward-looking, subjective language that would exceed simple linkages between body and place.

Largely self-taught, throughout her career Gee developed a rigorous studio practice, extending her skills through workshops with leading international jewellers including Arline Fisch, Hermann Jünger and Otto Künzli. From 1970 to 1981 Gee lived and worked in Australia, where she exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions including the Crafts Council of Australia Annual Exhibition (1973) and the Crafts Board of Australia touring exhibition Objects to Human Scale (1980).

Following her return to New Zealand in 1981, Gee became a member of a number of important New Zealand-based craft and artist collectives including Fingers, Details and the Association of Women Artists. She tutored and led workshops in both Australia and New Zealand, in 1986 accepting a teaching position on the influential Craft & Design course at Carrington Polytechnic (now Unitec) and a three-month tenure as craftsperson-in-residence at Nelson Polytechnic (now NMIT).

In 1993, the Dowse Art Museum invited Gee to curate the inaugural New Zealand Jewellery Biennial exhibition, Open Heart. Her own work would be included in the two subsequent editions, curated by Kobi Bosshard (1996) and Richard Bell (1998) respectively. Further exhibition highlights include Schmuckszene in Munich, Germany (1993); Mau Mahara, the New Zealand Crafts Council touring exhibition (1991); Antipodean Dreams at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira (1990); Bone, Stone, Shell, the Foreign Affairs exhibition that toured New Zealand, Australia and Asia (1988); and Skin Sculpture at City Gallery Wellington (1982). Her work is held in private collections in New Zealand, Australia and the United States
of America as well as the collections of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, The Dowse Art Museum and the National Gallery of Australia.

Elle Loui August is an independent writer, researcher and exhibition-maker who works from Fount-Via design studio in Te Rimu Tahi, Ponsonby. Her previous exhibitions for Objectspace include Mirror Grain: Ann Verdcourt, Katrina Beekhuis, Charlotte Drayton (2018), Sione Monu: Kahoa Kakala (2017) and Beauty is in the Street (2016). She has developed exhibitions and events for a wide range of exhibition venues across Aotearoa New Zealand, from artist-run initiatives to academic contexts, including the research-driven projects Mercury, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland (2016), and The day is a fume, The Physics Room, Ōtautahi Christchurch (2014). She has written extensively on craft and visual art for galleries and publications, most recently contributing the essay ‘Te Marama/The Moon: After Lina Bo Bardi’ (2019) to the touring design exhibition Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa.

Eléna Gee circa 1987, New Zealand. Image: John Daley © Te Papa. Te Papa (F. 012325/11)