Tell us about your artistic background.
I attended the University of Tasmania straight after college with a Bachelor of Contemporary Arts degree (2010 – 2014 inc. honours). This degree encouraged a multi-form/mixed-media practice. I enrolled, intending to pursue painting, primarily portraiture painting, but after choosing ‘body adornment’ as an elective, I quickly discovered a strong affinity with the tools and materials of jewellery. I was able to negotiate access to the facilities for the remainder of my studies (as that wasn’t an area taught beyond a ‘taster’ elective at the time). It seemed a natural progression for me to reach across ceramics and glass as complementary materials. My graduate work focussed on the sculptural and conceptual application of jewellery as a means to visualise tropes from biology, such as symbiosis and parasitism.
What do you do when you’re not creating jewellery?
I'm lucky to have my studio adjacent to my home, so my making is very much incorporated into my daily lifestyle. Outside of the studio, I teach dance one evening per week and spend a lot of time spoiling our menagerie of animals. I have also started fostering kittens this year!
Do you believe there is a difference between art and jewellery?
Broadly speaking, yes, but I think the difference is in the intention of the maker. The way it is offered to an audience to consume is what makes it artwork versus a product. This goes hand-in-hand with the nature of one-off pieces or artist editions, versus readily repeatable items and mass production. In much the same way that one might try to define craft or design against art, it is ultimately subjective, but I think you can always come back to the intention as your primary indicator.
I work with craft materials, but I don’t necessarily think of myself as a craftsperson; I have not studied the traditional methodology in-depth and am not necessarily applying them in a way that aligns to the context of that craft. When I show my work in a fine art exhibition context, whether these pieces are functional/wearable jewellery or not, I am using it as a point of discourse. In this way, I hope for people to experience or engage in a topic, feeling or theme that they may not otherwise.
I choose to work in jewellery because I am interested in the way that it changes an object into something innately human and cultural. I am interested in displacing ideas of the every-day as something precious and desirable, using our shared understanding of jewellery to shift the context of my chosen theme or topic. For me, this is what distinguishes most of my work as art, versus work I may make specifically for retail consumption; which is not necessarily less significant, but a different context.
What is it that sparked your interest in contemporary jewellery?
After being introduced to the materials and tools of jewellery at university, I became interested in Contemporary Jewellery as a form of practice. I became fascinated by the ways I could manipulate or harness the context of jewellery. Jewellery as an object, carries an innate relationship to history and culture, alongside an unspoken presumption of value or preciousness, and is characterised by an intimate scale that is directly associated with the body.
Much of your jewellery features large-scale creepy crawlies. Could you tell us more about your fascination for insects?
The insect-based work comes from my fascination with museums and natural history collections, rather than with insects themselves. I am interested in making works that have a sense of desirability or beauty, yet in a form that people would normally withdraw from. This aims to replicate the experience I have with beetle specimen collections in museums. They are beautifully arranged, and the diversity of the form and colour of the insects is astounding, yet the act of collecting and preserving them is much less inviting. The individual pieces try to capture the unique, bizarre and beautiful form of insects in hybrid, imagined and hyperbolic iterations.
I combine ceramics and silver-smithing to create uncanny materiality, at the interplay of realism and artifice. Regarding the beetles, I am not specific to any species or even anatomically correct. Instead, I have tried to capture the distinguishing features or greatest impression of various types of beetles, skewing or exaggerating their morphology within a window of believability.
Tell us about the body of work you're most proud of.
I am probably most proud of Coleoptera, an exhibition made for Radiant Pavilion 2019, shown at Brunswick Street Gallery. It was the first body of work that came together so organically. Coleoptera captured what I had in my head. It photographed well. I was so proud to see people get excited by it.
It was satisfying to bring together each element in a way that was curated and had an innate purpose, from the choice of materials to the method of display. At the same time, they were totally functional/wearable pieces that had beauty and a sense of desirability. The pieces worked both within the exhibition context and out of it. This sounds simple but was a new milestone in many ways.
Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
My creative process usually starts with reading and writing rather than making. I’ll often nut-out what I want the work to describe or be about. I’ll then begin to visualise using materials or methods that feel like they align with the theme or concept.
With Coleoptera, I was intrigued by museology, and the way displays have changed. I began by looking more broadly at collection practices and specimen of all sorts but found myself most drawn to the insects and eggs. These specimens related well to the materiality of glaze, porcelain and sheet metal.
When do you know when a piece is finished?
I find this hardest to define with individual pieces. When I am working on a body of work, it’s about the convergence of many pieces and has a much clearer finish. Single pieces, like commissions or iterations from a body of work, have an added pressure to them, knowing it will be immediately scrutinised more intimately than a full display of pieces. My work feels finished when it’s not obvious to the audience how the work was made but clear that it was made by hand. I’m seeking that moment where you aren’t certain what material it is, but you want to touch it. I am always trying to create a sense of curiosity in the viewer or wearer.
What is the most rewarding thing about making jewellery?
The transformation of material is extremely satisfying. You can continually improve and refine at a technical level. There is always something to work on. You can see results when you put the time in.
Metal is a great material because you can be as experimental as you like. There is a wealth of technical and traditional methods behind metalworking that can be researched and applied. I appreciate how the material is rarely lost – if you make a mistake you can almost always melt it down and start over, so I appreciate that it is forgiving in that sense, certainly not the case in most other materials!
Is there a skill you'd like to develop or a material you'd like to work with in the future?
There are so many! Right now, I am trying to learn more stone setting techniques. I want to be able to manipulate and use it at an unusual scale with porcelain or glass elements.
I do not have a lot of technical training in jewellery, so I am always keen to learn the ‘right way’ to do things or improve my basics. Jewellery techniques and materials are definitely my grounding point, but I am always open to and looking for materials that I can adapt to suit particular themes or purposes.
Where can people find your work?
At the moment, I have pieces available through Craft Victoria, Design Tasmania and the MONA shop, and of course on display at FIND Contemporary Jewellery Collective.
We adore Sam’s unique, curious jewellery and we are very excited to have her exhibiting with us from August until the end of September 2020. You can view her work www.samanthadennis.com.au, and make sure to give her a follow on Instagram at @smd_tasmania.