David Neale is a Gold and Silversmith who lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
Excerpt from an interview with Melinda Young for Metalab Gallery
What led you to gold and silversmithing?
There is something about the scale of goldsmithing that drew me in. The whole realm of the goldsmith is so fascinating, with all the elements, chemicals, fire, danger, risk and loss! (like how you can just melt something at the final stage if you aren't concentrating!!)
It’s entrancing and beguiling, in goldsmithing there are always techniques to master, secrets to uncover. I'm always learning and growing.
What is your approach to making?
There are so many steps involved in making just one piece when you're goldsmithing...
so it’s easy to kill the idea, or just melt the whole thing!
I sometimes feel jealous of painters who can just put-the-brush-right-on-the-canvas!
Immediacy- that’s what I love when making. However, that sort of rawness is not easy to control. You have to be talented and disciplined. Not having either of those qualities in large measure, I tend to make a lot of duds. But when a piece is successful; when it seems to be more than what I've put into it- this is the most enjoyable part of the whole pursuit.
You have a very distinctive approach to the use of materials in your work – how did this evolve? How does it continue to evolve?
By definition, jewellery has to be distinctive. If it is overly predictable, it doesn't fulfill its function- you cant see it anymore or worse- it is dead on arrival! I often quote Hermann Jünger to myself (with German accent):
“what makes one piece live and another die?”
So, hating that feeling that a piece is not ‘alive’ when I’ve made it- I try really hard to make things distinctive; interesting textures, colours and so on.
To be able to control opposites in a pleasing way within a piece is crucial to making lively jewellery.
If you can set up ‘good tensions’, you get sparks- and these might serve as the jewell-like aspect of the piece- the part that makes it distinctive, interesting, suprising...lovable.
It's a bit like a conversation between the maker and the material. Some materials don't let you get get a word in edgewise! (like cut diamonds- it's very hard to make something distinctive with them because they are so complete) On the other hand, some materials are so reticent (Like polymer clay- you have to do all the work otherwise it just looks pathetic).
At all times though, material choice is simply a matter of what is available to me. In lean times I just couldn't afford gold. But there is always wood, or steel or bone or... something!
Some artists talk about a “democracy of materials” meaning that everything is everything- but at the Goldsmith’s bench this philosophy falls down. There really is a hierarchy of materials.
Do you have a favourite material?
It is truly beautiful. I never used to like it though, probably because as a youngster I had only ever seen highly polished 9k- which as I gradually realised, is hardly the whole truth about Gold.
I decided to go gold prospecting in my early 20’s- you know, a whole lot of mud and gravel and sloshing around in a creek. To begin with it was demoralising and unsuccessful, I would be squinting into the bottom of the pan, asking “is that gold? hmmm. Is that gold? errr.........”. But when I finally found some gold amongst the gravel, it was a wonderful moment! An unmistakable glow- it was electrifying- I shouted “Ha-Haa!” (then hushed myself and looked around suspiciously)
I’m recounting this to illustrate that you might think you know gold, because, you know, you’ve seen it around... but you really don't know much until you get it from the earth and then make something out of it. (Reminds me of a country song; “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know about her”)
There is growing interest in ethically-sourced gold- a worthy and interesting pursuit, I think- not only in the interests of the planet- but also in establishing higher value for the material. Provenance of the material should be a very important factor in determining the value of an object.
Your work is largely populated by botanical forms, creatures and recently, bread… what attracts you to these themes?
I don't know what it's about, it's just instinct! It says something about what I love though, and what I belong to. I really have made a lot of leaves... maybe this is a ‘paradise lost’ thing- wanting to return to a beautiful garden with the animals. We all want that.
Sometimes I will feature themes that you mightn't expect in jewellery...
- like the rye bread-
- but I think bread is really special, so it works for me as a precious idea!
I want my jewellery to just say what it needs to say... So the ‘vocabulary’ is growing, changing, freeing up I think... even though I’m using realism and abstraction too, I consciously try to keep it within a style that I hope people recognise as coming from one place.
The plant-form subject matter could be endlessly explored, but it doesn't tell the whole of my story... There was always more geometrical, abstract work being made by me, but I didn't show it, or it was rejected by galleries on the basis that it didn't make sense next to all the plants. I got some off-the-cuff, yet sage advice from fellow jeweller Lucy Folk, to “just make whatever you think is cool”- and so I started to just insist that its all the same thing. In a larger, varied group of work, the relationship between styles becomes clearer.
How influenced are you by historical techniques of making?
Well, techniques-wise, everything I do was practiced by Bronze Age people in basically the same way, so... there.
I'm not doing any historico-metallurgical re-enactments, but I do love that kind of thing.
Styles-wise, I have certainly found lots of inspiration from various ancient civilisations, or more accurately: confirmation? encouragement?
To explain: I began to make things in a very simple or crude way, setting myself free; looking for an immediacy of expression, for that rigour or liveliness I mentioned earlier- and then I saw what seems to be that exact quality in the gold work of the Pre-Coloumbians.
Early Americans had no iron tools (imagine!) so gold was beaten into sheet with stones probably. This sheet work has an extraordinary quality- very subtle modulation in the surface- hard to describe, but very beautiful to my eye. Not as equal or consistent as in later European smithing. I love this kind of observation.
I’m not retreating into the past because the present seems repugnant or the future bleak. Rather, I’m drawn to a simple life, with a more direct involvement with the earth...
Please can you describe what you mean by ‘jewellery as graphics’?
I’ve realised that jewellery is a form of graphic communication.
Actually, I’m claiming that jewellery is the mother of graphics- because the act of adorning ourselves probably came before painting or writing. This is hardly a groundbreaking idea, but it sort of helps me to ‘see’ better, to know what I’m aiming for. Some jewellery might be a distinct type of sign, other times more obscure- either way, it makes use of all the tricks that you find in graphics plus a few more. Shapes, colours, lines and contrasts combine to form more complicated elements like symbols, pictures, signifiers, allusions. The goldsmith can turn this into a wearable language that other people can read.
In a very literal way too, Ive been cut’n’pasting, scribbling, drawing and painting on the metal, to make pictures in a way that is like a graphic artist.
What is your favourite tool?
I use my laptop quite a bit. But, while it is an amazing tool, it is so complex, and reliant on a whole raft of things outside itself, like power, the internet and so on- so in spite of its awesomeness, it has an ironic aura of limitation.
The opposite to this is a hammer; such a great object- just two parts, a pleasing swing, infinite function...
So a Hammer is my favourite tool.
After all, I am a smith- and to 'smith' is to 'smite'.
Right, I'm going to go hammer something...