Ken Vickerson’s jewellery is a study in balance. While respected as a consummate craftsman, a deep philosophical streak compels this artist to move beyond decoration into the realm of ideas.
Like many jewelers, Vickerson was introduced to metalsmithing by chance. Born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1958, he shared with his younger sister Laura an early interest in art. As a teenager his talents were nurtured through photography and painting courses, including a summer session at the internationally renowned Banff Centre for the Arts. Wanting to pursue a career in the fine arts, in 1978 Vickerson enrolled in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary.
Vickerson’s first thought was to pursue commercial art, but he soon discovered it was not for him. (It’s hard to imagine this independent-minded artist devoting his creative talents to someone else’s agenda.) He investigated printmaking, sculpture, and, as an aside, jewellery, which was well represented at ACA through their Jewellery Diploma program.
He rejected printmaking; Vickerson has always preferred to focus on unique pieces. Sculpture intrigued him and to this day it is an aspect of his artistic output. It was jewellery that had a significant impact on the artist. Metalsmithing had the right mix of conceptual and technical elements, and the instructors who influenced him most, Jim Robson and Wayne MacKenzie, pushed the young artist to excel both technically and intellectually.
The balance of mind and matter that originally attracted Vickerson to jewellery has remained in his work since his college days. Reflecting on his work over the past fifteen years the artist comments, “It tends to be a bit eclectic, because I get interested in an idea or technique, then I’ll pursue it, and then I’ll shift lanes. But if you see it over a long period of time, then you can put it all in context. It has a basis in architecture, structure, concept, and technique.”
The combination of these four elements is illustrated in a ring created for Bijoux du Canadienes, a 1995 exhibition of works by Canadian goldsmiths at Galerie Aurus in Paris, France. A tribute to the Eiffel Tower, the ring features a teal blue emerald cut tourmaline raised in a palladium setting that recalls the pioneering nineteenth century structure. In characteristic Vickerson style, extraneous elements and excessive surface detail have been eschewed in favour of form and design. Fabrication is Vickerson’s forte (although he teaches casting, he rarely uses it in his own work) and the impeccable craftsmanship of this ring and its companion, in 18k yellow gold and palladium with a black star sapphire, won Vickerson the J and D Diamond Award of Excellence at the Metal Arts Guild’s 50th Anniversary Juried Exhibition.
The acknowledgement of Paris’s signature monument was not just occasioned by the exhibition. “There’s an unwritten bond between jewellery and architecture,” explains the artist, whose work frequently carries visual and structural allusions to buildings and bridges. The fact that many of his clients are architects strengthens the relationship between his structural aesthetic and that profession’s focus on elements of plane, line, and space.
As in architecture, the formal concerns in Vickerson’s pieces are purposeful. A ring from 1989, in 14k, sterling, nickel, steel, and shakudo, was inspired by the multicultural character of Toronto, where Vickerson has lived since 1985. Stripes of the different coloured metals and gold lattice work form a tiered band of restrained elegance that belies the complexity of its construction. Surmounting this modernist framework is a panel of laminated mosaic that has a decorative, Middle Eastern flavor. Another Metal Arts Guild Award of Excellence winner, the ring unites two contrasting aspects of Canada’s largest city in a harmonious marriage of contemporary line and old world pattern.
The ring was the culmination of an extensive body of work using lamination techniques. “I tend to work in series because of the difficulty of putting complex ideas into small works,” says Vickerson. The catalyst for a new group of works may be an intriguing material or untried process. These physical elements are then wrapped around notions to create jewellery in which technique and concept nurture and complement each other.
That his chosen medium should be a vehicle for the expression of ideas is at the centre of Vickerson’s philosophy of jewellery. “I think what people working in this medium really have to consider is how to give the objects that they make meaning,” says the artist. The symbiotic relationship between materials and concepts that propels his work is reflected in the genesis of another ring for the Paris show. “I came home one afternoon and my wife was cooking stew. I was stirring it and there were three beautiful bones in it, so I pulled them out and starting cutting them up, and made a stone for a ring. The idea behind it was the meeting of two cultures, specifically the Innu and NATO forces that practice in Labrador – half the ring had an aircraftlike structure, the other was this pristine bone.”
Creating the bone-stone was a laborious process that necessitated gluing a number of small pieces of bone together in order to make one piece large enough to be turned on a lathe. Vickerson views the challenges presented by unorthodox or hard-to-handle materials as opportunities to stretch himself technically. “It’s not so much the final product, it’s the process, the journey, what I learn along the way.”
Vickerson’s use of difficult materials or techniques is never an exercise in technical virtuosity for its own sake. For the Eiffel Tower ring, Vickerson chose palladium, a stubborn metal that is hard to drill, cut, and solder, because he wanted the subtle colour that could be achieved through patination. His efforts resulted in a cool grey surface that successfully elicits associations with industry, engineering, and modernism, appropriate to this ring’s iconic inspiration.
In another ring, created in 1991, palladium was heated-treated to produce a remarkable patina that resembles mottled stone. This distinctive surface, coupled with the rich tone of a green tourmaline, balances the ring’s hefty structure and highly ordered symmetry, producing the canny equilibrium that makes viewing Vickerson’s work such a satisfying experience.
The unusual patina, initially achieved serendipitously, was consciously developed by Vickerosn after he saw the intriguing results. He cites the discovery as a prime example of why jewelers should push their technical skills and knowledge to the limit. “There are so many things that happen in technique that influence the concept. People who ignore the technical aspects do so at their own peril. They limit their range of expression.”
In keeping with this view, Vickerson’s quest for artistic and technical growth has remained constant. Over the years he has taken workshops in most aspects of jewellery design and construction, from hollowware and Japanese alloys to lamination and plastics. He has pursued in depth the creation and development of alternative settings that allow him to set the stones himself, thus giving him more control over the design. In addition to learning a number of settings from Whitney Boin, Vickerson has added to this repertoire by reworking traditional designs, adapting ideas from other forms such as a muffler clamp and an eye socket, and mixing elements from various styles to create hybrid settings.
Vickerson employs these innovative settings in rings, his favoured jewelry objects. The artist is attracted to the symbolism of the circle, and enjoys the opportunity to use stones, particularly odd-shaped cabochons or coloured diamonds. Speaking about a ring made for his wife, sculptor Colleen Brzezicki, his enthusiasm for the lore of stones is evident. In a gold band with a Celtic knot pattern, he set a transparent purple-blue iolite. Iolites were known as the “Viking compass” because allegedly, on overcast days, the Vikings could use an iolite to locate the sun. Although Vickerson was not able to substantiate this legend, he was so fascinated by the story that he cut a Greek cross into the bottom of the setting, to symbolize the four points of the compass.
In addition to themes from history and politics, memories and personal experiences also generate ideas for pieces. One of Vickerson’s favourite early works is his 1985 Funerary Urn for a Cat, in steel, brass, zebra wood, and bronze cat whiskers. The object is a functioning urn he describes as “a tribute to a faithful friend.” A group of brooches from 1994 that commemorate the joys and terrors of home renovations was motivated by Vickerson’s own adventures revitalizing his old east-end Toronto house.
Both seen and imagined landscapes resurface as tiny vistas that straddle the borders of abstraction and representation. In Totem Brooch, 1991, Vickerson employed marriage of metals, mokumé gané, lamination, and a coloured diamond to create an image of a towering form rising above a barren red plane. The enigmatic object has a mummylike appearance, suggested by bandagelike striations and a slight roundness at the top that hints at a head. It also recalls the Hoodoo rock formations in Vickerson’s native Alberta. The cryptic imagery and formidable technical skill illustrated by this brooch invite repeated examination. It is his ability to engage the viewer/wearer that endows Vickerson’s work with an enduring fascination.
While works such as Totem Brooch have a narrative element that Vickerson views as analogous to drawing or painting, in other pieces the underlying concept is more abstract. In his Hollow Ring series from 1993 he explored the notion of intimate space. Appearing simple at first glance, the trio of sterling silver rings are, in fact, conceptually and technically complex. Air enters the hollow interior of each ring through one or two horizontal apertures cut into the exterior surface. The air touches the skin through apertures in the interior surface, activating an “intimate space” that exists between the ring and its wearer.
This group of rings was created during Vickerson’s second sojourn in Germany, where he first visited in 1992, through an exchange program sponsored by the Ontario Crafts Council. Feeling that his first trip had not allowed him sufficient time to absorb what this world centre for contemporary jewellery had to offer, he went back the next year, courtesy of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. During his second, extended visit he studied the working properties of 900 gold with master goldsmith Gunter Ketterer.
Vickerson returned to Canada envious of the conditions for jewelers in Germany, who benefit from a comprehensive educational system, a government that is committed to the arts, and a well-developed marketplace. In contrast, Canadian jewelers face a number of obstacles. Government support for the arts has been steadily dwindling. Schools offering full programs in jewellery are relatively few, and cannot be compared to German institutions, where, as Vickerson notes, one can spend fifteen years learning the art of goldsmithing. Add to this general lack of sophistication that characterizes Canadian consumers, and it is not surprising that jewelers of Vickerson’s stature are seeking outlets beyond Canada’s borders.
What can be done to remedy this situation? Vickerson believes Canadian jewelers are both part of the problem, and part of the solution. “As craftsmen, we can start making work that is more significant. We don’t have an edge on mass production, we have an edge on ideas. Why try to complete with stuff that’s made in Taiwan? We can’t. Where we can compete is in the idea in imbuing these pieces with meaning.”
Having learned these lessons through experience, Vickerson now concentrates on unique pieces and prefers to have one really good outlet for his work. Vickerson was represented by Montreal dealer Stella Chan, whose Galerie Suk Kwan was a showcase for many of Canada’s finest metalsmiths.
Cultivating additional sources of income has enabled the artist to avoid some of the pitfalls of the marketplace. Vickerson’s reputation as an innovative artist with tremendous technical skill has enabled him to develop a large clientele. Vickerson relishes the private commissions. “It gives me the opportunity to make work that is significant. If you think about the sort of objects that people own that have meaning, they’re pretty few. You can get along with about two percent of the objects we collect. Anything over and above that I think should have real significance, symbolically, to you.”
Vickerson’s missionary streak is put to good use through teaching. He is currently a full-time instructor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, teaches part-time at George Brown College, and also conducts workshops at schools across Canada. His role as mentor to the next generation of metalsmiths is one he finds mutually beneficial. “It shifts my perceptions, as I’m engaged in shifting theirs.” Along with giving students a solid grounding in both the technical and conceptual aspects of metalsmithing, Vickerson also believes a part of his job is to raise awareness of the broader issued facing craftspeople. Teaching the public that there is a worthy alternative to a diamond ring purchased from a chain store in a mall is a task he feels his students must be prepared to undertake if the market for studio jewellery is to grow.
The ideas which nourish Vickerson’s own expressive impulses are continually replenished through his voracious appetite for knowledge. His reading list reveals a keen interest in the forces that shape contemporary society. Technology’s relationship to social structures, the current obsession with national debt and deficit, the specter of corporate domination, and the spread of democracy are just a few of the topics he has explored recently.
Such informal research will not necessarily result in specific pieces of jewellery. Rather, it is fuel for the creative fire, which is also stoked by colleagues, conversations, and current events. A brooch in his new Tableaux series was sparked by an encounter his wife had with a proselytizer, who appeared on their doorstep. The true believer was asserting the superiority of humankind over the rest of the animal kingdom, a point Brzezicki could not allow to go unchallenged. (The Vickerson/Brzezicki household includes an assortment of permanent and occasional four-legged residents.) The incident caused Vickerson to muse about whether or not animals think. Tableau IV/Oysters Lie Dreaming is his response. A square aperture in the centre of a circular sterling silver plane reveals a recessed panel on which slumbering oysters, delicately formed by tiny spirals of fused wire, lie beside a shimmering shore of undulating sand (cleverly suggested by a gold-leafed cuttlefish casting). While the brooch’s regular contours and symmetrically placed rivets reflect Vickerson’s predilection for precise geometry, the fused silver surfaces are grainy and indefinite, like the philosophical terrain he frequently mines.
In Tableau II/The One True Toothpick, a pair of gold-leafed toothpicks form a cross that is contained within a sterling silver oval. The brooch, which can also be worn as a pendant, pokes gentle fun at the powers invested in objects, an issue that has implications for jewellery. Vickerson appropriates the spiritual qualities of a reliquary and again plays with scale relationships and references to architecture.
Tableau IV, in sterling, nickel, gold leaf, 900 gold, and diamond, evokes a mood of desolation. A face shaped oval is pierced by a visorlike rectangle that reveals a pair of staring eyes. Pupils are indicated by two tiny barren trees, whose tortured limbs are made of twisted copper wire. The diamond in the forehead of the masklike visage suggests a third eye that gazes beyond the pain of this world into infinity.
The most serious piece to date is Tableau V/Memento Mori, a brooch/pendant of sterling, pearls, 900 gold, and diamond, created for an OCAD exhibition dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1995 Montreal massacre. A wide oval frame of fused sterling silver surrounds a recessed panel, on which lies a tiny skeleton, broken and crumbling like the remnants of an ancient grave exposed by the harsh winds of time. A tour de force in fused silver, the oxidized image is only readable upon close inspection – as Vickerson says, “It’s not a biker brooch.” The sombre theme is sensitively echoed by a dangling grey pearl.
The piece references Victorian mourning jewellery which, like the reliquary, is a historic form that served a function beyond decoration. Vickerson also acknowledges the influence of fellow Canadian Paul McClure, whose own Memento Mori series of oxidized sterling silver and pearl pendants is a contemporary contemplation on the theme of mortality. Like McClure’s pendants, Vickerson’s brooch is not a period-piece, nor is its condemnation of violence against women rooted in sensationalism. Memento Mori is a work of jewellery that carries its disturbing, urgent message into the arena of daily life.
The Tableaux series will continue until Vickerson has explored all of the technical and conceptual possibilities it offers. Then, something else will trigger his interest and another series will emerge. Perhaps the recently installed forge in his backyard studio will provide a point of departure for a journey into new frontiers. For this thinking person’s jeweler, there are endless roads to explore.
Barbara Isherwood is a freelance writer on the visual arts who lives in Toronto.
Like her brother, Laura maintained an interest in art, and is today a noted contemporary artist whose work has a strong conceptual slant.
Now the Alberta College of Art and Design.
All quotes are from conversations with the artist April 1, 1996 and February 1, 1997.
He refers to military aircraft flying over northern habitats and disrupting Aboriginal lifestyles.
Although Galerie Suk Kwan is now closed, Chan continues to represent jewelers privately and pursues opportunities for Canadian jewelers abroad. It was Chon who initiated Bijoux du Canadienes at Galerie Aurus in Paris.
In which deranged gunman Marc Lepine killed thirteen female engineering students during a shooting rampage at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique.