In a poem of the T’ang dynasty, the cultivated man who eats his meal from a polished bowl gazes into the delights that his wealth has bought, and knows his temporality in the majestic universe.

In my gold cup clear wine worth ten thousand coins a measure,
In my jade bowl delicious dainties costing then thousand cash,
Yet I dash down the cup and throw down the chopsticks,
….For my heart dreams of other things….
To ride the wind and break the waves will some day be my lot
And I shall hang out a sail of cloud to bridge the deep sea.
(Li Po)

Similar explorations of material and time are integral to the jewelry of Arizona metalsmith Kim Rawdin. Richly emotional, expressionistic, a sculpted totality whose wearer exercises the act of completion, Rawdin’s work is loyal to his formalist art training even as it articulates an exact aesthetic of its own.

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Kim Rawdin
Bracelet, 1997, tumbled sterling, 14k bezel, mabé pearl, coral inlays, petrified palm wood

A modernist art education and the raw physicality of the Arizona landscape are married into a distinct vocabulary by Rawdin. The success of his jewelry rests, ultimately, in the body, the human being for whom the jewelry, whether bracelet, necklace, or ring, reveals itself over time. Each object contains through its process of construction a resolution of pattern, movement, and thought. The latter aspect is achieved through Rawdin’s incorporation of poetry into the pieces, stamping onto the inside of a bracelet a poetic evocation of a moon crossing a mountain, or wind blowing in the Sonoran desert; in short, a conjuring of the body sensing nature.

Rawdin’s jewelry attempts a unification in four dimensions: the surface plane of the metal, the relief fields of colored gemstones, the topography of abstract shapes (rendered in metal), and written poetry. Active in his process is an examination of the theories of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, especially as they express reduction in the form, in defence to the energetic interplay between planes of color and line. Never academically trained as a jeweler, Rawdin adheres to Mondrian’s assertion that “in plastic art reality can be expressed only through the equilibrium of dynamic movements of form and color.” His works rely on symphonic arrangements of colored gemstones or three-dimensional metal forms that jut out from the curvature of bracelet or rings.

As a teenager living in the suburbs of New York City, Rawdin visited art museums; he was enamored of Mark Rothko and other color field painters who composed bands of color into harmonious, expansive wholes. When Rawdin came to study modern art, in New York in 1970-72, he discovered the legacy of the New York School of abstract expressionism writ large. Ironically, this was also a period when even as the action painters’ contributions to modern art were being assessed, their legatees were leaving town.

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It was in the 1960s and 1970s that artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer left the city and migrated west, inscribing their monumental gestures onto the earth itself. The vivid assertions of place that their work decried helped to re-vivify the continent of the Americas for a watching global art market. The earth artists, as they came to be called, redirected aesthetic and cultural attention from the urban museum and gallery into the realm of the vast open tracts of the western United States.

Bracelet 18k

These times and modes of though played a role in shaping Rawdin’s evolution as a jeweler. If a modernist education supported one side of the equation by which he has crafted an individualist vocabulary in jewelry, going to Arizona State University in 1972 completed the structure.

Rawdin’s leitmotif is an intuitive interpretation of the raw, physical landscape, especially Arizona land forms with their extreme and arresting topographies. Arizona, like much of the southwest, is a collided and encrusted geology in which the evolutionary strata are revealed in a ready tableau of ridges, buttes, mesas, and shallow valley and desert floors. These features offer a view of geologic nature. At the same time they seem to possess oracular and mystic properties.

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In the United States the west could not be a more powerful symbol of the interplay between manufactured artifact and nature. Rawdin’s mother grew up in rural East Texas, the child of subsistence level homesteaders. After World War II many of the families from that region relocated to cities, where factory jobs were found. As a child Rawdin often returned with his mother to visit her childhood home. The area had grown over into pine forest, leaving little trace of previous human occupancy.

Rawdin’s return to the west can be related, perhaps, to a personal resettlement whereby the untamed and the cultivated join dynamically in the art form of jewelry. Rawdin’s work can be explained as re-animating the land form for the body. He remembers 1982 as the year “he finally put it all together,” rendering out of his subconscious  the biomorphic cloud-like shapes that he calls “forms” and that rise out of the jewelry like a sudden swelling of both earth and idea.

To trace a point of similarity between his stated influences – Chinese thought, Navajo cosmology, and modern art – there is no better place to look than to physical symbols. In Chinese thought geologic formations, such as massive rocks are endowed with spirits. In the poetry of Li Po the movement into refined acts of civilization is expressed in the encounters of man with what has been made from raw matter. The polished bowl functions to remind the man that he is mortal, and will return to earth, at the moment at which he most enjoys life as he tastes delicious food in a fabricated vessel.

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Bracelet 18k

In the continent of the Americas, Dine (Navajo) peoples have long constructed and worn jewelry made of gemstones taken from the earth and the universal energy that is the source of life.

It was Jasper Johns who coined the maxim that to make art is to take a material and do something to it. Art from matter is constant for Rawdin, who says “I approach jewelry as a sculptor, working with negative and positive space and volume.” The arching planes of Rawdin’s jewelry are carrier of the tension by which the artisan expresses and refines his communication of nature and form. The contained field of a bracelet alludes to a landscape; yet, it also resurrects the moment of exacting attention that results from examining the very small. A diverse array of gemstones coalesces into a field, or an abstract metal shape evokes three-dimensional physical territory.

Even as Rawdin plans the palette and shapes for a give piece, he must restrain the gestures to those that are elemental for that object. The end he seeks is to unite the disparate elements of a piece of jewelry into a contained design reflecting purity of form.

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“Pure means” was the phrase coined by Mondrian to define the most effective way of attaining equilibrium in a picture plane. Mondrian the theorist of the DeStijl movement was also its most ardent practitioner. His paintings are energetic geometries composed of rectangular sections of grids of black line and primary colors.

As a teenager Rawdin painted non-objective forms and color bars on raw muslin. But it wasn’t until his middle twenties, when he walked into a Hogan on the Navajo reservation where he had been hired to teach silversmithing to Navajo high school students, that he encountered the language by which he could realize ambitious aesthetic goals. (At that time he possessed no prior education as a jeweler, only books and a natural skill for metalwork.)

Before arriving in Chinle in 1976, Rawdin recalls, he was contemptuous of metalwork and jewelry crafts, viewing them as part of an elitist tradition that fed American consumer trends. But once there, his experiences altered his prejudice. Impressed by the sight of Navajo elders wearing their jewelry during ceremonies, he developed an understanding of how the forms of jewelry related to the land. The forms in jewelry which imitated landscape forms, and human bodies wearing these volumes, were seminal in his development.

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Pendant, sterling, mabé pearl, coral inlay, petrified palm

An iconic and experiential quality is found in the high arches and exalted geometries of surface of Rawdin’s bracelets and rings. The constructed areas consist of jutting gemstones (sometimes married with wood and plastic) or abstract metal forms that he sculpts in an intuitive re-imagining of geography. The surface can be read as a kind of visual map experienced from above, almost like an aerial survey.

For the wearer a movement of wrist and hand animates the sculpted whole. She completes the piece, just as a viewer experiencing a painting kinesthetically acts to finish it, paralleling the way that the southwestern landscape mutates and reveals itself through time and experience.

According to Rawdin the popularity of silver jewelry across the United States was an inestimable benefit to the Navajos. Arts programs on reservations were heavily funded. By 1976, the year Rawdin began teaching, the high school at which he was employed had six art teachers, and a Hogan had been constructed for silversmithing. Navajo silversmith Gene Jackson was a full time artist-in-residence.

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Largely self-taught, Rawdin nevertheless benefited from the proliferating innovations of “New Indian Jewelry.” The phrase, coined by Preston Monongye in a 1972 issue of Arizona Highways, referenced works which combined traditional techniques with a highly individualist and diverse vocabulary. Silversmith such as Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson (still making jewelry in New Mexico), Monongye, Kenneth Begay, and Charles Loloma were trendsetters in this arena.

Loloma, a Hopi who had studied at Alfred University and worked for years as a ceramist and teaching pottery at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, was among the first to apply an elaborate mixed materials inlay to traditional forms of Hopi silversmithing. Using components such as wood and ivory and abutting them into spacious tracts, Loloma constructed a tactile and dynamic plane on both the inside and the outside of his pieces. The public face and the private interior of the jewelry were in constant interplay.

Spaciousness inside a confined surface became in jewelry, as it had in modernist painting, an important visual and physical fact. One can trace a relationship between small size and expanded scale in some of the best work made in the west by this century’s modernist painters. Look, for example, to the lovely Palo Duro canyon watercolors made by Georgia O’Keeffe in the 1910s, and small works from this period by Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.

Bracelet, sterling, onyx ring, jade

In jewelry, Navajo craftsmen Victor Beck and Kenneth Begay were especially successful at achieving modern space in design. The concept of forms animated by mobility, yet demonstrating allegiance to traditional methods of construction, marked a turning point in Rawdin’s evolution. He now believes that both Loloma and he extended learned techniques in a similar fashion: “blowing out the shapes;” applying to the forms a probing exploration of surface to incorporate negative space; protrusions; and broad yet compact spans of inlay upon the jewelry.

From Gene Jackson, who had studied with Kenneth Begay, Rawdin learned the dome or shadow box form, which he still uses for making hollowed spaces in the bracelets. The procedure is to hollow out the top of the form, solder it to a flat bottom plate and create, using the negative space thus achieved, new volumes in the jewelry, whether embodied in a color field or in relief forms of sculpted metal or inlay.

This sense of inner and outer space co-existing approximates a physical layering in paint, whereby forms emerge out of what Rawdin calls “mysterious dark places.”

The “mysterious dark places” of Rawdin’s work coalesced, physically, with his encounters with the canyons of the Four Corners area and explorations of Anasazi ruins. In the jewelry these sites can be viewed as self-referential, illuminating through matter a quest similar to the efforts of the T’ang scholars to marry the sensory apprehension of culture and nature.

Bracelet, c. 1988, sterling, turquoise, coral inlay

Rawdin’s preferred bracelet form keeps to a particular high curvature. Their heft and delicacy is balanced in a proportional symmetry. “I particularly like the bracelet because I can explore the form to its fullest extent: the sculpture, the color and the poetry,” he says.

So far all the bracelets have been fabricated out of sheet. He has rarely cast any forms, although he is beginning to incorporate cast shapes into the jewelry. The finishes he has applied have alternated between three types: a high shine, a matte finish, and a tumbled finish. More recently, he has begun masking certain areas of a piece to combine finishes to achieve a more elaborate surface treatment.

Rawdin describes his design process as sculptural and intuitive. He does not draw a design on paper, rather he “evolves” it as he goes, relying on instinct for the gestures of subtraction and addition (principally, addition) that produce the final design.

Rawdin arranges the stones both by color and to define transitions between colors in the stones and the piece as a whole. He also pays attention to the energy fields of each stone, citing as favorites: apple green chrysoprase and the semi-precious hard stones of coral, jade, lapis, and turquoise.

Recently, borrowing from postmodern art practice, Rawdin has started appropriating materials from the modernist decades: in particular old Bakelite jewelry, de-constructing and re-configuring art deco pieces that he has found.

Sterling, 14k, coral, sugalite, pink chalcedonys

The poetry marks an aesthetic end for every piece. The “final note in the symphony” of creating a finished design is the writing of a poem that expresses the temporal aspects of the piece. The poem stamped on the inside of the bracelet is often not noticed by the wearer until she gets it home, a fact that allows Rawdin to imagine a personal connection between the site of conception and the personal site of the wearer.

Poetry, for Rawdin, “reduces the thought (of the jewelry) to a pure form.” As he considers the topography of the bracelets as they coexist with the topography of the Four Corners area, he recalls the precepts of Taoist and Zen thought, internal referents which “purity my forms.”

“I write the poems in a sketchbook where I sketch the bracelet, and when it’s time to do the poem, I often write the poem then, if I can, with inspiration. Or if I have written poems at other times then I’ll look through my notebook and try to connect the intuitiveness of my handwork with the intuition of the poetic thought.”

The “energy” that Rawdin cites as a gestational force behind the jewelry exists not only in the manipulation of material but in the practice of making a vision realizable in language. “When you read an ancient Chinese poem, it’s immediate and real. The energy you receive is another birth, never mind that it’s a thousand years later. I see that as being part of my bracelet, that the thought can keep going and living, and the bracelet is a house for it, a time capsule.”

Shadowbox Bracelets, 1997, sterling, corals, chalcedonys, lapis, opal, onyx, turquoise; Shadowbox Ring, 1997, sterling, 18k, 14k, chrysoprase, facet peridot

The silver (or gold) impressed by the stamp bespeaks an eloquent statement about duration in time. There is the time it takes to read the poem; the time it took to compose the bracelet; and the time, in perpetuity, of the physical world from which all form emerges.

In Rawdin’s jewelry, the complex gesture and the complex thought meet the day in the body of the wearer:

in stillness
I hear the world….

Smaller than a tiny stone
the universe delivers itself…

The deep situation
of unsung beauty
and the Sonoran dusk…

This statement of perception aims for unity, for the understanding of the wearer to whom it is communicated. The expression in jewelry aims for a unity of material, of form, of color. The qualities of a process that borrows so liberally from diverse cultural traditions is a strength of Rawdin’s jewelry. For the wearer it provides a relationship that is personal and closely designed: a distillation of one man’s relationship to the earth and to the centuries of thought that has preceded him.

Ellen Berkovitch is an art critic, freelance writer, and poet who resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.