Lori Talcott: As Large as Life

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignLori Talcott: As Large as Life
By Dana StandishMore from this author

… And so it came to pass that of the mostly sons and occasional daughters of the Heroes, there was one of great cleverness and determination, who goes by many names but will be known for our purposes as the Queen, who, after years of toil did slay the evil old giant of artistic indifference, so that the praise flowed forth in a sudden flood from far and wide, so that all those who had believed in her talent, as well as those who had been asleep at the wheel, were fairly drowned it…

It is difficult to keep from making a Norse myth out of the work of Lori Talcott, so full is it of intent and imagery that is nothing short of epic. Talcott works within the vocabulary of Northern European folk art, specifically the understated excess of Norwegian folk jewelry with floral and heart motifs that go back hundreds of years but somehow find new life under the fiery gaze of her relentless torch.

"If you look at a book on ethnic jewelry, it stops at the borders of Europe", says Talcott. "It's taboo to call it ethnic when it crosses the line into our own culture, but if you look below the surface of your own culture you'll find that there are many interesting traditions there; that you don't have to look to another culture for bizarre traditions."

Lori Talcott is a woman with a mission. Granted it's a strange mission, but it's a mission nonetheless; she is trying to carry on, in her work, the unbroken tradition of motifs and visual elements that make up the visual vocabulary of Northern European folk jewelry, an art form which is gradually being lost to mass production and mass indifference. "I'm fascinated by the fact that it's a living tradition, like folk songs", she says. "They are an unbroken tradition. You are given a song by a singer or a fiddler. They give you a version, but you have to play it for yourself." Talcott has done a similar thing enlivened with her own particular melody and rhythm, capturing the motion and the nuances of the tradition in a way that is hers alone. Talcott is quick to point out that even her strictly traditional Norwegian folk pieces are not reproductions. "I'm making my own choices, out of a rich vocabulary within certain specific linguistic boundaries, unlike a reproduction, where we only get to see the vocabulary of one speaker where the work becomes like a lost Native American language."

… The Queen decided that she could not stay where she was any longer. She knew she must go to where she could continue to conquer poor craftsmanship and vanquish artistic mediocrity. "Southward", thought the Queen, "is too hot and too California. Westward, there was nowhere to go without getting wet. In the East, the sun rises at an ungodly hour. Northward was darker even than Tacoma and full of moose." The Queen decided to cut her losses and build her empire close to her ancestral homeland. "Seattle Home", shouted the Queen, and to Seattle she rode…

lori talcott
TOP TO BOTTOM: Brooch, 1996, brass, silver, 2 x 4"; Rigstula, brooch, 1994, brass, silver, 2½ x 4½"; Brooch, 1996, brass, silver, 2½ x 4½"

Talcott grew up in the jewelry business. She was the fourth generation to work in the family business: Talcott's, the venerable Olympia, Washington, jewelry store. When her great-grandfather started the store Washington was not yet a state. Talcott now works at the bench where her great-grandfather made the Seal of the Great State of Washington, when word came that statehood was conferred. An early ad for Talcott's hangs on the wall of Lori Talcott's studio. Among the services offered were gold teeth, optometry, watch repair, umbrellas, and fire and marine insurance, proving that the store knew how to do almost as many things as Lori Talcott knows how to do now. During the Depression, people brought in chickens and hens to pay off their bills at the store. The importance of family reputation is something that Talcott knows about. "People kept their money in the store's vault, because, they trusted us more than they trusted the bank."

Talcott knew early on that she wanted to be a jeweler. "I loved messing around at the store. I knew I was good with my hands." She also exhibited precocious signs of the high standards that were to follow her into her mature work. "When I was six years old", she says, "my father gave me an emerald ring, which I returned to him because I could tell it had a synthetic stone and I wanted a real emerald". Talcott's father, trained as a watchmaker, encouraged her discerning eye and taught her the importance of listening to the customer, a skill upon which she draws heavily when making her commissioned works. Her father, she says. Taught her how to see.

To understand Lori Talcott, you have to understand stubbornness, or at least have an appreciation for the trait. It takes a certain mental tenacity to make the thousands of almost subatomic springs and microscopic filigree that she uses to build up her traditional pins and necklaces. When Talcott wanted to learn how to make jewelry which her father's goldsmith told her would be too difficult to make. He suggested that she learn how to make jewelry herself, so that she would better understand the process of construction. "I learned my goldsmithing techniques over the phone", she says. "I would call the store's goldsmith when I had a problem. I'd have my torch in my hand and would be near tears and he'd say to me, 'Could you hold the piece up to the phone?'" Talcott's explorations led her to the University of Washington, where she earned an undergraduate degree in metals in 1990.

… In the morning of the first night of the journey, a huge storm arose. The winds mocked and battered the Queen, and then fell into an exhausted silence. But with each dying sound of the wind a shape grew into being. One after another the new shapes were born from the sighing that had been the wind in the Queen's ears. The shapes came forth from trees, from birds, from the plant life, and the promise of the hillsides. The shapes grew on trees, free for the taking for the Queen was clever enough to see their power…

Slangeølje, traditional, 1995, silver, goldplate, garnets, 3 x 5"

Talcott is adamant that her works do not have meaning, that the symbols she uses do not, themselves, have any inherent message. Neither are her works personal or, God forbid, spiritual. For those who know in their deepest being that all objects made with true integrity have some aspect of the maker's spirit in them and thus are personal because they were made by a particular person, this is not too great a stretch, "Heart brooches have been worn by women since the Middle Ages", she says. "It's just our culture that has recently lost the thread. One thing I have learned from the folk jewelry is that it's not the jewelry object that has meaning. We bring meaning that we attach to the jewelry. The meaning of a symbol can change; we love the shape - a heart, a cross - on a subliminal level and the meaning is something we attach to it. Symbols mean different things to different people."

… Presently the Queen set to work to build for herself an artistic vocabulary on the top of the mountain that she had made from a molehill. For days and months and years she toiled in the vineyards of apprenticeship and community college teaching, and never - well, almost never - grew tired, so strong was her determination. And her reputation rose until it was as high as the crowns on one of her silver birds…

Talcott is influenced by Gothic and Romanesque art, the period where mankind was experiencing a re-awakening to the beauty of nature. She says she appreciates the "momentary reconciliation" between mankind and nature that is represented in Gothic art. The naiveté, the sweet uncertainty of the forms and images appeal to her. Her pieces may depict birds, traditionally a link between nature and mankind, frequently with human faces and wearing crowns. Sometimes engraved birds are trapped in a heart-shaped hothouse which is surrounded by flames. Buds and tendrils encircle the scene. Birds may meet in the middle of a piece, close enough to tell a secret, though they do not touch. A door opens to reveal the emptiness inside.

Some of Talcott's pieces are quite literal. Her 1994 Untitled brooch features a heavy half-timber door embedded into the front of a heart shape. Vines and tendrils encircle the door, protecting it from encroaching flames. On the back of the piece is engraved a 13th century poem in Old Icelandic. It tells the story of a woman riding with her husband and describes briefly the woman's attire, which includes the keys to the storehouses. "The keys represent the woman's responsibility to regulate food for the entire farm", explains Talcott. "The farm's reputation, and the reputation of your family was at stake. Reputation was the most important thing to these people, more important than the display of wealth. Back then you were known by what kind of woman your mother was, and her mother before her; and the things you did would affect your children and their children. It wasn't like today, where we can re-invent ourselves." On the front of the brooch, the door swings wide to reveal emptiness. The piece is decorated with barley kernels, traditionally a symbol of fertility, and on the back, a small key which unlocks the power of family reputation, the burden of family responsibility. Talcott calls this piece her minimalist piece, "because there are only 20,000 things going on".

Talcott's work life is divided between her contemporary work, which draws heavily on the motifs of Scandinavian folk art, and her traditional work, which is her attempt to carry on the diminishing traditions of Northern European folk artists. She builds all of her pieces from wire and sheet silver in the traditional way. She does not use any castings. She seems to be on a personal crusade to make filigree acceptable in polite society. "When I say the word filigree, people hear macramé", says Talcott. "It's like the heart shape, it has been ruined by commercialization, but I still love the shape. People have bad associations with filigree, but really the technique is just the vehicle for the beauty of the traditional folk jewelry." Talcott specializes in the work of Telemark, Norway, where she has apprenticed to master silversmith Hilde Nodtvedt, She is fascinated by the language of the folk art and of how within a very strict set of aesthetic traditions there is room for the individual artist to create a unique work, by choosing from the vocabulary available. She likes being a part of the anonymity of the process of ensuring the survival of this folk art tradition, "… just one of those who have helped to smooth the stone to make it perfect".

The subtle repetitive power of a folk dance is evident in Talcott's traditional work. She creates a rhythmic notion of elements coming together in the center and then radiating outward, a rhythmic eddy caught at the edge and twirled to the center again in a pattern that has been repeated for thousands of years but has never been done quite the same way before. In much of Talcott's work, what is hidden is of equal importance to that which is immediately visible. Hours of engraving of filigree will be covered up by large domed disks that hang all over the front of a piece, obscuring the detail. As in folk dance, you must look below the surface to see the true pattern, the intent of the tradition.

These works, the layer upon layer of built-up elements, are not meant to be taken in at once. "If you walk into a forest, you can't possibly take in everything", says Talcott. "My challenge is to do something layered and complex and still give the eye someplace to rest. My goal is to achieve the sublime beauty of Japanese pottery or a Bronze Age standing stone. I would like to see that perfect balance someday in my work. When I finally get it I'll probably be 80 years old and I'll have made only one piece that's right."

TOP TO BOTTOM: Malersølje, traditional, 1995, silver, goldplate, 6"; Brooch, 1995, silver, goldplate, garnets, 4½"; Bolesølje, traditional, 1996, silver, goldplate, 3½"

…Wherever the Queen trod there were signs of nature and of love. Succulent tendrils of tender leaves wrapped themselves around her work, as though to protect it. Birds, sent as messengers, nested atop her jewelry and twittered enigmatically for all who were wise enough to listen. Presently the Queen looked to the small but sold reaches of her niche in the art world. "Come to me", she beckoned, and two wise birds wearing crowns flew to her as from out of nowhere, from the far reaches of the earth. The Queen sent these birds, her messengers, out into the world, and every evening they returned to tell her what they had learned, the story of the day, the promise of the days to come.

The End

Dana Standish is a writer and revering metalsmith living in Seattle.
By Dana Standish
Metalsmith Magazine – 1996 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Dana Standish

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