THE BEAUTY OF THE UNEXPECTED

interview by NANCY GORDON
photography courtesy PATRICIA DAUNIS JEWELRY

. . .

 

“I like to take things that people discount as not precious and turn them
into something precious.” —PATRICIA DAUNIS, jewelry artist

Jewelry artist Patricia Daunis Dunning.
Ecir sterling earrings.
1970s neckpiece.
Sticks and Stones with Maine beach stones,
white and cognac diamonds and 18k gold.
Bent Comet Toothpicks.
Duct Tape neckpiece.
33 1/3rd Neckpiece cut from a 33 1/3rd album.
Copper and sterling cuff from
the "Married Metals" series.
JA Jewel Award earrings.
Water cuffs.
Woven bracelets.
Woven bracelet and rings using
the client's family birthstones.

You grew up in Auburn, Maine, where they didn’t offer art classes after the sixth grade. Where did you turn instead?

My parents really encouraged me. They sent me to a local artist who had me oil paint from postcards, which I felt was not appropriate. I felt I should be painting from life, so I painted a scene of the brick-walled building outside his window, which was mainly a window frame and sill with a brick wall. Later, I attended art classes at a local convent in Lewiston, where a nun ran the art class. Again, it was a lot of painting from photographs. In middle school (junior high) I entered a lot of local competitions and seemed lucky enough to win. Many were Halloween paintings on store windows. I’d always fill the entire window with my painting. My mom was a real cheerleader, holding the paint on the bitter cold October Saturday. Quite honestly, I don’t know how I learned to do that, but I was competitive and usually placed. Another was a Father’s Day “draw your dad” contest. What was encouraging to me, besides winning the prize, was that so many people recognized my dad. (He was a football coach at another junior high in Auburn.) So I felt my work was “good.”

In grammar school I had discovered I could make great posters to accompany my science, history and other school reports. Because I loved doing them and was pretty good at it, I would always get a good grade … even if the written content was not as great.

At age 10, I announced to my mother that I was going to go to the Rhode Island School of Design and become a fashion designer. (How had I heard of RISD? No idea. Maybe overhearing women in my outside art classes; oh, did I mention that most of my classmates in these outside classes were “older women” … probably 30 … ha!)

In high school, what did you take in lieu of art classes? Seems not offering art classes gave you a valuable education in being resourceful and not doing things the way you were supposed to. Comments?

With no art classes available at that time, I took the above extracurricular classes and a class called mechanical drawing that was offered to students enrolled in “shop.” Most of the students (guys) would rather be in the auto shop or woodworking shop, so the teacher was delighted to have me because I took a real interest in it. It was a new way of looking at things through isometric and perspective drawing.

In high school, I had the opportunity to represent Peck’s, a local “department” store, as a correspondent to Teen magazine, reporting on fashion trends I observed in Maine. There were girls like me from all over the U.S. doing this. On a trip to NYC, I visited the magazine and knew that NYC was for me. I worked for another store called Ward Bros. It was the women’s store in that area. The owners, Larry Ward and David Merson, were very supportive and paid me to do fashion posters to decorate their store. After RISD graduation, I did fashion advertising for the local paper for them—back in the day when ads were hand drawn!

How did you begin at RISD?

Freshman year was a series of many disciplines. It gave me time to walk around and explore what the different majors were about. After looking into it in real life, on campus, I just had little feeling about it. I could tell it wasn’t a fit, but I wasn’t sure why at the time.

After a brief look at a major in textile design, you happened upon three graduate students working in a studio … a big turning point. Tell us about this experience.

After one semester, I realized that textile design did not fit, even though it guaranteed a job in NYC. I had finished up my projects for the semester in textile design and had three weeks left until Christmas break with nothing left to do.

We had just finished silk-screening our designs on fabric in a basement studio at RISD. I kept noticing a small studio across the hall. There were three seemingly older (graduate) students working in it. One was casting with fire, molten metal and a spinning centrifugal aperture that would force the molten metal into the flask. Another was hammering on enormous sheets of copper and making the metal move into sinewy sculptural forms, and the other was carving white plastic into beautiful forms for handles for the exquisite knives he had forged … WHOA!

This was unlike anything I had ever seen! I asked if I could try working on a piece of metal. They gave me a small sheet of brass, told me to draw a design on it and handed me a saw, a couple of saw blades—the thickness of a strand of hair—and set me out into the electives studio, a large room of benches all facing towards the front. Another woman and I were the only ones there. So every day I went into the studio. I broke so many saw blades and kept walking back and forth to get a new one, until one of the grad students said “Take a handful, you’ll break a lot until you get the hang of it.”

I decided that was where I wanted to be. The problem was, there was no major in it. I would have to become an industrial design major and I didn’t want to do that. So after a bit of getting up my courage, I went to the head of the department, Mark Harrison, who was a notoriously by-the-book, not-at-all-flexible person (at least that is what I had heard). I pleaded my case. “I don’t care if I never get a piece of paper from this school, I just want to learn something and I know I can in John Prip’s light metals shop.” Much to my and everyone else’s amazement, he agreed to it. I had no idea how I would “make a living” with this, but I always knew where my waitress shoes were … on some things, you just have to follow your instincts and heart.

So, with no formal major—no curriculum to follow—how did you proceed to make this work for you?

Because there was no major at the time (we’re now into the second semester) and there was no curriculum for me to follow, Prip was not scheduled to have me. But there I was.

So I asked the grad students what I should make. One of them explained that a perfectly flat tray, a perfectly working hinge and a square (not trapezoid) box were the most difficult things to make. (This may have come from the apprenticeships of days past. Prip’s father was a well-respected silversmith in Denmark, so the grad student might have known of this through him.)

I probably should have taken on a more moderate piece at that point of my skill level, but I choose to make the square box. Why not take on something difficult? I couldn’t just do a box, so I added a recessed area that was gold plated (so I learned plating) in the lid, which held a cast spider (so I learned casting) and created a secondary gold-plated lid to cover the spider. I gave it to my mom.

“I’m never going to make jewelry” was how you felt in those days. So when did you start making jewelry?

After that first semester, the next semester had several undergraduate students and now there was a curriculum. They gave us “jewelry assignments” and I would figure out any way I could to meet the specifications of the assignment without “making jewelry.” One was a necklace with cornucopia-shaped shell forms with feathery fishing lures that I purchased at LL Bean, removed the hooks and incorporated into the design. Yes, it was jewelry, but I was stretching the view.

After I got out of RISD I found people were not lining up to order chalices, teapots and other hollowware, my love. But they did want me to create jewelry. My first commission was from David Merson, my former employer at Ward Bros. He asked me to make an anniversary brooch for his wife … hmmm, people would pay me to make jewelry. It was shortly after that that I realized I could make jewelry unlike any I had ever seen. I could take the language/skills I learned from making hollowware and turn that into jewelry. Being from Maine, although I made unusual forms for jewelry, wearability was always on my mind. I wasn’t going to make over-the-top “sculptural,” unwearable pieces.

After graduating from RISD, what did you do?

Before going to RISD I had never heard of graduate school. (Nor had I ever seen or tasted a bagel, but that’s another story.) In senior year, lots of students were beginning to talk about this. I asked Jack [Prip] about a couple of schools, and he dissuaded me from them, saying he knew me and the personality of one director of a metals program and said it would not work out. Then he said, “Why not go out on your own, and consider graduate school only if you cannot find the answers you need. Jack had never been to graduate school and yet was an internationally renowned metalsmith. So if it worked for him … that’s what I did.

I had moved back to Maine because of the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s; many of my friends were moving to Maine. I had a studio in the places I rented with other folks (sometimes the living room, sometimes the basement in the winter or attic in the summer). I worked as a waitress part-time; taught metalsmithing at craft studios, which were quite popular around Maine at the time; and worked in a hippie shop in Kennebunkport making hammered-wire jewelry. I realized I could make a healthy living making hammered-wire jewelry on my own, but also realized that would be the reputation of my work and I didn’t want that to be the case.

I submitted my work to exhibitions and three pieces were accepted in the NYC American Craft Museum’s Bicentennial show along with work by my professor John Prip and many other luminaries of that period. That and another acceptance in a show at the same museum titled “Young Americans” started to put me on the map nationally. (Note: None of these were for jewelry.)

I also was a “monitor” at Haystack [Mountain School of Crafts] for several years and later taught classes there. I liked teaching. And I wanted to teach on the university level and get the job based on my work as an artist (and not a piece of paper that said I was an artist). I had some friends who at that time were teaching at the University of Southern Maine (USM). And they explained to me that, because USM was a public school, having a master’s degree was required.

You applied to teach metalsmithing at Boston University without the usually required master’s degree. What was their take on your deviation from the norm?

The fact that I was recommend for the position by Fran Merritt, the internationally well-respected director of Haystack, was an enormous plus for me, as well as the museum shows and gallery exhibitions I was amassing and the fact that I was a working metalsmith. Because BU is a private institution, they were able to be more flexible in their hiring.

You met your husband, Bill, a RISD graduate in metal and stone sculpture, on a blind date. What did you instantly like about him?

That he was creative in many ways and a really nice person, very smart and an outside-of-the-box thinker. He was an amazing painter and musician, as well as sculptor. He always said it was his dog, Barney the Puli.

Your jewelry to this point was all about the forms. No stones?

I just couldn’t see how the pure, clean forms would accommodate stones without them looking applied. Also, I think the reason I couldn’t get into weaving is, although I love the textures, adding color was just too much for my brain to deal with. When Bill, with his love of color and painting, started playing with stones he taught me how to look at color. We worked together to integrate the stones into the pieces so they belonged and made a complete statement.

You took a year off from teaching to work on your jewelry and hollowware and to exhibit at craft shows. You then went back to teaching for a year and left in 1981 when gold was at its all-time highest price of $350/ounce and silver was $40/ounce.

You turned the gold and silver prices to your advantage. Describe your “Married Metals” series.

Because gold and sterling were so very expensive at the time—although silver has never, ever been that high again—and having to make saleable pieces, I took copper, brass and other metals and did an inlaying process I called Married Metals using gold and silver as accents in the surface of the base metals. I would create a fabric (did I just say that?) of patterned Married Metals, which we would cut into shapes and use to make jewelry. Sometimes the metals would be oxidized to give more definition to the pattern and sometimes not.

You found a studio in Portland and began attending international jewelry shows in New York. At this time, there were mostly men in the field of jewelry design and you felt discounted as a woman. So you changed directions and started applying to competitions …

I moved into the Congress Building on the corner of High Street and Congress Street A funky mixed-use building with dental offices, counselors, doctors’ offices, trade show businesses, a security system business and assorted artists. It is located across from the Portland Museum of Art and was across the street from Portland’s infamous downtown Dunkin Donuts. It was a very sketchy neighborhood.

After attending our first major international trade show in NYC and wondering why buyers (mostly male) coming to my booth kept asking when the “owner” would be back, I realized that because I was one of a handful of women at the show no one figured it could be my business. I got the message immediately that I had to do something to get credibility in this industry—museum and gallery exhibits, wouldn’t cut it with these folks. So I began entering industry competitions and winning.

Tell us about the gold earrings and the Pierre Hotel in New York. Creatively, what did you like about designing earrings as opposed to bracelets, for example?

Winner of the International Gold Grand Prize.

I liked doing earrings a lot in the beginning because it was the one place on the body that a jewelry piece could be very sculpturally three-dimensional. A pendant/necklace has to lie just right and generally has a front and back and hangs appropriately. A bracelet must fit the wrist, not bind when the arm is turned, and like a ring it has a front that flows to the sides and around the arm or finger.

Earrings allow for a lot of movement, something my jewelry always has. People remark that my jewelry moves. It doesn’t physically move, but in the way light on an ocean wave takes your eye around and over the surface of the form. I like to do that with jewelry.

I have a great wealth of techniques at my disposal, but what I find most interesting is to create something dramatic with some rudimentary techniques. Because it’s not the technique that the form is about, but what it looks like when all is said and done. So I was playing with very, very thin metal sheets and realizing that if I used a ballpoint pen and a ruler, I could scribe lines into the metal. If I scribed enough of them, either parallel or at angles, the metal would curl into a lovely form. So to make these earrings I did just that. What I love about this process is that a 10-year-old could do this. It was that simple. That purity of technique made me happy.

And because the gold was very thin I could make the earrings quite large, yet wearable. I added caps to the top for function and the earrings draped gracefully off the ear.

The other thing I always did when I entered a competition was to make sure I could take the piece I entered and scale it down to a more moderate size or two. The larger, showy pieces will catch the judges’ attention, but for a trunk show at a store their clientele would probably find the medium or smaller sizes more wearable. I wanted many people to be able to say they were wearing award-winning pieces.

Still no stones in your pieces. Do you like color?

That didn’t happen until Bill, my husband, and I started working together. After being in business for about five years, I realized I needed a manager … I just did not have those skills. Bill was working in the wine business as a sales manager helping restaurants pair wine with their menu. We talked a lot about it and decided to take the plunge. It was scary, but the right move. He made a rule that we could never speak about the business at home and whoever brought it up would have to pay the other one a dollar. Although we never exchanged money we kept tabs and eventually it never came up at home.

I like color, but Bill loved color. He painted rooms in our house combinations that I never thought would work and voilà!, they were magical. And he did the same thing with stones.

He started randomly selecting rings from our showcase and putting stones in them. They became magical and people noticed them. Often, they were so subtle, but people with a good eye could spot it. Like his management skills that I began to learn, I also began to learn color from him. Over the years of doing shows in stores and working with the stores’ sales associates—some of whom were gemologists who got into the business because their love of stones—I became more and more caught up in the beauty they can possess.

Your stone and diamond jewelry … What an unexpected and interesting combination. Tell us about them.

Diamonds Today Award.

Stones—usually from Maine, but occasionally Japanese river rocks. During my time of entering many design competitions, DeBeers was having a competition called Nature. I was intrigued and had been going on “business trips” with my 5-year-old son hiking and picking up interesting stones. I liked their shape, texture and colors.

I wondered what would happen if I set diamonds into these. I had never applied to this competition by DeBeers before because I felt all the entries were “princess” jewelry. But I could make a cool neckpiece that a real person could wear every day with found stones, Japanese river rocks and diamonds. I had to submit a rendering of my proposal. I was clueless on how I would make it. I won the selection and now had to make it! Using diamond-cutting saws and tools, I shaped some of the rocks, cut into the river rocks to give them an airy feel and drilled into the stones to set the diamond’s bezel settings into the rocks. I had created gold cradles to set the rocks in and riveted the diamonds to the rocks and cradles to hold them together. Then I took leather cord and distressed it, tapered the ends and used it to connect the cradle rocks and stones set with diamonds into an asymmetrical necklace. It was a hit. I still do these today, but only on a commission basis.

You’ve worked rice and toothpicks into your jewelry? Literally?

Ecir rings.

Comet Brooch Pendant.

I like to take things that people discount as not precious and turn them into something precious. Once, someone said to me, “All your jewelry is curvy.” Well, women are curvy and I feel curves look better on women than hard-edged architectural forms.

So I decided to make some jewelry that was not curvy. I took wooden toothpicks—the kind with a square cross section that tapers down to a round cross section and point—and cast them into sterling and gold. What happened is that the wood-grain texture, not really visible in the dullness of the wooden toothpick, became quite apparent in the reflective metal. Very cool! I built some cool brooches and a wonderful 1970s neckpiece using straight and snapped-at-angles toothpicks. Later I took the metal toothpicks and bent them into curvy rings and earrings … ha, ha!

You were doing trunk shows, your jewelry lines had been picked up by H.Stern, Lord + Taylor, Fortunoff, Nordstrom … Seems very exciting! Were you enjoying this?

Yes, I learned so much and so enjoyed meeting the end user of my “product”—up to this time we were selling only to fine stores, fine jewelry stores and fine craft galleries. I would meet their buyers at trade shows and seldom meet their clients. So it was great to get direct feedback from the clients about what they liked and didn’t like, rather than a filtered response from a buyer. It was enormously helpful. I also learned how they successfully and not so successfully displayed and marketed pieces, and how they worked with their customers … which would ultimately prepare me for opening our own store and…

...and in 2008, the economy crashed. How did you turn this to your advantage?

In 2008, when the recession hit, stores stopped stocking inventory. Up until 2007, we only sold to stores and they “stocked” our inventory. When the recession hit we had already started to build a base of direct sales to clients. So when the stores stopped buying, we encouraged more growth in our custom designs.

Why had you been reluctant to do custom work?

I had not wanted to do custom work in the past because although I could render a design really well, it was still iffy. A few years before I had come across a jewelry-designing program that I could photograph my basic pieces and enter them into the library. From there I could “set” stones in various settings into my pieces that were so realistic (especially for that time) that when I called Nordstrom and asked if the manager had received the design I had created for their client using her stones, the sales associate said “Oh, Patricia, she is really quite angry with you.” I asked why and she replied, “You were not supposed to make the bracelet; you were just to send a design.” I explained that was exactly what I had done, on the computer, and had not actually “made” the bracelet.

That sold me on the program and removed an enormous amount of anxiety about whether or not the client would find the final piece like what they had imagined. Now, I use that in conjunction with a more hands-on “setting” of the stones on an actual piece, so the client can see it in “the round” and sometimes even try it on.

People were coming to us because what we did was different, aesthetically pleasing, wearable and timeless. Because it was a recession we were able to repurpose stones they already had into new pieces. We would credit them the gold or platinum from the pieces we took the stones out of, so nothing was wasted and they got wonderful new pieces of jewelry. Most of these pieces had some sort of captivating story attached to them as well. Every piece has its own collection of stone shapes, colors and sizes, so it is like making exquisite found-object art.

How have your Maine roots influenced the type of jewelry you design?

No matter what I created, I always felt that it had to be something a real person could wear and live in. I wasn’t into making what I call “princess” jewelry or “occasion” jewelry … for a person to keep locked in a vault except when it was time to wear it. That just didn’t make sense to me. Let’s make it into something you can wear and enjoy all the time! My clients are not fashion victims; they are savvy about fashion, but confident in their own personal style to choose what they like to wear. I guide people in what forms and colors work best for them; they make their own choices.

Over the years I have written many articles for the jewelry industry magazines on what earrings go with what face shapes, what necklace length is most flattering on a body type, etc. My clients have always been self-purchasing women—even before it was the way things worked, when most jewelry sales were to men buying jewelry as a gift. It took a little while for women to do that. I create jewelry that is timeless, and understatedly, glamorously classic. That’s how my Maine roots came to play with the practicality of what I do from a real-world point of view.

Popham Beach bracelets and ring.

From a visual point of view, the ocean is my inspiration. Popham Beach is my go-to place for inspiration and solace. How the water carves the sand into sculptural forms that change every time I walk the beach, how the light plays on the water’s surface and when it is also transparent with textured sand below the waves, and the swirls and eddies. I love Newfoundland’s icebergs as well. Haven’t done anything with them … yet.

. . .

daunis.com

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