When we think about ethics and sustainability in relation to jewelry making and metalsmithing, our first thoughts are often about the material choices we make in the studio.
This can lead us in several directions: to the source of the material, along the chain of human hands that made the material accessible to us, through the lives and minds of people when it leaves our studio, and where the material goes back into the Earth if or when it is disposed of.
In this way, we constantly remind ourselves that the material choices we make have ecological, political, social, and personal consequences. For some, thinking deeply about these choices is integral to the way they exist in the world and it reaches out from the studio into other facets of their life. Australian artist Bridget Kennedy is one of these people. Kennedy puts her energy into community-building work centered around sustainable ideology that looks to an abundant future world. In this post, we will look at several of her creative projects and hopefully be even more motivated to embrace sustainability in our own lives.
My first in-person encounter with Kennedy’s work was at a Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia conference, aptly titled Participation and Exchange, in 2013. Kennedy presented an interactive installation in the Queensland College of Art, White Box Gallery, titled, ‘Just Help Yourself Why Don’tcha.’ The installation consisted of 10,000 cast beeswax rings, arranged on the floor to form a large, circular disk. Before casting, Kennedy had mixed trace amounts of lead, zinc, silver, coal and tin into the beeswax in such a way that there was a variety of color in the assortment of rings. They were arranged in a concentric gradient so that the purest beeswax rings sat at the perimeter of the circle and the most contaminated were in the center. Almost hidden in the dark grey center of the installation, and just out of reach of onlookers standing at its edge, was a single 18kt gold ring.
An honesty box next to the installation indicated that, for a nominal fee, viewers could take any one ring of their choosing. The invitation to participate at a low cost made viewers immediately aware of the fact that one person would be able to walk away much richer than when they arrived. However, the large footprint of the installation delayed immediate gratification.
Many early participants seemed content to exchange their dollars for a wax ring within reach, of a size and hue that fit their preferences. These people took their ring and stood aside to consider when or if they would wear it. The beautifully cast wax was smooth and uniquely colored, but wearing it would soon destroy it, as the wax would rub against flesh and graze other surfaces. And what of any silver-colored dust trapped inside? Would it be worth sacrificing the ring to reclaim any unknown amount of precious material trapped inside? Could one even be sure of the difference between traces of lead, tin and silver and which materials were contained in which wax ring? There was no easy or obvious answer.
There were soon more ambitious participants who immediately set their eyes on claiming the gold ring at the center. Perched on their knees at the very edge of the installation, people stretched out over the field of wax rings, reaching for the precious gold one just beyond their grasp. Watching others give up and settle for a nice wax ring, some people employed makeshift tools to help them succeed – a pen, a plastic knife, even a broken branch quickly found outside the building.
Eventually the gold prize was won, viewers cheered for the lucky recipient and everyone was quietly surprised by the speed at which the gold was attained. To those who bore witness, it gave the installation the appearance of being depleted. People who arrived later wouldn’t even see what they missed out on and would make their ring selection from an increasingly sparser field of beige and gray waxes that would be appreciated without the comparison to their gold counterpart.
‘Just help yourself why don’tcha,’ offers viewers and participants an engaging and rewarding, yet provocative jewelry experience that serves as a microcosm for the much larger endeavors of mining and material sourcing we build our world from. When performed, the installation examines the problem of extracting a limited resource from its source, reflects our hierarchical ordering of material based on monetary value and questions what we do with a material that is less ‘precious.’ Through this work, the artist is able to initiate critical thinking in and between viewers about material responsibility.
This same critical thinking underpins Bridget Kennedy’s work and creativity at large. On her website, she lists herself as a jeweller, an artist, a gallerist, a gardener and the head of a studio. From 2008-2016 Kennedy co-directed the jewelry gallery and retail space, Studio 20/17 in Sydney, Australia. From this studio, she supported numerous established and emerging makers through exhibitions, retail sales, workshops and bench rental. Since then, she has been the director of a new space in Sydney, Bridget Kennedy Project Space, which offers makers much of the same support. From this space she is able to engage customers, visitors and peers in dialogue about her work and the responsible thought process behind it.
“The Repair Café Sydney North (RCSN) is another shining example of Bridget’s ethically-minded influence.”
Kennedy is a founding member of RCSN and she volunteers there to help people with jewelry repairs. The idea behind a “repair café” is that waste can be reduced by teaching people how to repair broken objects destined for landfill. The cafes connect volunteers with repair know-how to owners of broken goods in a social space. In these friendly, social settings, goods are fixed, waste is reduced, knowledge is exchanged and community is built.
Kennedy also runs popup jewelry repair cafes out of Bridget Kennedy Project Space. I see this as a really effective way for a jeweller to volunteer their skill-set in a way that encourages sustainable living and where the exchange is still mutually beneficial. Friendships are built, knowledge is shared and the world becomes increasingly more sustainable.
Kennedy is also an avid gardener; in response to her award-winning edible garden, Kennedy co-founded the Sydney Edible Garden Trail with the support of her local permaculture group. Not only does the Trail connect sustainable gardeners to each other, but it creates opportunities for curious, new and established gardeners to share and learn from one another by visiting neighbors in their gardens. The aim of the group is to encourage the growing of edible produce in street gardens, home gardens, and public spaces.
Lastly, Kennedy practices sustainable permaculture in the Philippines, where she and her partner (who is from the Philippines) run a low environmental impact bed and breakfast that they are turning into a model for low environmental impact housing in the area.
It may seem, in discussing Bridget Kennedy’s expanded professional life, that we have lost focus on jewelry or metals. However, I would suggest that what makes Kennedy’s jewelry work so compelling is the thinking and creativity that compels her to seek out multiple ways of expressing and sharing them. In this way, each facet of her work is connected by:
- A commitment to responsible decision making.
- Sharing resources and knowledge with others to encourage dialogue and create change.
- Creating experiences that connect people and build community.
“Even from a distance I am encouraged by Bridget Kennedy to think deeply about the choices I make, how they influence me creatively and how I can offer that to my neighbors and peers.” — Andy