GUZANG MIAO FESTIVAL. Ceremonial Silver
A Study in Beauty
Rachel Carren blends a rich knowledge of artistic history with a reflective sense of aesthetics and composition in her polymer jewelry. With her vibrant, luscious colors and unique eye for patterning, her works are evocative of a more classical beauty of times past.
The first time jewelry artist Rachel Carren worked with polymer clay it was not your typical artist’s introduction. She initially experimented with the versatile material when her daughter Emily used it for a project in elementary school. Carren’s daughter is now grown and recently married, and Carren has found herself in the midst of a promising career as a polymer artist, educator and advocate. “We sat for an afternoon and played with it on the kitchen table,” Carren remembers. “Emily did her project and I thought it was really cool stuff and started to play around with it, but didn’t know a whole lot about what I was doing.”
It sat in a shoebox on and off for years until Carren pulled it back out again and enrolled in classes at The Art League in Alexandria, Virginia. She took classes from some of the top polymer masters such as Pier Voulkos, Lindly Haunani and Elise Winters. It was Winters’s class—and her discovery that acrylic paint could be layered on polymer—that really drew Carren in. “The caning was interesting but it wasn’t something that was really capturing my attention. The concept of paint and polymer was very exciting,” Carren says. “About the same time, I decided to get involved in the local guild, which was being run by Nan Roche, and she showed a way to make silkscreens using thermographic film. Light bulbs of excitement were going off because I could do silkscreening, which I had done a lot of in high school with the old film and the X-Acto knife. That was when I got really excited. I sort of count that as my real beginning when I began to find a voice.”
The techniques she learned from other polymer artists allowed for the kinds of surface treatments around which Carren bases her look and aesthetic. Like much of polymer, there is a lot going on behind the scenes to achieve the final effect of her jewelry—mainly brooches, necklaces and bracelets. A love for ornamentation drives her to work in multiple layers of color blends, stylistic patterning, layers of photo transfers, and other graphics.
The beauty of her jewelry—with its harmonious color palettes and elegant compositions—is easily apparent, but, upon further investigation, Carren’s pieces are also thoughtful, historically-informed works. Her style has been influenced by a life-long love affair: growing up Carren was drawn to the rich world of art from an early age. While other young girls may have had magazine clippings of the latest heartthrobs pinned to their bedroom walls, Carren hung reproductions of famous artworks from the National Gallery of Art on hers. An influential high school teacher helped nourish her interest in studio art. “I had a wonderful art teacher in high school who was very innovative,” she remembers. “We had a raku kiln and did life drawing classes from models off campus—they wouldn’t have allowed it on campus.” Her focus was primarily in ceramics, so much so that she considered applying to the School of Art and Design at Alfred University in New York. Instead, she was encouraged toward a slightly more traditional trajectory, enrolling at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Once at Tufts, Carren was enamored by art history—the perfect pairing for her deep-seated appreciation for art and her scholarly, contemplative personality.
“I discovered art history instantly, which I didn’t really know anything about as a formal discipline, despite having a bunch of children’s art history books that are in shreds—I still have them today—because I read them so much as a kid,” she laughs. “I started off with the formal discipline of art history and just fell in love with it and ultimately went that way academically rather than the studio art. It was enormously satisfying.” Carren finished with a doctorate in nineteenth-century art some years, and two children, later.
Today, an impressive knowledge of art history greatly influences her own polymer work, as a reference point for a sense of quality and aesthetics, but also as a more direct source of inspiration. “It’s so much a part of what I do,” Carren explains. “It’s given me a really strong background in looking and evaluating and just having an eye that I trust. The other thing is the color groups that I use are all based on painters. Not only are my color schemes inspired by a particular painter’s work, but the patterning that I end up using and basing my silkscreens on is also related to the painter.” Never intended to be an actual literal adoption or direct translation, Carren’s references are much more subtle, especially to the untrained eye.
One example is a group done after the eighteenth-century French painter Chardin, a master of still life and genre scenes. “He uses bricks in his floors and little sprigs on women’s clothes and there’s a lot of eighteenth-century look to the work,” says Carren. “A lot of times even though he didn’t specifically use a particular leaf, I’ll use it and that kind of patterning because it relates to what was going on in his period. That’s part of what my art historian background enables me to do—I have a strong feeling for what would be evocative of or appropriate for different periods.” The Chardin pieces, like the Chardin Bead Necklace or Chardin Divided Sebo Brooch, share a kind of abstracted botanical motif, in warm yellows and earthy golds, coppery and brick reds. “The reality is every painter uses every color; for me I just find it’s a great intellectual puzzle. I love taking a painter whose work I really enjoy and designing a color palette and patterns that work together. It’s the thing I like the most. Whenever I talk about it I always end up lacing my fingers together; it allows me to put the two parts of my world together.”
While it is mostly paintings and other two-dimensional works like prints—where pattern and color tend to be more prominent—that get Carren’s wheels turning, she finds inspiration in other mediums too. Textiles are another big love of hers, and many of her techniques for ornamentation have textile roots. Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, known for his detailed tapestries and wallpaper, amongst other crafts, is another artist Carren channels in her work. Jewelry too can serve as impetus for a new piece or concept, particularly in the case of one of Carren’s stand-out series: her Disk Necklaces. Numerous disk-shaped beads in varying diameters are strung together with silk threads into an almost bib-like collar. Different color schemes and graphic patterns decorate the disks, and the multicolored threads that hold them together are knotted with their ends hanging loose, creating a delightful composition and a sense of organized chaos. Its structure and fabrication gives it a fabric-like fluidity and drape.
“I saw the Helen Drutt show at the Renwick Gallery and there was a beautiful necklace by a well-known jeweler, Gerd Rothmann, which was a series of concentric disks that he put thumbprints into. I started to think about it and at the same time was thinking about trying to make something that had more of a feeling of fabric and that would drape. These Disk Necklaces were sort of a merging of those two ideas. It was seeing those disks that kind of gave me the idea—they didn’t end up being concentric at all, they’re staggered—but the pieces are completely articulated, there’s fifty yards of silk in each of them. Each of those little disks has six channels that run through them and allow them to fold.”
Other aesthetic decisions, like the shapes and forms her pieces take, come from the same calculated, thoughtful place. Carren keeps her forms understated and familiar so the eye can “absorb the sense of the form almost intuitively,” thereby allowing her opulent surfaces to take center stage. Geometry is a big influence, as are other worldly interests like celebrated works of architecture, as in her Cupola Brooch series, based on Turkey’s domed Hagia Sophia structure. Geometric concepts also appear in her Sebo series of brooches, with their seven-pointed star-like element resting at the center of a seven-petaled flower form. “Sebo is a nickname that the Greeks used for the word seven. I’ve read a lot about geometry and numerology and symbolism of numbers. It looks really floral but it was based on the idea of seven components coming together.” Whereas pieces in her Transfer Brooch series are rather flat, both the Cupola and Divided Sebo Brooch series share an added, subtle dimensionality, as though a puff of air were contained within the petal’s folded forms. “I was playing with the polymer to try to make it drape like fabric. The Sebo Brooches and the Cupola Brooches are all based on a dimensional form that is supposed to create an effect like fabric that was puffed up like a pillow.” The added dimension is accented by bursts of color and iridescence in the brooch’s center and in its recesses.
Carren generally works in series and a similar sort of careful evolution in design. Something like the Sebo Brooch may be repeated in different color schemes and surface patterns as the shape develops, the William Morris Sebo Brooch boasting a flatter and slightly different curve to its “petals” and more vibrant colors than its Chardin or Hokusai Divided Sebo counterparts. With these kinds of tweaks, every piece ends up unique. Accents like edged borders brushed with mica powders for a metallic look or decorative roping tracing the form’s curves and depressions add visual interest and bring a sense of completion and balance. In her Disk Necklaces, different colors of thread or glass seed beads add variety. These added details “change how the piece reads,” Carren says. “I always call those little accent beads the punctuation, and how you punctuate a sentence changes how you understand it. I might get two or three brooches out of a sheet of polymer but I’ll change how the color shifts. There’s infinite ways I can adjust things; I rarely make the same thing twice.” As she works through her design process, often using fabric-based techniques—making silkscreens and block prints, photo transfers, overprinting—her color blends and collage of layers add even more possibilities.
Art history also gives Carren a point of reference for sharing her work with others. Candid about her foundations, she often names her pieces after the painters who inspired them, opening up an interesting dialog. “It allows me to talk about it,” Carren says. “It’s not talking about yourself; it’s talking about something much bigger, and it’s much more comfortable for me. I can talk about art nonstop, so it was an easy way for me to make that connection.” This is not to say that the source has to be known to appreciate her jewelry. Carren’s pieces certainly stand for themselves. The historical connection is just another layer of interest.
Carren’s desire to educate and connect with audiences extends beyond the conversations she has when selling her work. Carren is also an avid proponent and author on polymer. Her art history background and tendency toward more academic writing prove to be a great fit for the Polymer Art Archive, whose mission is to educate and serve as a historical record for polymer’s development as an art medium. Carren also works with the Polymer Collection Project and recently with Lark Books to put out Masters: Polymer Clay: Major Works by Leading Artists. As curator of the book, Carren helped select the artists featured, and wrote the introduction to the volume and the biographies for each artist included. “It was enormously educational,” she says of the process. “I went into it with my art history hat on, not my maker hat. One of the things I wanted to do was to present the best of polymer, but also shake things up a little bit, not necessarily use all the expected people. Ultimately the polymer community is very tight and very cohesive, and in many ways is extremely small, so I wanted to push those limits.” Carren’s take on polymer’s history will be included in the exhibition catalog for the Racine Art Museum’s upcoming Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads exhibit.
One gets the sense that for Carren, it really is about art for art’s sake. Sales are “not what it’s about,” she says. “For me the pleasure is in the process of making and creating.” Still, shows provide important reflection and feedback for her. “The thing that I like the most about doing a show is seeing the body of work as a totality. I can see that it was made by one person. I can see that it hangs together as a body of work in a way that you don’t see when you’re making individual pieces. And, I like having the feedback from the public, I like seeing what people react to.” Carren is not the only one who enjoys seeing her work as a cohesive whole. Even though she is relatively new to the show circuit that did not stop her from coming out running. At her very first Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show last year, she won the Louise Binswanger Prize for Best New Artist—a high compliment for a first timer.
Whether supporting polymer art as a whole or creating her own jewelry, Carren’s unabashed passion for polymer, art history and self-expression shines through. Her pursuit of jewelrymaking is driven by a personal commitment to beauty, and to the fulfillment in the act of making and expressing oneself, on the individual level and a higher level of relationship to those artists who came before us. Carren’s is a refreshingly personal integration of art, history, referencing and reflection, and life—all components of her cycle of appreciation for art. Having studied and contemplated many of the best of the best when it comes to art and design, Carren understands that the quest for beauty and masterfulness is a life-long one.
Our upcoming issue 36.3 contains
Smithsonian Craft Show
Women Working Words-Facèré
Some of Our Popular Articles