The Seductive Beauty of Heartbreak and Desire
“I’m a romantic,” a hardcore romantic, and she peppers her speech with words like tender, succulent, intuition, and fairytale.
Lola Brooks is a little intimidating. She is tall and thin, with features that are angular, but delicate. Dark curls frame her pale skin and her eyes are hidden behind oversized rhinestone glasses (one of about a hundred vintage pairs she stores in a mock python-skin-covered suitcase). One arm is covered with tattoos of thorny roses, diamonds, bows, and a heart with a dagger. Her attire is remarkably precise. A natural introvert, she masterfully puts up a cool exterior, honed by two decades spent in New York City. Now she has retreated to the Georgia countryside and “the crust is flaking off.” Reluctantly she admits, “I’m a romantic,” a hardcore romantic, and she peppers her speech with words like tender, succulent, intuition, and fairytale. She is also a self-described “connoisseur of the road,” a gifted wordsmith, and capable of collecting anything—postcards, pantsuits, canned meat, leopard fur jewelry, wallet sets, drawers, needlework copies of the Mona Lisa. For a long time she saw her life and art as frequently overlapping, but in recent years she has decided, “they have become the same thing.”
Brooks’s jewelry is luxurious excess. The scale is often large, though always unquestionably wearable. Brooches, necklaces, rings, and bracelets feature multitudes of glittering stones, hordes of antique ivory roses or tarnished steel bows, and mounds of faceted steel balls. She mixes high and low, setting diamonds next to quartz, and upends expected uses of materials, soldering steel with gold. She is devoted to the traditions of metalsmithing and relishes the technical challenges that each new object presents. She works primarily in distinct bodies of work, presenting exhibitions about every two years through Sienna Gallery in Lenox, Massachusetts: “plunder” 2002, “new works” 2004, “caricature” 2006, “confection” 2008, “sentimental foolery” 2009, and “charted territories” 2012. Sienna Gallery selected Brooks to receive its first Emerging Artist Award in 2002—a few years after she completed her BFA at State University of New York at New Paltz, where she studied with Jamie Bennett and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray—and has remained the sole representative of her art jewelry.
Of her relationship with automobile adventures, Brooks reveals, “The road trip has always been about me trying to dig deeper into my roots. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and I didn’t really fit in there.” She loves getting in a car (first a 1973 Super Beetle, then her beloved 1960 Chevy Impala, now a 1965 Mercury Comet), “going the hard way,” and really observing the changing vista. She finds that for her “driving is a way of slowing things down and taking in a landscape.” By participating in this great twentieth-century American ritual, she finds a more profound connection with the world and seeks to cultivate a greater appreciation for its stories and objects.
This pursuit parallels her approach to jewelry clichés, one of the primary subjects of her work. With true sincerity, she is trying to subvert the irony and cynicism of the culture we live in by highlighting the original nuggets of richness that give forms such as hearts, bows, roses, and sparkly diamonds their universal appeal. “I’m on a constant quest for authenticity, whether it’s on a road trip or it’s digging into a puffed heart or pink fake pearls or rhinestones or diamonds.” She is fascinated by the way society creates layers of meaning around these objects, but she really loves the thing itself, the simplicity of the actual form. By combining hearts with pretty pink bows, deep red teardrop-shaped gemstones, or fragile white roses, she is suggesting narratives that reflect shared human emotions and tap into the widespread allure of these omnipresent motifs.
When asked what she loves about the iconic heart symbol, Brooks laughs and replies, “Well, first of all I love that I came to it kicking and screaming. I had this idea of a Valentine, and my first pendant [as a child] was a little puffed heart. What does it mean? I ‘heart’ New York? It’s so ubiquitous you just glaze over. You don’t take in what it actually means. But it’s a beautiful form, especially three dimensionally.” She made her first heart in a wax carving class, at first complaining, “this sucks,” but soon discovering that the assignment was a perfect exercise in symmetry and form. “I found it amazing and sexy. I had carved JLo’s ass!” She explains that this seminal experience altered her perception of the common, everyday heart, transforming it into an erotically charged form with a direct relationship “to the sexual body.”
Brooks’s heart jewelry ranges from “stealedheart,” a large three-dimensional heart made of hollow faceted steel hemispheres and a few tiny diamonds soldered together with precious drops of gold, simultaneously rigid and effervescent, to “bloodgarnetheart,” featuring rose-cut garnets framed in steel and gold and sprinkled with “dirty bows” set on tiny springs. The stones are from Brooks’s collection of antique garnets in teardrop, emerald, oval, heart, and round shapes that she acquired as a student, in what at the time was an extravagantly expensive purchase. Brooks believes in the “power of accumulation,” and by gathering large collections of materials, she feels freer to use them in startling ways. In 2008, she wrote, “with only a few things, I will asperse them sparingly like a miser, or tuck them away to keep safe, finding pleasure in knowing that they are there, that I have them,” but with a horde, she can use them in large numbers without worry. This impulse found clearest expression in her “discoball” necklace, a thirty-four millimeter orb comprised of eleven carats worth of rose-cut diamonds of varying sizes and champagne hues set in gold and stainless steel. For Brooks it represents the ultimate indulgence, allowing herself (and others) to revel in the sheer beauty of the materials and craftsmanship. Many viewers naturally assume the stones are fake, given their plenitude, making the excessive value even more of a private pleasure for Brooks.
She is fascinated by the culture of jewelry, how it elicits desire and how historically people have coveted jewels. With her work Brooks wants to “get someone’s mouth watering over a piece so that they feel like they have to have it,” adding, “even if they can’t have it, I think there’s something satisfying about wanting something in that way.” She particularly is attracted to Victorian jewelry because it was assigned so much meaning and because Victorian society was obsessed with death and longing and loss. Brooks also is obsessed with that sense of longing, “the idea that there is a small thread of hope that you can somehow have it,” as well as loss, in which she believes there is a distinct purity. She explains that the lost thing can transform into something perfect in memory even if it was terribly flawed in reality. Speaking from repeated experience she muses, “I think that heartbreak is as beautiful and sublime as falling in love.”
When asked about her attraction to bows, Brooks responds: “A bow is like a present, like something from my childhood. It represents purity or perfection, femininity.” She likes that bows and knots are such elemental ways of connecting things, and appreciates that they are common motifs in the history of jewelry and ornament. Her “dirtybows” brooch features heavily oxidized bows and diamonds in gold bezels set en tremblant on a hemispherical cage made of steel wire with gold solders. The bows are dainty, but a little menacing with their blackened surface and cage support, and the tiny springs allow the bows and diamonds to quiver nervously. Brooks often uses the en tremblant technique, inspired by visits to exhibitions of tiaras at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Greek gold jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to referencing historical jewelry, the slight trembling present in much of her work is a constant reminder that it is meant to be worn, to interact with a moving body.
A more recent work, an oversized bow necklace with a hollow teardrop pendant, “bowknot,” is made of stainless steel chains soldered with gold into a semi-rigid form. Because of their luxurious draping quality and weight, Brooks finds chains to be especially sensual as a material. Using gold for solder rather than chains makes economical sense, but this metallic role reversal allows the gold to take on surprising qualities, appearing fluid as it spreads smoothly over the steel chain forms and faceted at the points of solder. When Brooks displayed this necklace in “charted territories,” she presented it around the neck of a taxidermied fawn, drawing viewers into her seductive world of heartbreak by forcing them to kneel and “look this beautiful dead thing in the eye in order to experience the piece.”
Brooks made a similar necklace of sixty chains tied in a knot. The knot is soldered with gold to make it rigid and ground down to delineate its form. Much to Brooks’s delight, the knot resembles a heart, so she titled the four-and-one-half-pound necklace “heartknot.” Of the necklace’s wearable but considerable heft, Brooks notes, “I love the comforting weight of the lead blanket in the dentist’s chair, but this goes a little beyond that.”
Brooks repeatedly features carved ivory roses in her jewelry as well, a motif she sometimes associates with Aphrodite emerging from the sea with foam falling from her body and turning into white roses. Brooks began with a purchase of about sixty vintage roses, a splurge at the time because she did not have specific plans for them. A couple of years later she began incorporating the roses in her work, and now wishes that she had acquired even more, since vintage ivory has become harder to obtain legally. In her “rosewreath,” “about the size of a New York bagel,” she set nearly one hundred fifty flowers, many with tiny rose-cut diamonds nestled in their center petals, and dozens of carved ivory leaves and diamonds en tremblant on a wire cage. This brooch reflects both her obsessive collecting as well as her fascination with structure, and is as beautiful from the back, with its geometric steel frame and graceful Y-shaped gold leaf supports, as the front with its extravagance of carved flowers and twinkling stones.
In addition to Victorian jewelry, Brooks also has a deep affection for twentieth-century costume jewelry and its flamboyance, scale, and “re-mastication of historical styles.” She collects vintage rhinestones and other materials from costume jewelry to reuse in her own creations. Her works for “sentimental foolery,” in particular, played on costume jewelry’s mix of high-style appearance and non-precious materials. One palm-sized brooch, “bubblegumheart,” is comprised of soft pink rhinestones set in gold and steel and joined to form a three-dimensional heart, with a pink enameled bow perched on one lobe. In a large, tear-drop pendant, “jettear,” she combined vintage black rhinestones with black diamonds, while in other works she sets diamonds next to quartz, juxtapositions that blur the hierarchy of the stones’ perceived values.
Brooks describes herself as a lusty person, and considers her jewelry on the verge of becoming too intimate or too physical both for the raw emotions and desires it often represents and its amplified scale. Brooks is not shy about revealing her experiences with heartbreak, including her parents’ divorce when she was young, her own divorce after eighteen years of marriage, a “sociopathic ex-boyfriend,” and the recent loss of her mother. Brooks’s jewelry is not shy either, sitting off the body and demanding attention. She thinks of jewelry as costume, and finds power in making art that is wearable. “I love art on the wall too, but there is such incredible power in putting it on the body. You are owning it in a different way. You are committing to it in a different way. And it owns you in a different way.”
Brooks often includes bits of humor, if not downright naughtiness, in her work, especially in titles such as “garnetvomit,” that also might seem overly visceral. But Brooks can get away with naming a necklace “32fuckingballs,” because she backs up her cheek with serious craftsmanship. The “32fuckingballs” necklace was Brooks’s contribution to the exhibition Masterpiece at SOFA Chicago by Sienna Gallery in 2005 and the filigree and diamond-set balls, inspired by Berlin Ironwork Jewelry, required over three hundred hours of labor, in her estimate more than earning the title, and is an impressive and elegant study of form and engineering.
While remaining true to traditional metalsmithing processes may seem romantic in an era of new materials and rapid-prototyping, Brooks sees critical value in these skills. Brooks is an educator—she has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has led courses at Penland School of Crafts and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and is the 2012-2013 Lamar Dodd Distinguished Chair of Art at the University of Georgia—so considering the state of her field is of both personal and professional interest. She observes that art jewelry is leaning towards abstraction and a more European sensibility, but as she watches more artists breaking boundaries with materials, she becomes increasingly determined to maintain her commitment to traditional techniques and processes. She explains, “I definitely believe that a solid technical foundation is a necessity. If you can do it in metal, then you can transfer those skills into any other material.” She also is awed by virtuosity, admitting, though, “that there is an egomaniacal twist to that.”
An increasingly important element of Brooks’s work is words. She views her jewelry as poetic, and for her past few exhibitions she has submitted poetry in lieu of a traditional artist’s statement. “I’m not really interested in being dogmatic about the work. I’m more interested in the nuances of it, of giving people a little nudge in the direction of how I am thinking about it.” For “sentimental foolery” she wrote, “If I were to ask you / to close your eyes / and envision a jewel / what would your mind’s eye conjure? / Most likely a bright sparkly bit / lit from within / and a shattering of light / shards of 58 facets / something safely confined / in its warm cultural embrace / worth shrouded in illusion… And if I were to ask you / to hold my heart in your hand? / Cradled by palms / or even pinned to your sleeve / while it pumped out my life / dressed in grape jelly garnets / while dirty steel bows / laughed and danced…”
Brooks chooses her words carefully and frequently revisits earlier writings. She is constantly reviewing, fine tuning, and reconsidering her thoughts and works, a process she describes as “accretion.” She remains determined to mine archetypal forms—hearts, bows, roses, and diamonds—drawn to them almost against her will as in Gram Parsons’s “Grievous Angel:” “Oh, but I remembered something you once told me / And I’ll be damned if it did not come true / Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down / And they all lead me straight back home to you.”
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