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Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Margaret Dorfman

September 9, 2014

Margaret Dorfman | UncommonGoods

As the UncommonGoods Jewelry Buyer, I see amazing artistry from artists and designers using all sorts of materials. We are always delighted when we find an artist who uses uncommon materials in an unexpected way. Margaret Dorfman is one such artist. She transforms fruits and vegetables into parchments that she then uses to make gorgeous bowls, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

Margaret’s relationship with UncommonGoods has been a long one, dating all the way back to 1999. Fifteen years later, she continues to delight us and our customers with her lovely organic creations. As a huge fan of Margaret’s work myself, I was super excited to meet her and learn about her process.

Margaret’s studio is tucked away on a lovely tree lined street in Oakland, California. I knew I had arrived at the right place as I walked down the path to her studio entrance. That morning, before my arrival, she had received a delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables and the walkway was lined with boxes and bags containing all imaginable varieties of fruits and veggies. I saw pears, oranges, papayas, cabbages, and bell peppers just to name a few!

Orange Earrings

Stepping into Margaret’s space was truly like stepping into a secret garden. Shelves were lined with finished pieces and the vivid jewel toned colors of her work popped against the crisp white walls. On the center table of her work space, she had oranges piled high and had pulled finished pieces made from oranges so I could see the “before and after.”

Margaret was lovely–so warm and welcoming–and she let me pepper her with questions about herself and her technique. I love hearing about the path our artists take to doing what they do. Margaret’s path was an uncommon one; she spent many years as a professional sign language interpreter, before leaving in 2001 to concentrate on her art. In seeing her work with such dexterity as she cut into fruits and vegetables, I could see the connection between her years as an interpreter and her current work as an artist.

Holding up her pressed vegetable parchment sheets to the light was magical – the pieces are translucent, and you notice every detail of the intricate structure of the vegetables and fruits. The colors in her pieces are vivid. I was struck by how the original colors were retained, even after being pressed.

As our visit came to a close, Margaret introduced me to her frequent studio-mate, her cockatoo Bindel, a sweet boy with a spirited personality! It was a such a delightful end to a great visit. Meet Margaret and learn more about her colorful world!

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Maker Stories

Opposites Attract: Michael Stromberg’s Magnetic Art

July 9, 2014

Designer Michael Stromberg | UncommonGoodsOpposites attract as designer Michael Stromberg brings new concepts to life. “I realized that there was an entirely unexplored artistic outlet waiting to be defined,” says Michael of his eye-catching magnetic sculptures and games. “I also enjoy pondering the invisible forces that make these so unique.”

A magnet simply isn’t a magnet without forces that attract and forces that repel. Michael uses this principle in different ways, depending on his ultimate design. For games, he uses strictly repulsive powers as an added hurdle for skill. His art and sculpture, however, utilizes the power of attraction.

Michael began his journey into magnetic art after planning a tournament for a magnetic shuffleboard set he’d designed in the early 2000s. It seemed appropriate to have a magnetically-suspended trophy as the grand prize. After finding nothing on the market that fit the bill, he decided to create his own. “As soon as I began to work on the award, a fairly simple geometric design, my mind began exploring where I could go with this.”

25337_zoom1His sculptures always begin by establishing a focal point for the new piece. Once this has been decided, the frame and ancillary parts are designed as a complement. Everything eventually works together so that touching just one piece of the sculpture causes the other parts to come to life as if by magic.

Fascinated by how the magnetic attraction creates a fluid work of art, Michael says that his designs blend left-brained precision with right-brained imagination. Working with magnetics typically takes hours of re-balancing in order to ensure that the parts move the way he envisions. “Many artists use only gravity and wind to manipulate their work, both of which are predictable, natural forces. Adding magnetism causes new and fresh interactions.”

While his primary medium is wood, chosen for its unique grains and aesthetics, Michael has begun working with clay, fabric, and polymer resins—an exciting turn for his inspired takes on environmental sculpture. “As far back as I can remember, I have always enjoyed making things,” says Michael, “from acoustic and electric guitars to snowshoes, I’ve enjoyed creative endeavors my entire life.” And with his beautiful kinetic pieces, his creative evolution continues.

Michael Stromberg's Designs

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Jim Loewer

January 3, 2014

Jim Loewer Studio Tour | UncommonGoods
In stepping in and out of so many artists’ studios in the last two years, I realize that spaces can be categorized in two ways – those that provide inspiration and those that are all about the process. While some studios straddle the two, Jim Loewer’s studio, situated within a complex for various artists in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, was designed for his process. With little choices for a comfortable seat, Jim’s studio is built (and melted) around his tools, supplies, and storage of his finished product. He is a veritable one-man glass-blowing factory.

Don’t let that description lead you to believe his space was boring. Not in the slightest. Between the rock music and the pyrotechnics, I though I might have actually been at a Who concert, and the showmanship was just as exciting. He prepared the supplies for his two most popular UncommonGoods pieces – the Bullseye Suncatcher and Heart Bowl – so I could see them being completed, truly experiencing his process. He even gave me the opportunity to get in on the glass blowing experience.

Every time I step into a new studio, it is more unique than the last and my visit with Jim will definitely stand out in my mind as one of the most special.

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Maker Stories

Piece by Piece: How Jim Golden Captures Collections in Photographs

October 12, 2013

Photographer Jim Golden | UncommonGoods

Photographer Jim Golden started his career as a retoucher in New York City’s fast-paced world of advertising, but traded in taxis and skyscrapers for scenic natural landscapes and crisp Oregon air. Now he owns his own photography studio and, when he isn’t capturing the majestic landscapes of the Pacific Northwest or creating beautiful portraits with his lens, he’s creating visual records of unique collections.

The items in each of these collections come from different times and places. Each grouping is like a history book, telling the story of a product and celebrating how the design has changed over the years and varies across its kind. Each thing in every group Jim photographs fits just right into the arrangement, creating a stunning still life.

Mixed Tape Puzzle | UncommonGoods

The subjects of each of these photographs arrive at Jim’s studio in many ways. Some are complete collections belonging to friends, some are from others working in the space, and some are “cobbled together” from thrift stores, internet auctions sites, and craigslist.

Despite the time Jim spends finding the perfect assortments of interesting things and carefully organizing them into scenes, he says he’s not one to hang on to too many objects himself. “I don’t have a lot of space these days,” he tells us. “I have 3 bikes, some die cast cars, some old cameras. Nothing amazing. I collect photos of collections! A friend recently commented that I collect through my camera, referring to my work outside of the studio (cars, houses, landscapes) which I thought was an interesting observation.”

Camera Collection | Jim Golden | UncommonGoods
Jim Golden | Photography | UncommonGoods

It’s no surprise that he learned to use the camera in this way. “My father was a serious amateur photographer,” Jim says. “[He] always had a camera in the car and would shoot this and that and every so often we’d have slide shows to see what he shot.”

After assisting his dad as a kid, Jim went on to college and began his technical training, ready to go into the field at a professional level. “I thought I wanted to be a commercial photographer, but after assisting in college I thought it wasn’t for me,” he says. “I graduated and started working for a retoucher in NYC, and he taught me that trade and I retouched for a while, then transitioned to shooting for a living in the early 2000s… I left New York City to get away from the intensity of the advertising world and to live in another part of the country. I wanted to be closer to the outdoors and especially the mountains in the winter. Portland was really affordable at the time, so it was easy to make a living and snowboard and skateboard a lot.”

The artist founded his own studio in 2006 in a converted grocery store from the 1930s. He describes it as “a free-standing building with a little parking lot and a big awning out front that the produce used to be under.” When he bought it, it was filled with cubicles, so he had to gut it to create the classic white box studio with “a 2000 square foot shooting space, a cyclorama, and about 1500 square feet of offices and a conference room in the back” that it is now. “It has great storefront windows so you never feel isolated in the dark, but it’s very functional,” he says. “It’s basically my dream studio from back when I would think about what my [future] studio would look like.”

Jim Golden Studio | UncommonGoods

All of this space is necessary, because photographing a large collection takes up what Jim calls “a pretty big footprint.” The objects are placed on the floor in a 10 foot by 8 foot formation and the camera is positioned 12 feet in the air, but that’s just set up. Space is also needed to store and sort the pieces before and after the photos are taken.

“We like to have about 2-3 times more stuff than we think we’ll need, ” Jim explains. “We spread everything out on big tables and edit it down to our favorite items. We then place our favorite stuff on the floor and move them around to see what feels right, then work off those pieces, they tend to be the larger pieces, generally. We mark the edges of the frame with tape measures and fill in the image. It’s a fine line between what works and what doesn’t; I know it when I see it. I worked with a very talented stylist, Kristin Lane, on some of the images, it’s a very collaborative process when we work together. Otherwise, I usually go in with 2-3 plans of attack and arrange the items myself.”

Set up | Jim Golden | UncommonGoods

This work may sound arduous to some, but it results in truly unique, detailed, and beautiful photos like those featured in our assortment of collection puzzles here at UncommonGoods. “I think all [photography] genres have their challenges in a way. When it comes down to it, it’s all making images, and I’m passionate about it regardless of the challenges,” Jim says.

The photographer’s advice to others willing to accept the challenges that come along with trade is to “shoot shoot shoot, every day.” He continues, “Always have a camera on you. Take the time if something catches your eye. It’s a cliché, but shoot what interests you, it shows through the work if you’re inspired…. as glamorous as this industry sounds, it can be a grind sometimes. You need to ask yourself if you can go the extra mile every time– because you need to. It’s immensely rewarding, but also hard work. ‘You’re not special, work hard’ was a quote I read recently. Very true.”

Maker Stories

Inside the Designer’s Studio with Laura Lobdell

April 16, 2012

We want to give you an exclusive look inside the minds of our uncommon artists. Our second artist visit features Laura Lobdell, who makes our Sterling Silver Guitar Pick Necklace and Kiss Ring. Trained as a fine artist–she holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and studied Chinese calligraphy in Hong Kong–Laura has a beautiful, tiny shop in Greenwich Village, where she sells her exquisite and utterly original jewelry. For Laura, there is no real division between her shop and her art; it all comes from the same place in her imaginative mind. Collections of objects which seem to have drifted together out of their desire to express Laura’s poetic sensibility share shop space with pieces of her art–and of course, her jewelry.

What are your most essential tools?
My most essential tool is actually a state of mind. Being present, open to ideas and creative moments. That’s a way of being able to have more creative ideas, for me. Of course, that’s the struggle–ideally, we’re all always present and open, right? In New York, it’s a great city because if you’re open and present when you’re on the subway you can see something or experience something in these banal moments that become really good inspiration for something creative.

For example, once some friends of mine were playing in their band. And they’d lose their pick and call out, “Does anyone have a quarter or nickel?” And just kind of being present and open, I thought, “Oh, I could make them something” and that’s what led me to make the guitar pick, which is something that could be worn or played with.

As for physical tools–I have a pair of pliers that I particularly like. They’re not really very special, except for me they just work really well. The tip is really pointy so they’re great for wire wrapping and just holding things, forming things. And the grip is really nice; there’s a little bit of texture on the rubber handle. It’s funny that something so simple it makes such a big difference but it does.

And my calligraphy brushes. Having studied Chinese Calligraphy in Hong Kong, I love calligraphy brushes in general; he natural fur bristle, I just love the way they hold the pigment. And also that they come to a really fine tip, so I can shift the line weight really beautifully. I use that for my illustration.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
The color of the walls. I use in my studio as well. It’s “Skylight” by Farrow & Ball. I love it. It’s a really old formula of paint. It doesn’t have synthetic pigments in it, it’s mineral based. It’s very calming, and it changes with the light of the day, the way the sun is hitting it. The light plays across it because of the minerals in it, and it has an ambient effect. It’s a really beautiful paint and I think it fits me. It’s also a good, neutral color to see my work against.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
1) Trust your…call it guts or your intuition or whatever. The voice of your instinct can get crowded out by all these other things. But it’s usually right. And trust in that can keep you out of a lot of the other troubles.
2) Get a credit card machine! Although now, I’d say, get a Square Up.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I’m learning how to work with precious stones, because they’re beautiful, and knowing more about them opens up a lot of possibilities. Stones are a way to bring something unexpected, some color, and of course sparkle and luminosity to the work. Like for example, with a cigarette butt, setting it with orange sapphires creates an embers glow, bringing that piece to life. It’s pretty cool without it, people like it; but it’s a whole different piece when you essentially ignite it with the orange soft fires and leave it smoldering, it’s a really nice piece of jewelry.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio? And how do you recharge your creativity?
I definitely always feel better when I have made the time to do yoga or exercise. And cooking and talking to friends. Seeing art is really important to me.  But it’s definitely challenging. My shop is open 6 days a week, officially 1 to 7, but I try to get here a little bit earlier. And I’ve usually been working in a studio in the morning. Then running around the city, I go get supplies and silver and, you know, go to the engraver and go over projects and go to pick them up. So, I’m constantly recharging. The year before last, I wrote a little survival guide to myself to get through the holidays, and it really applies all the time.

Holiday Survival Guide for LL to stay clear and energized (circa 2010)
Keep Store Hours 12-7, Sun 1-6
Be discerning about events to attend
Stay in at least one night per week
Be in bed by midnight Sunday to Wednesday
Two Cocktails on weekend nights
One glass of wine other nights – unless it’s just the best party on the planet.
Drink Water

How do you set goals for yourself?
I write a lot of stuff in my little Moleskin book. It usually start with a little bit of a notebook-ey, thinking, drinking some tea kind of process. I use occasions to look at where things are in progress: at New Year, my birthday in June, and back to school…seasons and occasions are good times for me to get the notebook out and start to think about things.

When I’m planning events I do a timeline. For other things I don’t necessarily put dates because, I think you can spend too much time planning, and I think that that in that becomes, I think, a barrier to accomplishing the goal.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
One of the nice things about my mom is that she really celebrated pretty much everything and so I take a page from that notebook. When something good happens, I try to appreciate it, because it’s a way to stay motivated and—why not? Why not celebrate something that’s positive, like you get an order from a store that’s really exciting, or I ship my bracelets to St. Barth. So, you know, call a friend and have a glass of Prosecco, or maybe make something especially nice for dinner. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy, but I think it is really nice to acknowledge these moments.
That’s kind of the whole point of the champagne and the champagne rings, the idea of champagne every day, celebrating. I mean that not necessarily literally in terms of champagne every day, but that feeling of trying to celebrate something in every day. And then that ties into my work, too, about the everyday objects that aren’t essentially celebrated, by transforming them into precious metal. The jewelry is jewelry, but it’s also the idea of celebrating and making people happy–that’s what I do. I guess that’s kind of what gives my work meaning, is that I do something that makes people happy even in a small way.

Maker Stories

Building a Totem Necklace with Ana Sheldon

April 9, 2012

Ana Sheldon is the artist behind the Custom Totem Necklace, a collection of stones that is intended to be a play on physical and spiritual balance. Each necklace is unique with a set of hand-picked stones that represent different qualities. Creating a Totem Necklace for yourself or a loved one is a special and personal process so I asked Ana to share her inspiration behind the piece and how she would create a Totem Necklace for the women in her life.

How did the Totem Necklace come about?

Totem was one of my first designs. Really Totem is just about using different shapes and colors stacked up together to create a visually pleasing composition. I wanted to create a cool way to wear a “stack” of beads that I liked to look at together.

Erin, the UncommonGoods head jewelry buyer, saw Totem on a website and approached me with the idea of doing custom pieces with meanings. I chose some stones that I work with often and did the research on what they mean. I hope when people wear a Totem that they have created or someone has created for them that they remember what it represents. To have something that reminds someone of their strengths or that a friend believes in them is a powerful thing.

What stones would you choose when building a Totem Necklace for the women in your life?

If I were to create a Totem Necklace for my sister Rene, I would choose Amethyst for clarity and Blue Lace Agate for calming. She has a lot going on in her life-hectic career, active family, and many people who depend on her-so clarity for her in her day to day and a sense of calm at the end of the day. Rene has a great way of accepting an unavoidable obstacle and being proactive in creating a solution without wallowing in it so I would add Apatite for acceptance and Onyx for strength. Rene is also an artist so I would choose Picture Jasper for creativity.

Ana and Rene in center

For my mom I would choose Moonstone for emotional balance. She is always striving for balance in all aspects of her life and I admire that. Rose Quartz is for love and my mom shows me unconditional love always. I would add Amazonite for hope because she has a positive outlook on what could come to be in every situation. Garnet is for devotion. I appreciate how devoted she is to me and my husband and kids. She would do anything for us and it is apparent. Last I would add Green Adventurine for confidence. I would hope it would bring my mom the knowledge of all the great qualities that I listed above!

Anna and her mom

Lastly, for myself I would choose Picture Jasper for creativity, Yellow Jade for inner peace and Green Adventurine for confidence. Being a wife, mom, artist and small business owner I can use all the focus in the world so White Jade would be useful. That being said, I am living a life that I love so I would add Ocean Jasper for appreciation.

Maker Stories

Old Instrument, New Tune: Jamie Cornett’s Instrumental Lighting

January 17, 2012

According to artist Jamie Cornett, there’s an ongoing joke among musicians; when they get frustrated with practicing or tired of music in general, they say they’re going to turn their instrument into a lamp. Jamie wasn’t frustrated or fed up with music, but he was intrigued by the lamp idea.

“I realized that there are so many instruments, beyond their playing years, that sit in closets and attics,” he says. “They didn’t even get to become lamps! It’s my goal to find them and turn them into displayable pieces of functional art.”

Although he calls his first attempt at lamp-making “a horrible disaster,” he still uses his first lamp in his home today. “I had no idea what I was doing. I created it using the wrong tools, and too much glue! But I love it because it reminds me of the original idea and allows me to reflect on how that idea has become something that I’m really proud of,” he says.

Jamie’s lamps are definitely something to be proud of. He has improved his technique, refined his skill, and perfected his tools since. Now, his creations are not only working lamps, but also beautiful works of art.

Of course, Jamie doesn’t always have an attic full of instruments. In fact, he works from his New York City apartment. So, he scours estate sales, pawn shops, and online auction sites for trumpets, clarinets, and flutes that have played their last notes. “I’m not ashamed to admit that at least one [instrument] has come from the streets of NYC on trash day,” he tells us.

While these woodwind wonders and brass beauties won’t be making melodies in the future, they are making people smile. “These lamps are the perfect gift because you can’t look at one without reacting in some unexpected way,” Jamie explains. “They remind people of their favorite jazz piece or hours spent in a practice room preparing for an audition. Each one has the ability to make you feel like it was made with just you in mind.”

Maker Stories

Five Art Pieces That Will Fool You

December 23, 2011

Artist Melanie Mckenney creates earthenware bowls that bear a stunning resemblance to fruit and vegetables. Her bowls are designed to look like the ingredients in a fresh salsa with realistic colors and the textures and details on her newer Grapefruit and Canteloupe bowls will fool the eye into thinking they are the real thing.

The life-like outcome of her work is not a coincidence. “By translating nature’s designs into clay I am able to invoke a new appreciation for everyday objects. Fruits and vegetables have such a variety of shapes, colors, and textures. By casting directly from the actual fruit or vegetable, I am able to replicate these designs in each bowl.”

(Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso. source Wikipedia)

For centuries artists have been attempting to fool the eye with life-like painting and sculptures. In ancient Greece contests were held between artists to see whose paintings were more realistic. One famous contest featured a painted curtain so convincing, a rival artist attempted to draw them back.
The Renaissance brought a better understanding of perspective drawing and a term for art that fools its viewers- trompe l’oeil, which means “deceives the eye” in French. Subjects walked out of paintings and houseflies rested on canvas art. On a larger scale, frescos were painted on the ceilings of buildings giving the illusion of staring up to the sky through a window: an art form named di sotto in su, translating into “from below, upwards” in Italian.

(Trompe L’oeil, genevieveromier)

More recently a modern and reversed version of di sotto in su has emerged in urban environments that are making passers-by look down. Artists are creating 3D images on the sidewalk in chalk and paint to deceive city dwellers into the thinking the ground beneath them has opened up.

(on the very edge of a 3D illusion, calliope_Muse)

Perhaps the most popular examples of trompe l’oeil in our society are wax figures of our favorite entertainers. Commissioned during the French Revolution to recreate the forms of famous leaders, Marie Tussaud’s death masks of the French royal family were paraded as flags after their executions. In 1802, she moved to London with her family where she opened a public exhibition space. Today, Madame Tussaud’s wax museums are huge tourist destinations in big cities internationally.

(Madame Tussaud’s figure at Madame Tussaud’s Hollywood, Loren Javier)

Throughout time artists have created such realistic works to display their understanding of forms and perspective or to trick their audience. Why does Melanie try to fool you? Melanie says that in creating life-like pottery, she “aims to promote local farming, healthy eating, as well as an appreciation for handmade functional housewares”.

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