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© 2020 Jade Kerste
© 2013 Marjan Unger
© 2013 Marjorie Simon
© 2008 Sharon Campbell
© 2008 Cornelie Holzach
© 2008 Ellen Reiben
© 2008 Fabrice Schaefer
© 2007 Judy Wagonfeld
METALSMITH 2013 _ volume 33 number 1 _ Page 30 – 37

Variations on Silence: The Jewelry of Iris Bodemer


In her recent exhibition at Washington DC’s Jewelers’ Werk Galerie, German-born jeweler Iris Bodemer returned to metal in all its assertive materiality. As always, Bodemer’s asymmetrical compositions claimed their space on the wall, the table, or the body. Where she once brought in color from gemstones, found objects, and textiles such as wool and raffia, now her palette is mostly darkened silver leavened here and there with stark white, bronze, gray and the transpar¬ency of smoky topaz. In some of these pieces, gigantic pearls, rutilated quartz, and citrines balance the white of cast silver. In others, translucent pastel gemstones of pink and blue contrast with the milky opaque metal. Raw and dimensional, the many polished and cut stones dance a dialectic of the random and designed. The consistency of Bodemer’s forms and their relationship to each other makes the entire body of work cohere without seeming repetitious. The new neckpieces, clearly 21st- cen¬tury in their rough juxtaposition of seemingly dissimilar materials, such as faceted gemstones and rough copper, also reference classical jewelry forms, with a large central pendant and “chain.” A few pieces recall Bodemer’s earlier multimedia compositions. Eccentric circles and potato-shaped silhouettes appear to have been cut freehand out of metal in the manner of Matisse’s famed cutouts, as if one person were holding the paper and another manipulating the scissors. The resultant irregularity imparts a tenderness that lightens the physical weight and visual mass of these pieces.
Capable of creating sophisticated clasps, trained goldsmith Bodemer favors simple ones instead, constructing giant staples to attach disparate elements. The reverse side often appears to be stitched, perhaps a throwback to Bodemer’s earlier textile assemblages. Bodemer’s work has always been gestural and intuitive, and this quality has not changed. She continues to use line effectively, animating even heavy wires to look as if they were drawn by a very young giant with an enormous pencil. “I always make my jewelry like I’m drawing,” she says. Likewise, Bodemer’s drawings engage us with their immediacy and combination of materials, textural variety, and repetition of forms.
An intellectual polymath, Bodemer draws inspiration from multiple sources. While her jewelry aesthetic seems clearly European it doesn’t follow any single school of expres¬sion. She in fact is more engaged with fine art, particularly the drawings of Joseph Beuys, and artists as diverse as Leon¬ardo da Vinci, Marcel Duchamp, and Louise Bourgeois. Of prime significance to her are the work and words of American avant-garde artist and composer John Cage. Bodemer uses space vis-à-vis form the way Cage uses silence as an equivalent to music. As seen in her 2002 catalogue, simply titled Iris Bode¬mer, her jewelry is often spare, with elements inhabiting a kind of silent space. Among the lessons Bodemer learned from Cage is a principle that craft artists know well: the process is more important than the product. “The interpreter [read “student”] has to find his own way, trusting his intuition.” Bodemer says Cage taught her to “explore the power of mate¬rial, to carefully look at little things, and that inspiration is everywhere and first of all inside myself.”1

Part of the power of Bodemer’s work comes from what she chooses to put together, and part from what she decides to hold back. But when probed about her work, she deflects questions about meaning and materials, saying she selects whatever expresses her ideas, without elaborating on what those ideas are. Such an attitude embodies the notion expressed by fellow German jewelry artist Iris Eichenberg, that “Europeans are not good at talking about their work…. [They believe] it speaks without explaining itself.”2 Asked about this statement, Bodemer agrees, laughing, that everything she wants to say is in the work. Cornelie Holzach, Director of the Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim, expands on this notion: “What matters when creating structures, surfaces, colors, lines and volumes is not the technical suitability of the material but rather that the chosen material comes as close to the idea as possible.”3 Bodemer believes that talking about even completed work disturbs the artistic process, the “magic,” a sentiment shared by a wide range of artists, including compos¬ers and novelists. Besides, she says she can’t always explain the work’s meaning beyond stating it’s about everyday life, about the way the sun came in the window, about something she was thinking. Clearly, in her view, art and life are not binary; everything is art and everything is life.
Images come from everywhere. She might be reading poetry or philosophy, or a Chekhov play, or even studying Zen gardens. Bodemer is also interested in cognition theories about how the brain works, and in physics, specifically the nature of potential, versus kinetic, energy. Speaking metaphorically, as she often does, she muses on potential¬ity, imagining that “all the lines are already in the pen…. maybe it is better to leave them [there] as a pure option? The challenge is how to translate this idea into the material world.” Bodemer refers to creative work as a filtering process “Every day we pour stories and pictures through a filter,” she says, paraphrasing Chekov. “What stays in the filter is what we have” to work with. Thought of in these terms, the jewelry seems a bit less mystifying to a viewer, more accessible, perhaps, and more rewarding.
Despite a reluctance to explain her work, Bodemer speaks more freely about her creative process. She still circles around the subject, asking her audience to follow her train of thought. “It just has to express the idea, and the idea is visualized by the work; otherwise I would write books.”4 This statement accompanies ten pages of her multi-media work in a recent survey of contemporary jewelry. Made in the early 2000s, the jewelry contains some of the most vivid examples of Bodemer’s creation, in which she mixes gemstones, fabric, and textile techniques with primitive-looking metalwork. Asked about materials during her “textile period,” she again quotes Cage: “Someone once asked Debussy how he wrote music, and he replied, ‘I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don’t want and use all the others.’” Bodemer’s seemingly opaque responses to questions about her creative practice may simply reflect the considerable amount of time spent in bringing her work to fruition. After completing a body of work, and then exhibiting it, she takes off much of the following year to get her mind clear for the next project. For six to eight months she will empty her mind of expectation, and remain open to whatever wanders by, “concentrating on the inner dialogue between me and the world.” In that state of flow and receptivity, images and ideas come unbidden and somehow everything she has seen, heard, or experienced finds its way into the work. She admits to a very clear vision of what she’s making, planning out all possible variations before construction begins. The images are there; there’s no searching for them; they come to her. By the time Bodemer begins fabricating she doesn’t hesitate; everything springs to life in her hands. Still, each piece manages to appear completely spontaneous.

An oft-told story of a ring that came down to Bodemer through her great grand¬mother’s estate sheds light on such a creative process. Too large for the woman’s hand, the ring presumably had belonged to her late husband. Desiring to wear it, the widow had wrapped woolen thread around the ring to size it down. This simple and resourceful so¬lution, combined with the unlikely contrast of materials, inspired Bodemer to explore the use of wool, a material she had never really liked, in her own work. She came to appreciate it for the flexibility, strength, and warmth it provided. When the metaphorical qualities of wool ceased to interest her, she stopped using this material.
Bodemer enjoyed a “happy childhood” in Paderborn, an ancient city in Westphalia, Germany, whose cathedral dates to the time of Charlemagne. She played in the river that ran through the town, and enjoyed the security of growing up in a small city. She also benefited from a supportive family and the rigor of an all-girls’ convent school, which she credits with building her confidence early on. From ages nine to fifteen she was further empowered through participation in co-ed scouting activities: As she learned to build fires, explore nature, gain knowledge of the woods, she began to discover her own solutions to real-life situations. She played piano and guitar, and by age thirteen she was already making and selling jewelry. Family friends, who owned a drugstore in town, allowed Bodemer to set up a jewelry table out front, and with her earnings she bought materials.
Bodemer’s first teacher at Goldsmith School (Berufskolleg fuer Formgebung) in Pforzheim was Winfried Krueger, whose hands-off style had a deeply formative influence on the young student. Krueger taught that there is no “good” or “bad”; as an artist it is one’s own decisions that matter. Serious and ready to learn, Bodemer began to develop her aesthetic. Her final project, titled “Metamorphosis,” demonstrated the evolu¬tion of a simple silver square into nearly a dozen complex, volumetric rings. Although eventual explorations took her to diverse materials, such as felt and wool, Bodemer’s early work was in metal, specifically, sawing, bending, and fabricating from a flat sheet. Bodemer went on to attend the College of Design (Hoch¬schule fuer Gestaltung) in Pforzheim, a school that supports creative and technical skills equally, with no separation between design and production. Students are further taught to view art and life as a seamless continuum, with a curriculum that encourages exploration of broad-ranging themes. The school also facilitated a “constant exchange of ideas with the training centers in Hanau, Heiligendamm, Dusseldorf, Barcelona, and Prague,” as the school’s catalogue states.5 During Bodemer’s time there, a grant enabled her to travel to the United States and spend 1995 at Rhode Island School of Design.

At RISD, liberated from her usual tradition-bound environment, Bodemer found herself exploring not only new materials, but new ideas as well. Being by the sea, seeing American students picking up bits of colored plastic and using found objects in their work, she began to do likewise, combining metal with plastic, adhesive tape, and other non-traditional materials. In Providence, she found all kinds of colorful plastic cords, which she brought back to Germany and folded into her studio practice; enamel was no longer the only option for adding color to her work.
Bodemer completed her degree and spent the following two years in Amsterdam at the Sandberg Institute, in the department of free design. Like many of the jewelry students in both Amsterdam and Pforzheim at the time, Bodemer con¬tinued to explore “alternative” materials, or at least materials that were outside the traditional choices for conventional jewelry. It is ironic that in the intervening decades this then radical departure has become conventional in and of itself, and by returning to metal, Bodemer has once again demon¬strated her independent streak.
Bodemer’s early work showed itself to be confident and accessible metal objects. As well, Bodemer exploited the properties of metal—its ability to hold its shape, the ten¬sion inherent in a woven vessel, and use of line on a metal surface—to great effect. Early acceptance by Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, resulted in biennial exhibi¬tions that continue to the present time. The catalogue that Bodemer designed for her 2002 show there is a whisper of restraint, with unique hand-sewn covers and an index simply stapled inside. Photos of the objects, many made of gold, rough gems, and thread, are presented singly on each beautifully designed page. The work is revealed at its most gestural and refined. Animated line drawings recall those of German jeweler Manfred Bischoff, drawn from a perspective high above the page. Bodemer’s skilled goldsmithing is evident in the pillowy gold and silver elements, and her unerring sense of design marries them with slim threads or tiny strung beads. Work of this time shows characteristic Bodemer touches: raw crystals as well as cut gemstones, ingenious yet simple attachments, and subtle color combinations. A decade later, the work remains fresh.
To track Bodemer’s work through the past decade is to visit the major thematic concerns of contemporary jewelers for the years ahead. Her cut-out-with-scissors look has been adopted by students everywhere for its animated, seemingly spontane¬ous irregular lines. The energetic silhouettes convey the kinetic energy of their creation; not the caress of a paint¬brush, but the violent rending of paper by scissors.
A series of Marzee exhibitions reflect Bodemer’s concerns over time. In 2004, she explored jewelry as an independent sculptural entity separate from the body. The work is color¬ful, constructed from a variety of materials, including wool and plastic, and not necessarily wearable. In no way can it be considered supportive of, or secondary to, fashion. In 2006, brooches placed on wood-mounted drawings occupied an entire wall of the gallery. When not being worn, brooch and drawing comprise a unified composition. In 2008, Bodemer investigated the ways in which materials speak to, or fight with, each other. This work contained a mix of organic and inorganic materials with wrapped, sewn, and stapled textiles—from linen and hemp to Kevlar. While just hint¬ing at being over-determined, the material combinations remain discordant.
Eventually, Bodemer became bored with non-metal, and realized she had nothing more to say with that vocabulary. With her recent return to metal, she appears, without repeating herself, to be reinterpreting some of her earlier designs. For example, the silver neckpieces of 2012 resemble a horsehair brooch of 2008, with the chalky white metal replacing the knotted and bound horsehair. Both are in the same color family and contrast a frosty flotsam with pale rough tourmalines.
Some of Bodemer’s jewelry is lovely and heartbreakingly tender, some ungainly with awkward juxtapositions. Bode¬mer echoes the best of her German and Dutch predecessors, partaking of Hermann Junger’s flawless craftsmanship and seeming nonchalance with precious materials, along with Dorothea Pruehl’s embrace of chunky, “ugly” combinations of the non-precious. She anticipated the current generation of makers, such as Deborah Rudolph in Germany, and count¬less students around the world, who are following her lead in pairing rough, torn-paper silhouettes with textiles and scumbled surfaces.
Bodemer’s work demands thought but, more importantly, it invites thought. To understand it fully, read some poetry. Or write some. Listen to John Cage, who said there’s no such thing as absolute silence. Except the sounds of your heart beating and your blood rushing around your brain.

Marjorie Simon is a jeweler and writer residing in Philadelphia.

1. The connection to John Cage was noted by Judy Wagonfield in a review in Metalsmith, vol. 27, no. 5, p.58.
4. Contemporary Jewelry Art, by Design-Ma-Ma, Cypi Press, 2011, UK. p. 30.
5. English translation of preface to Schmucktriebe, catalogue of Pforzheim school, ca. 2000, by Christianne Weber-Stoller, Society for Goldsmiths’ Art.