Fear and Flowers
What can jewelry mean?
Every jeweler faces this question. In the broadest sense, there are two answers. One is to use jewelrys existing set of culturally constructed meanings; the other is to add your own.
In the western world, jewelry used to have a rich vocabulary of meanings. These meanings were widely understood in the upper and middle classes, and were connected to other semiotic systems. For instance, sentimental jewelry used iconography drawn from myth and legend, but also from an extensive language of flowers. Mourning jewelry used another set of meanings, badges of honor and office another.
However, most of these languages have fallen into disuse, and are no longer legible. How many people know what Cupids iron arrow represents, or ivy? Comparatively few of the old meanings remainin currency, leaving jewelry diminished as a vehicle for communication.
Or is it? While the old codes may have fallen into disuse, plenty of new codes have appeared. We now have languages of cars, of TV shows, of sports attire
of nearly everything imaginable. Since most contemporary codes exist outside of jewelry, it falls to the present- day jeweler to reinvigorate
jewelrys ancient capacity as a bearer of meaning by looking beyond the boundaries of the field.
Which is exactly what Sondra Sherman does. Since her days in Munich, she has sifted through the vast library of social meanings and codes, and reconfigured them as jewelry. Her Anthophobia series continues in the same direction.
Simply rummaging through social codes is no guarantee of success, however. The subject must hold a certain emotional charge. Otherwise, it remains a two-dimensional intellectual exercise. Imbued with feeling, jewelry gains depth and richness. Thats why I respond to Sondra Shermans jewelry: its both
examined and felt. Moreover, Shermans jewelry always has darkness to it, something unpredictable and disturbing that satisfies my hunger for the unconventional.
The genesis of this series came from Shermans observation that many of her students and acquaintances are taking medications for a variety of disorders. Her mother was a therapist and her father a pharmacist, so the conjunction of psychiatry and prescription drugs resonated with her. She became interested in medicalization, the way we often turn to pharmacology to alleviate so many of our troubles.She finds our reliance on drugs to be casual and mechanical, perhaps motivated more by a demand for convenience than by any genuine crisis. On the other hand, she admits that medication can have a salutary effect. Anyone who has witnessed the damage inflicted by severe depression welcomes medical help.
Sherman decided to reference corsages; they are a form of jewelry, after all, but are made out of flowers and ribbons. Corsages are associated with formal social occasions. Weddings and proms nights: displays of status and desirability that can induce insecurity and self-doubt
which leads right back to social anxiety. Shermans creative leap from medication to corsages to social anxiety makes the intellectual
structure for this series. The three elements form a circle of ideas that Sherman magically transforms into jewelry.
Each brooch takes the form of a corsage. They are rendered as outlines in blackened steel, which undercuts any expectations of flowery beauty. The corsage is overlaid with another floral image, the blooms of medicinal plants used to treat anxiety. (In her research, Sherman found that the treatment of
anxiety goes back a very long way, long before the era of big pharma. And many of these remedies were herbs: lavender; chamomile; St. Johns wort.) The cause of social anxiety is conflated with its cure. To rachet up the drama, each brooch is presented in a package that resembles old corsage boxes.
Sherman cant rest there, however. Further complications arise. Every studio jeweler must confront the fact that the vast majority of Americans think that jewelry begins and ends with commercial work, the Every kiss begins with Kay® stuff that trades exclusively in the familiar. Relentlessly upbeat, shiny and sentimental, commercial jewelry goes with thoughtfulness like chocolate goes with motor oil. That is, not at all. The thoughtful jeweler will distance herself from the codes of commerce, at the very least to avoid misunderstanding. Tactics to establish this separation abound in contemporary studio jewelry: using unconventional materials, large size, or just making things badly.
Sherman uses several devices to mess with any hopes that her jewelry be normal. The black color subverts all such expectations right away. Theres also a metaphor at work here: both the cause and cure of social anxiety are made dark, perhaps threatening and dangerous. While its no great stretch to present anxiety as troubling, its pretty interesting to present the cure as equally troubling. And then I love this Sherman colors the recesses of her constructions with nail polish. Hopes for pretty jewelry, pushed to the edge of disappointment, are revived
but the material is all wrong.
It strikes me that the primary subtext underlying this collection of jewelry is anxiety itself. The corsage rendered in black. The ambivalent attitude towards modern medicine. The coded and rather cryptic hopefulness. (How many people will recognize the curative herbs without a guide?) The ruined and then
not quite restored expectations. Added together, all these elements suggest a state of uncertainty and anxiety. That these objects are jewelry is more than a little twisted: Sherman is asking people to wear them in public, presumably for formal social occasions. To wear such anxious objects is to reveal a
truth that most of us would prefer to obscure.
Anxiety is one of the most deep-seated human emotions, following hard upon fear. It can be both adaptive and destructive. According to scientist O. H. Mowrer, anxiety induces us to take precautions against future trauma. He wrote,
the fact that the forward- looking, anxiety-arousing propensity of the human mind is more highly developed than it is in lower animals probably accounts for many of mans unique accomplishments. But it also accounts for some of his most conspicuous failures. (Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Touchstone, 1998, p.
I have known Sondra Sherman for some time, and I know she regards her own anxieties with a measure of detached amusement. Her jewelry works the same way. To infuse her jewelry with anxiety is a courageous act, a transgression of all the codes of blithe denial that we normally expect. Where most of
us look away, Sherman does not avert her gaze.
Bruce Metcalf is a jeweler and writer. He lives near Philadelphia