From small beginnings come beautiful things
For 25 years Pauline Bern mentored many Unitec students who are now leading lights in New Zealand jewellery.
Linda Tyler finds out how Bern opened her students’ eyes to the social context of jewellery and its exciting
potential as an expressive medium.
Writing eight years ago for the publication that accompanied the exhibition Growing Up: 20 years of the Unitec jewellery studio at Objectspace in 2006, Karl Chitham observed that if you wanted a career in making jewellery, the best place to study was the School of Design at Unitec in Auckland. Only three percent of visual arts graduates in New Zealand remain actively engaged with their field of study after completing their qualification, yet nearly a quarter of the jewellery students who progressed through Unitec were still working as artists and craftspeople a decade or two after their years of study had ended. The names of these graduates map exactly onto some of the leading lights of the contemporary jewellery scene today: Areta Wilkinson, Joe Sheehan, Octavia Cook, Jasmine Watson, Ilse-Marie Erl and Jane Dodd. Walk into Fingers in Kitchener Street, Auckland, Avid in Wellington, The National in Christchurch or Lure in Dunedin and you can see how they sustain themselves by making irresistibly interesting jewellery. Several are also represented by dealer galleries, bought by museums and galleries, and sought after by international curators. Former Unitec lecturer Areta Wilkinson has had meteoric success: she was chosen by curator Victoria Lynn to exhibit at Gus Fisher Gallery as part of the 3rd Auckland Triennial in 2007 and has just completed her doctorate in Fine Arts through Massey University. She has been invited to present her doctoral exhibition at the Canterbury Museum in 2014. Was it something special about the proximity to Oakley Creek that was the key to this success? Unitec’s former jewellery students are unanimous: the secret ingredient was not in the water. It was the care and consideration with which tutor Pauline Bern piloted the programme for almost a quarter of a century, which Anna Miles has called “a rare and impressive instance of New Zealand tertiary craft teaching”.
Bern’s involvement started in the early cowboy days of the Certificate of Craft Design at Carrington Technical Institute. The qualification was introduced into 11 tertiary institutions simultaneously in 1986 as an initiative to provide training for those wanting to pursue a career as craftspeople. There was very little planning or preparation. Tutors Peter Woods and Eléna Gee approached Pauline Bern to run a three-hour elective for first-year students at what was renamed Carrington Polytechnic in 1987. “I was rather startled by the suggestion that I could teach,” Bern remembers, “I was in my early 30s, had started working as a jeweller in the 1970s in the States, and had no formal qualifications. I regarded myself very much as being still a learner.” What Woods and Gee had noticed was that Bern was sustaining herself with an independent studio practice, and she had become a prominent exhibitor at Fingers from the mid 1980s.
Bern accepted the challenge to teach, on the understanding that she would continue to prioritise her practice: “I was so hungry for knowledge myself, and everything I had learned myself about making jewellery had been hard-won. I went to workshops and listened to speakers, but basically you had to teach yourself with the aid of a few books. So I was determined that if ever any one wanted to learn off me, that I would teach them everything that I knew.”
When she started teaching the course entitled “Metal”, there was hardly any equipment and even less money, so briefs were necessarily inventive, with a time and materials constraint. “I had 18 students, and only six saw frames, so we often reached beyond metal for the solution to a problem,” Bern says. As Anna Miles has pointed out, Bern focused on the findings, the way in which jewellery could be attached to a wearer. She liked to assign students the task of locating the equivalent of findings on a giant scale as seen on bridges, buildings or aeroplanes, for example.
Unafraid to align themselves with the designation “craftsperson”, students flocked to enrol, and were proud to have a professional qualification. Tania Patterson was the first jewellery student to graduate with a Diploma in Craft Design in 1989, and Areta Wilkinson was the year behind her. “Craft is our chosen career, and we aim to dig it out of the mud!” Wilkinson declared in an article written in 1989 for the jewellery magazine Details with glass artist Keely McGlynn.
Learning jewellery with Bern was less about producing manifestoes than developing a craft sensibility. Jane Dodd remembers the first piece she ever made: “It was completely low-tech, in response to this wonderful brief she gave us using a piece of copper wire. You had to use a found object but you weren’t allowed to solder. I made a really lovely little brooch by forging out the wire so it was long and thin and chalice-shaped then made it open like a fleur-de-lys which could hold feathers.” The manipulation of materials to refer to memory and myth continues to make Dodd’s work distinctive. “We were only able to learn the things that we did because Pauline was so generous with her knowledge,” adds German-born jeweller, Ilse-Marie Erl. “If you were there to learn, and make the most of the opportunity, Pauline could open your eyes to the potential of jewellery as an expressive medium.”
After six years on a casual contract, Bern took up a half-time appointment as head of the jewellery programme in 1992. The brave new brand of Unitec: Institute of Technology was introduced in 1994 accompanied by the first offer of degree programmes in craft design. Jewellery was housed in the notorious Building 76 which had formerly been the secure forensic psychiatric facility for patients at the Oakley Mental Asylum. Vestiges of that former use could be seen in the observation windows into each of the cells, and inevitably, the new student “inmates” were drawn to investigate the association with the mad and the bad.
Tutors would set a brief that challenged the students to make a piece of jewellery that drew on the history of the building and its site. Bern warned students against exhibiting the results more publicly too soon. Jasmine Watson remembers her injunction, “Don’t put work out there until you graduate; don’t be ruining your good name before you have one!”
Bern paired the students who would share the cells carefully. Mature-age student Ilse-Marie Erl was put with Octavia Cook, who had skipped out of high school after the sixth form, and enrolled at Unitec at her parents’ insistence that she keep studying. It was 1994, the first year of the new four-year Bachelor of Design programme, and a Friday morning jewellery elective decided Cook on the subject that she would major in, while still fitting in as many student parties as she could. “I was hooked,” she says, “and when I entered the second year, I chose Jewellery as my major. Our course costs covered a jewellery toolkit which I still have. The equipment which Pauline had built up for the department was amazing and she showed you how to use it all. There were French torches for soldering and annealing metal – you blew into the tube to oxidise the gas, which some people were a bit afraid of but I loved the chemistry of it. One brief I remember was about colour, and that shifted me away from metal, which is kind of colourless, and it also brought the cost of what I was making down. I learned how to use acrylics, bright and beautiful, and I’ve never looked back.” For her part Bern was quick to recognise potential in this student: “Octavia was so young, only 17 years old, but she knew what she wanted to do and she applied herself. I called her ‘The Clever Cookie’”. Cook says that Bern was almost a surrogate mother for her, “especially when she didn’t hesitate to tell me off when she thought that what I was doing wasn’t good enough!”
In her teaching, Bern always put the emphasis on ideas, wanting her students to really understand why people wore jewellery, and what its social context had been historically and in the contemporary world. “For me it was all about the contextual,” she says. “You can’t unlock ideas from process, but you have to understand process to realise your ideas.” Bern’s own work has dealt with themes of domesticity and the traditional role ascribed to women, often reaching into the kitchen for its materials. Students remember that if Bern didn’t know the answer to any technical question herself, she pointed them to her copy of the 800-page tome by American master metalsmith Oppi Untracht titled Jewelry Concepts and Technology, known colloquially as The Bible.
Bern was also able to link her students up with technical experts in their fields. She herself had attended a champlevé enamelling workshop with Australian enamellist Helen Aitken-Khunen, and taught Jasmine Watson how to do it. Watson says, “Enamelling is so technically challenging, it either works or it doesn’t and there is no in between. I was having some success but a lot of frustration too, I wanted to take it further and learn more, and above all find out why some pieces worked and some did not. While in my final year at Unitec Pauline helped me make contact with Helen in Australia, and with funding from Unitec I was able to undertake tuition at her workshop in Canberra. I learned such a lot in a very short time, and it opened the door to a huge range of technical processes that previously I could only guess at how they were achieved.”
One part of life in the jewellery programme that all students remember fondly was the annual pin swap. A potluck dinner would be held at Pauline Bern’s house in Devonport, and everyone had to make and package up a brooch to give away. The packages would be mixed up in a kete to preserve anonymity (though it was usually easy to guess who had made what) before being drawn out after dinner. Joe Sheehan relished the theme of “Ladies a Plate” one year. “I decided to push a few buttons by making a brooch with boobs on it. That got everyone going about how sexist it was!” Sheehan credits Pauline Bern’s ability to read people with his success in the programme: “I wouldn’t have done as well if I had been in an environment that was stricter. We weren’t left alone but we weren’t mollycoddled either. Pauline had this questioning attitude; she would look at you as if to say, ‘Really? You think that is going to work?’ It was the right approach. We had a lot of freedom but we were supported, and she showed us what it is to be a creative person, how you sustain a practice.”
This is what Wilkinson credits Bern with as well. “She offered me a placement in her own studio after graduating, and that was crucial for me. It meant I could keep working in a supportive environment, and that was what led to setting up Workshop 6 in Kingsland in 1993.” It was a way for the four founders to keep up the momentum from their tertiary training. As a jewellery cooperative, it grew to include Frances Battersby, Joanna Campbell, Octavia Cook, Jane Dodd, Gillian Deery, Helen O’Connor, Sean O’Reilly, Cheryl Sills, Mia Straka, Lisa Walker, Anna Wallis and Jasmine Watson as well as Areta Wilkinson. An exhibition celebrating 21 years of Workshop 6 opened at Fingers on 11 October 2014.
Bern took redundancy when Unitec took the decision to cease recruiting students into a dedicated jewellery programme in 2012, but her former students are maintaining her model. Whau Studios at 161 Point Chevalier Road has been set up as a collaborative environment to teach and work in, and a place where jewellery can be made, critiqued and exhibited. It takes its name from water, “the estuarial arm of the southwestern arm of the Waitemata Harbour,” but its philosophy is pure Bernese: wanting to “contribute to the social capital of our local community by providing an opportunity for anyone to get out of their house, mix with others, tap into their creativity and acquire new skills.” As Pauline Bern’s teaching has shown, from small beginnings, beautiful things may come.