Words by Juliette Mann
My interest in the presentation of the female form dictated my studies while reading English Literature at university. From Paradise Lost, to the war poetry of Richard Aldington, the transgressive potential of the female form as a force of solace, or as disaster, bewitched me. But how does a similar interest in interpreting the female form manifest itself in metalwork, in the micro-sculpture of jewellery? My cousin, Sophia Mann, creates jewellery that blurs the boundaries of art and design, space and object, the natural and the constructed, and the soft female form with her hard metallic materials.
In the collection ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, the influence of the female form is most visible. Erotic, vibrant red beads descend into dark hollows, suggesting the female sex with a metallic, jagged energy. The softest, and most socially taboo part of woman is re-depicted as hard, delicate, and beautiful. In an era where labiaplasties, Brazilians, and mainstream pornography all insist that the natural female pubis is unsightly, Mann’s jewellery celebrates the strength, and hints at the objective appearance of what lies between a woman’s legs. Mann explains how the massive distortion of the female body in our society led her to explore the female body in these terms. She explains, ‘the female form has been pulled, stretched, manipulated, and distorted in so many ways. Women are objectified, leading to an emptiness inside, which is why a lot of my pieces have these hollow empty spaces as well as a focus on the erotic. But it’s not negative, I want to celebrate the female body, make it beautiful.’
Her artistic influences, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud, are all present in her exploration of the distorted human form. O’Keeffe’s gigantic flowers that are so often viewed in terms of the female body find their counterpart in the beading and metalwork of the collection, which blends the beaded softness of flower petals within the framework of metallic bones.
The dichotomy of these two elements is vividly played out in the collection ‘Possession’. Described as ‘a play between masculine and feminine qualities’, the collection unites hard metal skeleton with fragile, intricate beadwork reminiscent of orchids. The extravagant necklace ‘Possession’ perfectly depicts this unlikely equilibrium, as a waterfall of feathery, brittle coral cascades down the wearer’s back, held rigid by the twisted silver metalwork.
Mann’s art is defined by its duality. The way that the design can seem both masculine and feminine, hard yet soft, organic yet metallic. The very jewellery itself is both art and fashion, having been described by one commentator as ‘wearable art’, while Mann herself describes her craft as ‘Jewellery as Art’. The choice as to the description of each piece is up to the owner. Mann explains: ‘I’m not interested in mass production of rubbish. I want to make things that last or are treasured. I use the beads like paint; they are chosen for their colour and shape, not their value, although I restrict myself to precious stones. There are plenty of jewellery artists using innovative materials but I stick to traditional materials so it can be sold as luxury jewellery, art, or fashion depending on preference.’
I asked Mann how she felt that this era of mass production and immediate gratification was affecting her art, and what she felt the place of the arts to be in this fast paced, impatient machine world: ‘It’s relative in a way, what’s important to one person is not so important to another. I think in this era of mass production and overabundance young people are maybe drawn to fine art because it seems more genuine.’
She continued,’however, there is great value in craft and learning traditional skills. It’s sad now that everything is being done on the computer, it’s impossible to get a job now as a designer without knowledge of CAD and 3D printing. I can’t help but feel this is a great loss to the creative world, most designers can’t even draw now. However, there is a movement away from computer added design, its perfection makes it almost boring and uniform, it has got no soul.’
Mann’s work, by its handcrafted nature, is always unique and bespoke. The ‘Impact’ Ring is testament to this, where a claw of sleek silver holds a gnarled, matt silver protuberance. Made by casting silver around clay, it proved impossible to reproduce.
Similarly, the anthropomorphic designs of the ‘Paradise Lost’ collection reach far deeper than machine-made jewellery could. The entrapment of the human is conveyed though metal figures, which contrast with the pale, sweeping beadwork evoking the freedom of the imagination. The collection, inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton, explores the nostalgia of childhood with angelic figures in repose, or hanging from fine silver chains with delicate wings of precious gems. The subtlety of Mann’s art renders the jewellery profoundly moving. The ‘Hope Fluttering’ trio of rings have a melancholy air, befitting the lines of poetry from which the collection was born:
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
(Wordsworth, Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood)
Wordsworth’s influence, the regret at the force of adulthood, and disillusionment of life hardening the hearts of those who were children I feel is particularly poignant in the ring ‘The Thinker’. An isolated, metal figure leans over in thought, while ephemeral glassy wings explode from their back, the dichotomy of material and vibrancy echoing Wordsworth’s lament. The departure from childhood in The Thinker is fully realised when one notices the figure’s erection, a symbol of the loss of innocence.
Thus we return to the human, which I think to be the fundamental centre of Mann’s work. The skeleton, sexuality, psychology, our place in the world; all are explored in Mann’s art. But what of the artist? I asked Sophia how her human experiences have shaped her work, how becoming a mother has impacted her artistically and practically. She cites her heightened respect for the female form as her main creative development, but predominantly focuses on the practical implications facing women as mothers:
‘Having children is massively life altering. It’s very hard, practically impossible, to work and look after young children. You need money for help or very active grandparents. Being a woman has not held me back, but having children is the main reason for occupational inequality. It’s impossible to take months and years off of work in the prime of your life, and still be on an equal footing with men. It’s just biology for me.’
I asked Sophia what advice she would give to other young people, especially women considering a career in the arts. She says simply ‘Get your career going before having children, this is the advice I will give my own daughter.’
You can see more of Sophia’s work on her website, www.sophiamann.com