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Interview: Dauvit Alexander and his Cabinet of Curiosities

Dauvit Alexander, aka The Justified Sinner

Dauvit Alexander, aka The Justified Sinner

Today I’d like you to meet a Scotsman who has managed to merge found industrial-type objects (discarded iron wares or an old fire hydrant valve, for example,) with precious and semi-precious metals and stones to make very masculine, bold pieces of jewellery that wouldn’t be out of place in a dramatic theatre production of a Shakespeare play. In fact, some of his pieces are named after Shakespearean plays (see below)!

Dauvit Alexander may have trained as a landscape gardener but I suspect his creative talents would have been truly misplaced had he stayed in that profession. With a wide-ranging love of literature and music genres, Dauvit takes inspiration not only from the arts but the students he teaches in Glasgow and the places he visits.

His jewels are so much more than accessories with which to spruce up your outfit: They tell a story not on only in the origin of each found material but in the way the materials are put together and how each piece is designed. To own one of his pieces is to adopt a story, to wear one is to star in your own play. What’s more, one of his pieces even inspired him to write a short story!

Dauvit Alexander, aka The Justified Sinner

Three post-apocalyptic rings made from found rusted steel conduit and silver, featuring citrine, garnets, topaz, tourmaline, amethyst and peridot

Fascinated by Dauvit’s own story and his  ‘Justified Sinner’s Cabinet of Curiosities’, I dropped him a line. Come and join me …

You say on your website that you studied horticulture initially, so tell me what led you to pursue jewellery making? How easy was it to segue from gardener to designer/maker?

There are certain similarities between what I studied and what I do now in that they are both fundamentally about creativity. I love gardening and still get a thrill out of planting seeds and watching them grow. In my back garden just now is a wild Scottish cherry, Prunus avium, which I grew from a seed. It is now about 18 metres tall!

I was taught landscape architecture as part of the course, which gives the basic focus on being able to design, albeit on a different scale. Perhaps that is why so many of my pieces are very large. Unfortunately, I hated actually working as a landscaper. The restrictions of planners, the fact that clients want everything “low maintenance”… there is no joy in landscaping. It is a bit like architecture: Unless you are a superstar, you are nothing.

The segue from gardener/landscaper to designer maker was not difficult and I think the answer to that lies in the answer to your next question.

Were you always interested in jewellery for men or did this evolve over time?

My introduction to jewellery was fortunate and completely by chance. My mother was good friends with a jeweller, John Gilchrist, who had a shop in the village where I grew up. When I was about 13 or 14, he needed someone to help out in the shop, working with customers and cleaning up a bit. A rush order of 500 commemorative spoons came in and I was asked to help polish them. Before I knew it, I was at the bench, making. After I completed the horticulture course and knew that I didn’t want to be a landscaper, John invited me back to work for him again for a few years.

During that eight or so years of intermittent bench-training, I was making mostly very delicate, very feminine pieces. There wasn’t even much demand for cufflinks. The most interesting thing I worked on was a hideous gold ring set with a rubbish 5-carat diamond – still an expensive stone but riddled with inclusions and cracks – for a local wide-boy “businessman”. This really got me thinking about what could be done but I didn’t have the necessary focus or time to go anywhere with my ideas. I then got trapped into thinking that to be successful, I had to be “minimalist” – the hegemony of European minimalism is still strong – and the jewellery I was making became completely asexual and, if I am honest, completely uninteresting.

The turnaround for me was the discovery of work by Rob Jackson in 2006. His use of iron in combination with precious metals, often leaving the iron elements unaltered or minimally altered opened a floodgate – here was the way I had to go. Overnight, I threw minimalism out of the window and became what Judith Schaechter describes as a “militant decorator”. Complexity rules: Pattern, colour, hinges, mechanisms, boxes, enclosures, rare-earth magnets for fastenings, gemstones, lenses, macabre findings, they all start to feature and suddenly I am making work with which I am happy. It is bold, strong, complex, narrative, often massive and overall, masculine.

The first iron piece I made is an untitled chain and pendant. It was just an experiment but I still really love it and have never looked back.

Why discarded bits of metal/steel/iron bits and pieces and why combine them with precious jewels and metals?

It is important for me to be “a jeweller” and I’m trained in working with gemstones, silver and gold but I don’t really acknowledge a difference between “precious” and “non-precious”. When I work with iron or steel, I treat it in exactly the same way as I treat gold, silver or gemstones. The same is true of any other found element I might choose to incorporate. The respect for the material is part of what makes my work identifiable, I think.

My main reason for using iron is the aesthetic of the material. I quite simply like the colour and the texture of corroded iron and steel. Even polished iron and steel – not stainless, which I almost never use – has a quality which is tactile and which invites exploration. The reason for using found objects is that they have an instant “history”. The objects themselves, either whole or in pieces, have a narrative. That narrative is inherent no matter what narrative I force onto it. A good example of this is “The Mysterious Adventure of Lady Stevens” for which I even wrote a short story as an accompaniment. When you look at the piece, it is quite clearly made from an old, discarded valve control from a fire-hydrant. This second narrative, this history of the objects, is, to some people, even more interesting than the narrative I have created. The symbiosis (or tension) between the two adds – I hope – to the enjoyment of the piece.

The Justified Sinner's Cabinet of Curiosities

‘The Mysterious Adventure of Lady Stevens’, which also inspired Dauvit to write a short story about it

Tell me how you go about designing a new piece or rangedoes it involve an aesthetic or esoteric idea first or does it start with a particularfindthat is the inspiration? Explain.

I don’t tend to work in ranges but there are themes which recur, both in terms of material/object and in terms of philosophical approach. Sometimes these intersect. An example of a material/object theme would be my bracelets made from iron tools such as files and spanners bent into the top element and then the back is made from “improvised” chain. The post-apocalyptic cocktail rings have a stylistic theme but also a philosophical approach. Occasionally, an object will inspire a philosophic piece, but that is rarer. My most recent large work “Samson’s Riddle” would be an example of that, where a discarded clock ornament from a cheap Victorian clock inspired me to make a piece based on an element of the biblical narrative of Samson. This was then joined by a corroded cake tin which I found in the street, a whole host of gemstones and a glass taxidermy eye. More often, I decide that I want to make a piece on an idea which is often literary or musical and then seek out the components to allow me to make that. The struggle to use pre-existing elements to convey a complex notion is a large part of the pleasure I take from making such pieces.

The File Bracelet by Dauvit Alexander

The File Bracelet

From your artists statement it sounds as if you wish you were born in another era! Tell me about your love ofThe Renaissanceand why this is such an influence in your work?

I am very happy to be a 21st Century man. I would have hated living in the middle-ages and I seriously doubt that I would have had any success transplanting my iron jewellery to 16th Century Firenze, for example. I am certain Benvenuto Cellini would have been affronted and would have challenged me to a duel, which I would have been sure to have lost, although I used to fence epée in my younger days! Additionally, I would miss the fantastic advantages of living now – the fact that I can travel the world easily, meet people, share influences, teach new students, learn from new masters, it is all so exciting.

Although I cite Rob Jackson as a major influence, my dissatisfaction with the jewellery that I was making started about five or six years prior to that in 1999 or 2000 when I went to the jewellery collection at the V&A in London and properly looked at it for the first time, really studying the pieces over a course of several visits with a party of my students. I was particularly taken by the Canning Jewel which struck me as almost unbearably perfect, a balance of material, form, message and, very importantly, with a touch of humour. As I studied more jewellery from that period, I realised that I was looking at work which was created not as “mere” decoration but as decoration which said a lot about both the person for whom it had been made and also about the maker. These are works of art in which the message is more important than the medium; the messages are about power, wealth and faith. These messages are so important that in reality the medium becomes somewhat subverted and we find paste gems sitting next to diamond, gilded brass set with enormous emeralds and spinels masquerading as rubies.

Although I described these works as “almost perfect”, I am not talking about “perfect” in terms of manufacture, not the way in which we expect a Bulgari piece to be “perfect”, but it has a perfection in the way in which it looks as if it has been worn, used as it was intended, the enamel chipped and a gemstone missing, what the Japanese call “Wabi-Sabi”. The more I looked at the work from this period, the more I saw it as a marvellous, a glorious, allegorical, blackly humorous, alchemical mess. It was a triumph of skill and material over taste. It mixed precious with semiprecious with worthless, a riot of colour and shape. It was huge and overblown. It verged on the unwearable, comfort sacrificed, preferring to make statements about the wearer’s beliefs, power and money. This is what I aim to convey with my work.

The Justified Sinner's Cabinet of Curiosities

‘Richard III’

What challenges have you faced along the wayespecially in regards to having your own business? How do you juggle the creative side with the business side, with teaching and the training youve done?

It is very hard to keep all the elements of my life in order. One of the things which has really helped is being able to integrate my calendar, email, scheduling, note-taking and research into the various devices I always have to hand. What I mean is that I use technology to keep it all together, in so many ways – my tablet, laptop, computer, smartphone, digital camera … I actually would not be able to do it without the technology. There is something wonderful about being able to do my accounts on a transatlantic flight, to capture a visual note of a piece in a far-off museum or being able to make a voice note about a fleeting thought. The technology allows me to make much more efficient use of time and in so doing, allows me to use more of my time in creative practice.

Training is critical. I think that it is so important to keep learning things, even if they are not strictly related to the area in which you work. Learning keeps the mind fresh and curious and I go out of my way to make time for learning and training. It also helps with my teaching practice in that you get reminded of what good teaching is all about (and, unfortunately, what bad teaching can be). On the back of that, however, teaching is also good for creativity. There is something thrilling about working with an absolute beginner who comes up with a challenge that then sets you off thinking about how to do that and perhaps even gives you the chance to discover something new for yourself.

Have you any interesting stories about a discarded material/s youve found/used?

I was once stopped and searched by the police for “stealing” several kilos of rusty metal from the site of a derelict garage. It was about 6 am in the morning – I nearly always do my urban exploration early in the morning – and someone had phoned the police to say that I was “acting suspiciously” so they turned up and made me turn out my bag. It was actually comical to see the two bewildered officers’ faces as old nails, bits of chain, cog-wheels, a corroded spanner and all the rest of it came out. As the site was open to the street, they couldn’t even caution me for trespassing and they had to let me go. I still have the “Stop and Search” paperwork for that morning as a souvenir!

The first “found object” piece that I ever had to make was when I was about 15 or 16, a rather grim and grisly tale. My employer was commissioned to make a brooch with the teeth of a dead dog. It had been someone’s beloved pet and by some hideous process about which I would rather not think, they’d got hold of the teeth of the poor thing. Anyway, at that point I was fascinated by Andrew Grima’s work and set about making a gold brooch set with these teeth in that very 1970s style.

The Justified Sinner's Cabinet of Curiosities

‘Macbeth Brooch’

Where do you go, or what do you do/read/see for inspiration?

Almost anything is inspiration to me but there are certain things to which I always return – largely music and literature. I listen to music all day, every day. I am not a musician and cannot play an instrument but somehow can understand and enjoy even very complex contemporary music.  Music of all sorts features in my work, from David Bowie song lyrics (“Future Legend”) to obscure arias by Henry Purcell (“Cold Genius”). I study music quite seriously, can discuss music theory and can follow a score. My study of literature is much less focussed and I read widely and fairly indiscriminately with a particular love of Victorian and Edwardian detective novels, especially English ones. Wilkie Collins is a favourite and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle, but I have discovered many others. I’ve made a number of pieces on literary themes, from Shakespeare (“Macbeth Brooch”) to Umberto Eco (“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna”).

When I’m travelling, I love to find little ramshackle museums, places with no real order to them and lots of hand-written labels. My absolute favourite is the Whitby Natural History Museum which holds the marvellous “Tempest Prognosticator” amongst its bizarre and wonderful objects.

The Justified Sinner's Cabinet of Curiosities

‘Future Legend’

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have so little spare time! As I said above, I read a lot and listen to a lot of music. I’ve not had a television for most of my life and still don’t have one, which is just as well as I doubt I would be able to resist its flickering allure. I love taking photographs – which is really part of my sketchbook practice – and if I know I have a few hours to spare will stick a couple of lenses in my bag and head off simply to take photographs. Riding my bicycle is another pleasure. I’ve got four bikes and riding my custom-built titanium mountain-bike off-road is a rare treat when there’s a spare weekend. Quite often I use my bike to get to derelict factories and buildings where I can find materials and take photographs – probably my perfect day out.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have several projects which keep getting derailed by commercial concerns or by having to make work for specific exhibitions, notably the collar “20,000 Leagues Under The Seas” and my tribute to Alexander McQueen, “Fashion: Victim” which has been on my bench for nearly two years. I was greatly and strangely upset by McQueen’s death as I had just plucked up the courage to write to him when he died, my letter never sent. I had been having imagined dialogues with him for months before that.

Dauvit Alexander, aka The Justified Sinner

Self-titled: ‘Slightly Crazed’

Where do you see yourself in ten yearstime?

My ambition is to have a piece in the permanent collection of the V&A in London and it would be lovely to think that would have happened by then. Apart from that, I have to say that I have no long-term plan. I’ll keep on doing what I do. There are various things I would like to explore and I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to collaborations between myself and other artists – I’ve just recently finished the work for a show in Pittsburgh which is a collaboration between myself, a photographer and a group of young people who have been victims of violence. I’m also really enjoying my recent dabbling in curating exhibitions, so that could be an avenue I pursue. Primarily, however, I will always be a bench-jeweller.

Thanks so much, Dauvit, for treating us to a behind-the-scenes look at your amazing creative life and what inspires you. Please check out Dauvit’s website to see more of his striking pieces.

[Images of Dauvit: Copyright Simon Murphy 2013; images of his jewellery by photographer Andrew Neilson]

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