Science Cast in Silver: Peggy Skemp
Peggy Skemp is a Chicago-based artist who specializes in jewelry with biological, anatomical and other nature-based themes. I contacted her recently (read: discovered her jewelry, fell in love with it, wept at the state of my bank account, then took every step necessary to find this amazing lady and interview her) and asked her a few questions about her art, skepticism, and what it’s like to design custom jewelry for a rock star.
Tell me about your background. Are you an artist-turned-scientist, a scientist-turned-artist, or was there some parallel evolution going on?
I was brought up in the Mississippi river valley near La Crosse, Wisconsin by environmentalist parents. It’s a beautiful area and my family had a little hobby farm where my gardens got increasingly ambitious every summer. My father was a fisheries biologist and mother an optimistic sales woman in the Dale Carnegie tradition. We did a lot of camping, hiking and skiing, and I found how unpredictable and changeable nature is to be very thrilling. My grandparents were also artist/scientists; Grandfather Skemp, a doctor, was into nature photography and also needlepoint, which kept his hands trained for surgery. My grandmother, the nurse, was very into sewing and my other grandmother was a chemist-turned housewife and her husband an entrepreneur, which is also very creative in a different kind of way.
Growing up I spent most of my time with my sister, Colleen. We liked to draw and explore the bluff behind our house. There was a one-room schoolhouse from the 1800’s on our land so we spent a lot of time playing “school.” We also sometimes got to go on field studies with Dad and spent some time at his fish lab. He was a student for a long time, working on 2 masters degrees in 2 different fields of science, GIS mapping and aquatic ecology. Our hay loft was full of research specimens from his thesis projects, all of these little vials of fish eggs in various stages of ossification. Our pets were the catfish from his toxicology experiments, the control group, of course. I thought they were a little scary because of their electrified moustaches.
So nature has always been available, and something I enjoy observing and participating in.
Before college I went to a very good vocational school for jewelry manufacture and gemology, GIA, so when I got accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I was able to work as a goldsmith through college. Before that I had been doing care-giver work for the elderly and disabled, which I really enjoyed. I also worked as a butcher for 2 years and went through a phase of making “meat art.”
At a certain point in art school I became frustrated with the lack of structure. I was reading a lot of textbooks on different topics my school didn’t offer and got really into neuroscience, and then wading through New England Journal of Medicine every week to assimilate that vernacular. In my 3rd year at SAIC I started taking some of the very intro pre-med classes at another school in Chicago, De Paul. It helped build my intellectual confidence and the Art Institute graciously let me use those classes toward my art degree. In my art classes I was always thinking about science and in my science classes I did a lot of illustrating in the margins.
What was your introduction to skepticism?
My close friend Nick brought me to skepticism when I was 22 (I’m 27 now). He and I talked a lot about critical thinking and he introduced me to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast which I was an instant fan of. Learning evidence-based thinking in skepticism helped me to create a litmus test for my beliefs, a system of discerning how true something might be, and suspending belief in the absence of evidence, even when something might feel intuitively right. It’s a very comforting way of filtering information. At one point I had a side job at a grocery store where I got to work in the dairy cooler all day and just listen to the SGU and a few other science podcasts, which is my version of heaven. That’s basically what I do now, only making jewelry instead of stocking yogurt.
A few years ago I got to meet the Novella brothers which was amazing because their show has influenced my way of thinking so much. I really admire what they and the Skepchicks are doing, injecting critical thinking into the world in a funny, accessible way. Its important work, and they are very generous to make it available as a free podcast.
A big theme this blog runs into often is the idea that art is is never rational, artists are all “fuzzy thinkers,” and creative expression goes out the window when you try to think critically. What has your experience been with this idea?
My experience with artists is that they are dynamic, philosophical thinkers. I felt extremely intimidated by the intellects of the other students at The School of the Art Institute. Many of those students had backgrounds in other things, like philosophy or genetics. They were very smart, talented people and the critical discussions we had in all of my classes were wonderfully rich. So my experience has been the opposite, that artists are usually very deep, dynamic thinkers. I think that some people like to degrade art as frivolous or less important than other disciplines because they feel left out or don’t know how to approach art criticism. I’m not sure why it comforts people to judge a whole field and write it off, but I think it has something to do with intellectual insecurity. Good art is usually a little bit obtuse. You have to reach for it, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve had experiences in exhibitions that really changed my ways of thinking about one or another thing. It’s potentially a very powerful way of communicating.
Do you ever get requests for pieces that are less grounded in science?
I sometimes get requests for more traditional bridal jewelry, and those are fun projects because I’m being asked to put my mark on a special transition in the lives of those couples.
Why such biological designs?
I use biology as a jumping off point for my collections because that is what I’m most interested in thinking about.
I am interested in how different types of animals feel and experience the world in ways that must be very different from humans. The diverse ways animals feel and communicate; all of the varied specialized adaptations, is captivating. Bats that see sound signatures, snakes that see heat signatures, squid that are able to change the color and reflectivity of their skin… and our unique human abilities where communication is concerned.
Another question would by why does most of my art happen to be jewelry, which is because I feel that jewelry is the most intimate art form. My work is mostly of the body, for the body, so the goal is to create works that feel personal and which would be best experienced as a worn object. Sometimes the work is kind of antagonistic, like the Sensitive Parasite series of enameled parasite sensory organs, phasmids. The anatomical heart locket has been the most successful design and people personalize it in different ways. I have made different versions for people to commemorate surviving a particular type of anomaly, like one that I made with a tiny LAD stent. I enjoy making pieces that are changeable and can be explored, as I think that adds to the intimacy, and people like to play with things, even grown-ups. It becomes more about the wearer’s experience of the piece and less about any cultural associations with that form as a particular symbol.
As a jeweler my work is also sometimes contextualized as fashion, which I really enjoy because I think of fashion as the sculpture of the cultural moment, and feel that my work is very accessible through that framing.
Your website mentions that your tentacle jewelry was made from a mold of a small octopus your great-grandmother found. How much of your work is made from copies of things found in nature, and how much of it is designed from scratch?
I would say all of my work is designed from scratch, regardless of whether I use mold-making to achieve certain textures. I don’t ever just take a mold of something and reproduce it in its entirety. All of my work begins with a hand-carved wax and is typically naturalistic in theme, although not always. I did a mini collection a few years ago of mobile necklaces that were inspired by the movement of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. One of them was a flock of seagulls mobile necklace, and when the wearer moves the seagulls kind of look like they are flying. As a young artist I feel very free to explore a diverse range of themes. For the past couple years the main requirement is that a design be something intimate that is best experienced as jewelry. I feel that it would be disingenuous on a certain level for all of my art to be jewelry as not every concept is best expressed as a worn object.
Please brag about the famous people who wear your jewelry.
My best friend Arianne Zager is an up-in-coming NY artist who shows her work all over the world. She has all of my greatest pieces, including the biggest enameled piece I made, “Queen Hive,” from the Empty Hives series, when I was doing more with vitreous enamel. I don’t know whether she is officially “famous” yet, but she does run in some very interesting circles.
Jerry Caiafa, the bassist from the Misfits has been commissioning very special projects and it looks like I might be designing some limited edition pieces which will be made available to his “Fiend Club.” His wonderful wife Joanna has been collecting my jewelry. I’m excited to be working with them and proud of the first piece that has resulted, Octopus vs Squid or “The Battle of the Deep,” is what Jerry calls it. It’s a trio of 3 pieces, a silver squid necklace and octopus ring and 2 of the squid’s tentacles can detach to become earrings. The ring can snap onto the necklace so they can be worn or displayed as a single piece. I am also planning on etching the octopus to have stripes. When a grey octopus is preparing to mate with another octopus, it becomes covered with stripes and massages the other octopus with 7 of its 8 tentacles. Then if the female gives her consent, he uses his 8th tentacle to deposit the egg sack into her breathing tube. If you turn the necklace over, the squid has been hollowed out and it has a golden squid brain and nervous system set within it (18ky gold.) I hope it is meaningful to them.
Tell me about some of your upcoming projects!
I have the next two collections pretty much planned out. Working with a lot more stones, and the metal “carnation silver” which is a lovely pink alloy of silver and copper and oxidizes beautifully brick red. The work that is coming over the summer will be called “Viscera,” and is inspired by muscle and tendon. These are going to be more contemporary pieces which I hope will have a certain elegance. The collection coming after that is going to have a lot of moving pieces and variability and is inspired by vestigial limbs, from evolutionary biology.
On the side I have been doing a lot of little special projects with rare and unusual gems, some Etruscan-looking stuff with snakes and also mini series called “A Hive as Though Built By a Bee Whose Antennal Tips Had Been Amputated.” When a bee has its antennal tips amputated it makes very irregular hive lattices. In that little series I was thinking of parallels between animal and human architecture. I’m not sure how disruptive it is to a bee’s life to have hive lattices that are not hexagonal, but I do know that when humans are missing what we need to build our homes, horrible catastrophes result. For example, the vast difference between the damage in Haiti after their terrible earthquake, which leveled pretty much everything because of they way things were built there, vs. the damage in Japan after the more recent tsunami, which aside from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, was pretty minimal. It was exhilarating to see video of the tall buildings sway but not come down. If only that type of technology were available to everyone.
Not everything is on my website right now, which is in transition. Within the next few months you will be able to browse past and current collections and there will be plenty of bells and whistles. In the mean time you can see some of the new work for sale on my etsy site, heronadornment.etsy.com, or visit with me in person at any of the Renegade shows this summer.