October/November Feature Artist: Melinda Young

Sometimes cheeky, always thoughtful; the works of contemporary jewellery artist Melinda Young are a reflection of a lifelong affinity with creating. An organic extension of her approach to life at large, Melinda’s works consist of a balance between theoretical research and contemplation with bursts of wicked humour. With a keen eye for colour and texture (you just have to look at her eclectic studio!), Melinda’s inspiration comes from all that is around her – often, literally. Having made her first piece of jewellery at the age of four, arranging stones from a beach in England on a ribbon, the incorporation of found objects is a defining feature of Melinda’s work.  Whether with found pieces of wood, artificial plants, or cocktail stirrers, Melinda’s ideas often transform commonplace objects or encounters into refined and unusual compositions that take the form of necklaces, rings, earrings, and brooches. I interviewed Melinda in her studio in Rozelle, in anticipation for her inclusion in the exhibition Cultivate – New Artisans (4- 14th October, 2014).

Vanessa Low: Fill in the blanks…

Melinda Young: My name is (Melinda Young), I am (a maker), from (Sydney). My art practice involves (contemporary jewellery). I am an artist because (what else would I be?).

VL: Could you briefly describe your background? How did you develop your interest in jewellery?

MY: I grew up immersed in craft. Both my parents are craftspeople and my grandmother was a milliner. My mum sews but also taught macramé and did some amazing fibre art whilst I was growing up. My father trained as a woodworker and is a design and technology teacher, but he can make anything. He is also an amazing leather worker and I remember when we moved to Australia he wanted to learn to surf, so he made his own board; he wanted a boat so he made one of those too. It was very much if your needed or wanted something you made it. I grew up wearing handmade clothes and shoes; we would sit around in the evening making, in a house full of furniture that dad had made, upholstered by mum. Weekends were often spent going to craft fairs with mum and dad; they were part of a craft collective. So I grew up in that environment, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t made stuff or been surrounded by making. I was really lucky. So, it’s a bit of a no-brainer that this is what I’ve ended up doing…

I’ve always made stuff and I’ve always enjoyed making jewellery. I made a bit of jewellery in high school and sold it in the corridors – like a jewellery peddler! In the 80’s, bracelets of safety pins with beads on them were the thing, so that was what I did. And I also made bead earrings. In high school, I also discovered painting in a big way. When I left school, I went to Sydney University to do an Arts Degree, majoring in Fine Arts and taking painting as an elective. After two years there, I went to COFA [College of Fine Arts, Sydney] and studied a Bachelor of Art Theory, and I did painting as an elective. During this time I started doing jewellery classes at Community College. A friend and I did a couple of courses and they were awesome. So that was how I started on the jewellery path properly. I subsequently took jewellery electives at COFA, first with Sylvia Ross and then Diane Appleby (who continues to be a mentor twenty years later), and I really loved it… I found myself at a cross-roads. I was stimulated by Art Theory but not getting as much out of it as I should have been, I enjoyed painting but felt that conceptually jewellery had more to offer my burgeoning art practice. So I applied to National Art School to do painting and I applied to Sydney College of the Arts to do jewellery and I thought: where I get into, I’ll go. And amazingly I ended up being accepted into both. So I thought, I’ve done quite a bit of painting so I’ll do jewellery at SCA, and I’ve never looked back.

I started first year again, for the third time, and I went all the way through to take Honours and Masters. I was blessed to have some incredible teachers at SCA, particularly Margaret West, who gave me the tools and encouragement to develop a jewellery practice. To bring my journey full circle, I am now a teacher. I started my teaching career with Community College classes, which is where I first began and I now teach jewellery electives at COFA and have done for many years. I have also taught at Sydney College of the Arts and full time at Enmore Design Centre for 4 years. So it’s been this really beautiful journey, a really organic process. And that’s how I like to live my life anyway, fairly organically just seeing where the wind will blow. And I am very much a believer in opening yourself out to the universe and seeing what comes.

VL: What inspires your art-making process?

MY: Everything. The world around me, colour, texture, the things I find, the things I see…

VL: Your jewellery often incorporates found objects. Can you describe where you source your items from and your selection criteria?

MY: I find things everywhere I go. Things just appear in front of me and I pick them up. Different things appeal to me at different times. Lots of recent finds have been natural materials – a shift from plastics, the ‘unnatural’ materials that dominated my work for a long time. Weirdly I seem to find lots of puzzle pieces. Something will appeal to me for its shape or texture, it’s colour. There’s just some sort of intrinsic quality that an object has that will draw me to it. It may be that it will fit with a particular project or and idea that I have. Or it might just appeal to me as a thing. I find a lot of materials at Reverse Garbage, and I get a lot of visual stimuli from Rozelle Markets. As Julieanne [Mills, the curator of Artisans in the Garden] aptly described, I’m a ‘suburban gleaner.’

VL: Could you explain your design process – how to you go about planning and executing your works?

MY: It varies from piece to piece. If we come back to the ideas of colour and texture, they’re really starting points, along with research (this might be visual or theory-based). Different collections of work come from different places. Sometimes it’s an immediate response to a material or colour. And my production work tends to be like that, my more wearable, everyday pieces.

I make some things fairly intuitively. I’ll look at the material and think about what I can do with it and how it will go together. Some pieces are very thought-out, processed, designed and the result of extensive material research and development – ‘material play’ if you will. Other work is grounded heavily in conceptual and historical or theoretical research. When working with found objects however, sometimes you just have to respond to the object. Which is what I often do.

VL: A book that I can always reread is…

MY: I always come back to Jane Austen and particularly Persuasion. There’s something about the stillness of that book and Austen’s use of ‘place’ in that book. The way that she uses places as metaphors… reading it is a solace and a comfort in times of trouble or just a cosy space to retreat to – I tend to reread it every year or so. Another book that has struck me recently was Just Kids by Patti Smith; it really moved me. I read it twice back-to-back.

VL: There is also often an element of playfulness in your pieces. What inspires this and how do you go about communicating humour in your work?

MY: I’ve got a wicked sense of humour and for all the seriousness of some of I my work, I do like to have fun – I like making pieces that are a bit jokey, that are a bit of a pun. Perhaps if you look closely at the materials and the title, or if you look at the form of the piece and the title of my works you will ‘get’ the joke too. I enjoy that element of playfulness; it keeps me sane and helps to build a connection with the wearer and viewer of the work. I also like colour and I use some pretty out-there materials that almost instantly renders something playful.

VL: Like the necklace you made with the corncob?

MY: That was a Daiso eraser that I deconstructed – I made a whole collection out of Daiso erasers last year [shown at Gaffa Gallery’s Curio Cabinet]. The year before, I made a neckpiece out of a pink corncob harmonica and I called it Harmonicorn. It’s just fun – you sit by yourself in the studio all day, you’ve got to keep yourself amused. I make really serious work, but I make really light work, too.

VL: Like comic relief!

MY: Exactly, that’s the dichotomy of my practice. My art theory background really grounds my practice – I make really serious work that has a really strong conceptual intent. But then I make work that is just ridiculous. And that kind of sums me up.

VL: You make acrylic pieces, but you also mentioned casting, blackening and carving processes. Can you describe the different techniques you use?

MY: I saw pierce a lot; I have a really low-tech, low-impact practice as much as possible. Jewellery-making can be really toxic, so I try to keep my practice low-impact in regards to technique and materials – I use found or recycled materials as much as humanly possible. In terms of technique it’s low-tech because that suits my studio space. All the acrylic is hand-cut with a saw; everything is hand-carved with a file. I outsource the casting to a company in Marrickville. If I need to use big tools and machines, I am fortunate that I work somewhere where I can access what I need. Or I will go and use the Sydney College of the Arts jewellery workshop through their Alumni access scheme. And that’s just up the road. So I’m able to position myself in terms of being low-tech here and being able to outsource industrial jobs or do a day access somewhere to use machinery – it means being very organized, but it works for me. I prefer not to do work that involves chemicals in my studio as well because my son plays in here and it needs to be a safe space for him to enjoy. So, mainly I focus on hand making, I like what the hand does, I like the limitations my studio environment imposes on my work as well – it challenges me, makes me re-think ways of construction and making. I also think that touching the work, even if it’s the simple act of threading a bead or creating a composition, the way that you put it together in your hand is really important. The mark of the maker’s hand is intrinsic and sadly being lost.

VL: You also work as a design lecturer; what about the teaching process do you enjoy most?

MY: I love teaching! Both my parents are teachers as well as crafts people, and my grandparents were teachers also. I suspect that it’s genetic! I really enjoy it, and am incredibly privileged to share what I’ve learnt from so many amazing teachers with others. And it’s a two-way street. I feel incredibly fortunate to have met all the amazing students I’ve worked with. They all come from different backgrounds and different places, from different experiences, and I learn as much from the students as (I hope) they learn from me. It’s amazing to see students grow and blossom and latch on to an idea and take it somewhere else. It’s really great. It’s a tremendous privilege to do that.

I also teach a fair few workshops in conjunction with exhibitions, which I also love. These tend to be attended by more established makers, often from different craft disciplines, and the workshops sometimes become more of a skill share – this is so energising and something I really encourage – peer learning is a crucial way of keeping skills alive and also seeing them translate across disciplines.

VL: Something that I’m looking forward to is:…

MY: Teaching a jewellery from natural materials workshop at Hawkesbury Regional Art Gallery in conjunction with the Lola Greeno – Cultural Jewels exhibition; and going to Tonga with my family and some friends towards the end of the year. I am also really looking forward to completing a new body of work for my solo exhibition in Broken Hill and going back there to install it in April next year, it is currently in material research stage and I am so excited by some new directions taking shape….

VL: A question asked by the previous feature artist, Bee Bowen: if they could have a superpower, what would it be?

MY: The ability to control time. I would use this super power for making jewellery and spending time with family.


Website: http://www.melindayoung.net/

Melinda’s work is currently on display in ‘Cultivate – New Artisans’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens (4 -14 October, Palm House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Free entry.)

Melinda’s other current/upcoming exhibitionsSense & Scentability, The Personal Space Project (Canberra, October 10 – November 14); A fine possession – Jewellery & identity, Powerhouse Museum (Sydney, until September 2015); Fingers Group Show, Fingers Gallery (Auckland, New Zealand, November); Silver City Dreams Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, April 2015 and Studio 20/17, Sydney late 2015.

Selected Stockists of Melinda’s jewellery: Studio 20/17 
6b/2 Danks St 
Waterloo NSW; woodpapersilk
 348 Stanmore Rd
 Petersham NSW; Sterling at gaffa gallery 
281 Clarence Street 
Sydney NSW; Yoshi Jones 134 and Lvl 1, 24 9King St Newtown, NSW; Studio Melt 119 Hunter St, Hunter Street Mall Newcastle; COUNTER at Craft Victoria
 31 Flinders Lane 
Melbourne VIC; Pieces of Eight
 28 Russell Place Melbourne VIC; Zu Design
 Gays Arcade Balcony
 Adelaide SA; Fio Contemporary 6/65 James Street, Fortitude Valley QLD; Fingers 2 Kitchener St Auckland NZ; Masterworks Gallery 
77 Ponsonby Rd 
Ponsonby, Auckland NZ.