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Plastic surgery

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

In Shelley Norton's hands, a controversial material is transformed into intricate works of art. Sarah Catherall talks to the jewellery maker about her plastic process.

Shelley Norton, 'Brown Fox', Daily Dada series, 2016, cut, knitted and melted plastic shopping bags. Photo by Caryline Boreham.

When Shelley Norton began turning plastic bags into jewellery more than 15 years ago, the material didn’t have the stigma it does today. The Auckland contemporary jeweller is surprised she is still working with the controversial material which she turns into beautiful, intricate brooches. Beneath her bed in her Grey Lynn villa, she has six banana boxes containing different coloured plastic bags.

Shelley returned to art school about 20 years ago, after a long career as a hand therapist − a job she continues to do today.

Initially, she attended workshops and summer schools here and abroad, making jewellery out of gold, silver and semi-precious materials. Then when she was studying towards a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Auckland in the early 2000s she discovered the beauty of plastic as a material. She began breaking plastic bags into strips and knitting them into necklaces, bracelets and brooches. While she has been knitting plastic bags since art school, she has more recently moved to fuse or melt the material, which has been a turning point in her work.

In her artist statement, she writes about her inspiration. ‘Roland Barthes described plastic as “abolishing the hierarchy of substances. A single one replaces them all the whole world can be plasticized…” This description of plastic resonates with (me) and is exciting conceptually, as it feeds into the ideas in (my) practice of manufacturing meaning. The plastic shopping bag, the discarded container of the purchased desired object reconstituted into object.’

Brooch from Shelley Norton's 'Boxed' series - 2017-2018, cut and knitted plastic shopping bags, melted with plastic melted in a painterly manner over the surface, sterling silver and steel. Photo by Caryline Boreham.

We are being discouraged from using plastic, which Shelley acknowledges: ‘Plastic is despised but it’s how people are using it.’ She adds that Dutch jewellers have been using plastic as a material since the 1940s, turning the simple garden hose into jewellery.

One of our notable contemporary jewellers, Shelley is represented by Fingers Gallery in Auckland and other galleries throughout New Zealand. She has been selected three times for the prestigious annual Schmuck exhibition held in Munich as part of a craft fair, the Internationale Handwerkmesse. Chosen from among hundreds of contemporary jewellers around the world, Shelley has been selected for the show more than any other New Zealand jeweller.

She has not long returned from one of the most exciting events in her art career, her first show at Ornamentum, a prestigious contemporary jewellery gallery in New York, where she is in esteemed company, alongside jewellers like Wellington’s Karl Fritz, and Swiss artist, David Biedlander. The gallery owner tracked her down. ‘That was pretty huge,’ she smiles.

Her brooches in the Ornamentum show, Boxed, are reminiscent of floral corsages when they are worn, with a folk art quality. To make them, Shelley cut the bags into strips less than a centimetre wide, and knitted them on fine needles.She then melted them on to small boxes, and layered up the image. ‘I am melting each piece as I work on the image. Slots are cut, and I construct the pieces into a 3-D object, melting the tabs, and riveting and adding the brooch pin.’

She says they are a nod to Otto Künzli’s wallpaper brooches, to Eduard Manet’s small paintings of floral bouquets, and to lavish chocolate box packaging. ‘Plastic, the great imitator, levelling and flattening hierarchies of value,’ she writes.

Brooch from Shelley Norton's 'Boxed' series - 2017-2018, cut and knitted plastic shopping bags, melted with plastic melted in a painterly manner over the surface, sterling silver and steel. Photo by Caryline Boreham.

Her works are playful, and designed to be worn. Drawn to the brooch as a form, she likes the way it is a small container for something, describing it as ‘like a small snail shell’.

Many of her works look like fine knitted wool. Some are bright and colourful, and Shelley says they are ‘a bit Dr Seuss’. ‘I don’t like to make too many art statements. I want people to make their own minds up about my work.’

Her work was shown by New Zealand gallery IWA representing New Zealand contemporary jewellers at the Munich Trade Fair this year, with a display curated by Peter Deckers and Hilda Gascard. And her jewellery will also be in a show of work by New Zealand contemporary jewellers being organised by Caroline Billings, of the National, Christchurch, at the same fair in Munich in March.

Shelley has been knitting since she was a child, and also making small, intricate things. She grew up in Southland, where her father ran a brick works that had been in the family for 120 years. As a child, she made clay objects which would then be fired in the works’ kiln. Her mother, an embroiderer and art teacher, taught her to knit. Her mother thought Shelley would make a good physiotherapist, so Shelley enrolled for both art school and a physiotherapy degree, opting for the latter when she was selected for both.

All these years later, it is a nice connection that Shelley uses her hands to knit and make contemporary jewellery, while also rehabilitating those who need to learn to reuse their hands.

‘I need the space in between’ she said.

First published Art Zone #77


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