Gems from the heart
There’s a tensile balance between strength and fragility in the work of jewellery-maker Penelope Barnhill. Not only is this evident in the pieces themselves – a rosebud encased in a silver cage, for instance – it’s also a real part of the physical creation. Twisting and hammering metals into shape can be hard on the hands and body, yet there’s a delicacy required.
“I work massive hours preparing for a show; I’m so focused I just about lose the power of speech,” she says. The process also takes its toll on the emotions. “I make some whimsical, innocent pieces but many have a lot of depth and thought behind them.”
For Penelope, designing necklaces, rings and earrings is an irresistible calling: “It’s something I just have to do.” As a child her imagination was stimulated when, in her grandmother’s Cashmere Hills home, she was taken on an ornamental tour down memory lane. Her grandma kept jewellery in matchboxes lined with cotton wool. The opulent trinkets were finely crafted but their most precious aspect was the memories they triggered. “They connected her with the past, to moments in time. The stories just flowed.”
Penelope’s favourite was a pendant, styled like an antique vinaigrette (used for holding sweet-smelling substances), complete with a perfume vial and painted with roses. “I liked the whole idea of scent and imagery and adornment.”
After majoring in printmaking and 3-D design at Christchurch Polytechnic, Penelope initially took the bejewelled path for pragmatic reasons.
“I realised it would be difficult to set up a sculpture studio; jewellery is interesting and also portable.”
But her talent blossomed when she rented a place at a bench in Warwick Freeman’s Fingers studio in Devonport. Unable to afford many precious metals or gemstones, she adapted. She used real rosebuds, scoria and even road stone to create a hard-hitting collection. “Warwick gave me fabulous technical support. He does incredible, meticulous stuff that contrasts with mine. I like seeing flaws because that’s the way life is.”
Her work is, for the most part, gallery-based, and often shown at Fingers and Royal Jewellery in Auckland, Lure in Dunedin and Avid in Wellington. “It’s art you can wear,” she explains. “The pieces are like personal talismans.”
Above: Penelope Barnhill and Raoul, her talkative Bengal. Below: Dandelion rings; Glass necklaces; Pieces from Penelope’s Bud to Bloom series.
Penelope’s first solo show, Fragile Hearts, was held in Christchurch. “During my first year of study I lost my mother, grandmother and great-aunt.” Work was one way to express her grief and the exhibition title reflected her experiences when “love and loss go hand in hand”. Amulets, hearts and cages made of silver and copper enclosed rose petals and thorns. “The work entwined beauty with vulnerability and strength.”
The show was a success – and a turning point. Penelope moved to Grey Lynn where she has spent the past 20 years shaping her vision from her studio overlooking a completely edible garden, fragrant with coffee and sugarcane.
Plants have always featured strongly in Penelope’s repertoire. Some are poignant, such as the red felt poppy and frangipani necklaces she created after a visit to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge Genocide Museum. “It’s a place where so many people were brutally murdered and tortured and it got me thinking of the Anzacs and Gallipoli.”
Other works, such as her buttercup daisy necklaces and dandelion rings, are whimsical yet infused with emotion. “When the clocks are blown, all is lost yet free; they are about the moment of hope and expectation as the wish is formed,” says Penelope.
Working to commission, Penelope finds great joy in her work. “It’s so exciting and flattering to make, for example, an engagement ring for someone. There are still so many romantic guys around. It’s a wonderful thing to get caught up in.”
See more of Penelope's work at her website www.penelopebarnhill.co.nz
|Story: Claire Mccall|
Photographer: Kieran Scott