Sometime in 2020, I came to the realization that I wanted more color in my life. This could have been a pandemic-prompted compulsion, or maybe the middle-aged yearnings of an individual recalling some beloved jewel-toned fairy tale illustrations of their childhood, but whatever it was, I was feeling done with my #allblackeverything phase (although I reserve the right to step right back into it whenever the urge strikes me!)
I spied the lovely luminous work of jeweler Alexis Berger at just the right time, then! Don’t you love these cosmic winks from the universe? Beautifully crafted, translucent beads with finishes reminiscent of Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoch, Alexis’ work is utterly imbued with her unique creative vision and I am so thrilled that she has agreed to answer some of my nosy questions. See below wherein Alexis shares all about her love affair with hot glass and her “sparkly glowing fire-melty” life’s dreams of working with this most sumptuous material.
As someone with enthusiasm for the arts but with a marked lack of talent or skill in that area, I am always interested in how my favorite artists got started. When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life? How did you know what medium was the one you were interested in working in? Do you dabble in other mediums? Where did it all begin, and when did “your art” coalesce for you?
I came from a very artistic family, both sides of my family were involved in architecture, design, and craftsmanship. My father is an architect. My mother is a craftswoman and worked as a professional seamstress for quite a few years, now she enjoys restoring antique sewing machines.
My paternal grandfather was a painter, musician, and photographer and my grandmother was a professional dancer. My maternal grandfather was also an architect and my maternal grandmother was also a fantastic craftswoman.
I was introduced to drawing and handicraft from a very early age, and from the minute I figured out how to make my hands do what I wanted, I used arts and crafts as an escape, I had a hard time in school so I felt like I wanted to escape a lot. When I announced that I wanted to go to art-school and around age 6? it was met with the hearty joy of parents excited that their kid is going into the family business. I was aware, very early on, that if I wanted to be a SERIOUS artist I needed to learn to draw from life so I was very focused on keeping a sketchbook and drawing ALL the time, that was me being a serious art-school wannabe, but I always did crafts for fun on the side. I loved embroidery, basketry ceramics, and of course making jewelry out of everything I could get my hands on. It was also at this time that I started collecting beads, or rather more accurately, adding to the collection that my mom started and I stole from. But because that was so much “FUN” I didn’t take it seriously, also I didn’t think I could put it into a portfolio to get into a SERIOUS art school.
This is a story of how I mistook my calling as a hobby for years, always learning other skills but coming back to jewelry.
I eventually got into an art magnet high school (Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of The Arts) which was great for me. They are very rigorous about training you to get into a good art-college and you’re around other artsy-fartsy kids who you learn as much from as the teachers. They helped me put a portfolio together which got me into RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and there I decided to major in Industrial Design (ID) which is designing everything you interact with that gets produced: toys, toothbrushes, cell phones… I still at this point thought, “I need to go get a JOB” and this would major would be good to teach me how to be a serious DESIGNER! Even though that’s not where I ended up, ID was a great thing to major in because it taught me how to think about things in 3D and how to use lots of different materials. I learned about metals and welding as well as woodworking and plastics.
Ironically I never learned how to use glass while I was at RISD, glass was in a whole different department and location on campus and was notoriously difficult to get access to, so I never touched it there. I actually learned about glass for the first time while I was teaching weaving at an arts-camp called Buck’s Rock. They had a world-class glass blowing facility there and that’s where I first saw glass beads being made. I didn’t know anything about how to work with hot-glass and I was transfixed. It was like falling in love, all I wanted to do was make BEADS! I used basically every scrap of time off I had that summer to practice making them at the facilities there and when that summer ended I was completely seduced, from that point on, I was melting glass every chance I got.
When I went back to school at RISD in the fall. I got into trouble for using the metal shop soldering torches for lampworking and over the next summer, I made sparkly sharp messes in my grandparents’ back yard as I melted broken Heineken bottles and Bombay sapphire gin bottles. (which makes excellent blue glass with red copper streaks if you’re interested). My family was very forgiving… but to be fair, I never burned anybody’s house down, just toasted my own fingers a fair amount.
Glass was all I could think about, I had sparkly glowing fire-melty dreams at night and all I wanted to do was Lampwork all day, but I still didn’t quite have the confidence that I could be a glass-artist. I was still on track to become an industrial designer, but I was quickly falling out of love with the slicker-than-snot-super-hyper-masculine look that the department seemed to be pushing and that so many products in the industry seemed to have. Think: tennis shoes, gillette razors, cars, and even air fresheners.
Everyone wanted to make products that looked fast and angry and maybe wanted to lay eggs in your brain. I also began to look at the kind of life I would have as an industrial designer if I started working at a company…
-I would start as computer-monkey fiddling in a 3D modeling program
-taking direction from a senior designer
-I would be in an office
-I wouldn’t be using my hands to make anything much
-and worst of all I wouldn’t get to be in charge of the designs I worked on…at least not until I had worked my way up to being a senior designer which could take years.
…and ultimately, I didn’t get the tight little shiver of pleasure from looking at a well-designed toothbrush that some of my fellow students seemed to.
But a beautiful pair of earrings? ohhhhh!
Finally, in my senior year, I got to have a chat with one of the teachers and I asked, “Do I have to go work for Bic Pens or Clorox or Hasbro when I graduate?…OR can I go into business for myself? Is that something I can even do?”
And she answered like she was letting me in on a secret. “YES” that one conversation was the permission I needed to begin scheming on how to eventually make jewelry full time.
For those who may not know (me, for one) what exactly is lampwork glass? (And is that the same thing as “flamework”? I think I have seen your work referred to as both?) And what are the rewards and challenges of working with lampwork glass?
That’s right, flamework and lampwork are interchangeable terms. The “lamp” in lampwork refers to the fact that the heat source for this type of craft used to be done on oil lamps that would be stoked with a bellows blowing fresh air across the flame to heat it up enough to melt glass.
The process is melting rods of different colored glass in a torch (much like a bunsen burner) and manipulating the molten glass with different tools and techniques to create different shapes. Layering different colors will give you lots of different patterns and effects but you’d be amazed what you can do with just using gravity and an old ex-ato knife.
The rewards of working with glass are numerous but at the top of the list I’d say it’s immediacy. It takes years to make things perfectly (one of glass’ drawbacks is that it’s HARD and takes lots of practice) but when you sit down to work, you sculpt the piece all in one sitting, and it’s essentially finished. It will need to cool in the kiln but when it comes out it’s all shiny and bright and if you’re lucky, it’s just how you imagined it. If you’re casting something there are so many steps involved in producing and finishing your work. But lampworked glass is created in its final material and form and all the colors and shapes are right there for you to dig into.
While lampworking, it’s very easy to be seduced into covering everything you produce with detail rather than letting the material speak for itself, it’s a balance between showing off virtuoso technique and actually allowing the natural beauty of the glass to shine. There is a temptation to show skill rather than beauty. Metal and gem jewelry is all about using the color and optical qualities of the stone with the metals acting as structure and a “canvas” for the gems. I try to use that sensibility with my work, contrasting optic and reflective components with structural supporting ones. Glass is such an inherently beautiful material that working with it becomes a game to allow somebody to see that beauty in all its aspects without being distracted by too much sensory input all at once. I think this objective is true for many craftspeople who are working with sumptuous materials.
You’ve mentioned that glass as a material, allows you to “paint with light and color in three dimensions, which is critical to making the natural motifs that inspire my art”. Can you share a bit about those natural motifs and why they speak to you?
Nature is the best teacher when it comes to making a design that works, for lots of my work I try to make something that looks like it could have been plucked off a tree or picked up on the beach. Or imitates human anatomy, there is something so thrilling about capturing lifelike qualities in art.
Other than hot glass, what are your favorite materials to work with and why?
As I mentioned before I LOVE fiber-arts and I still incorporate a bit of that into some of my jewelry, I make crochet silk necklaces for many of my pendants. I especially love crochet and embroidery. I’ve been enjoying crocheting lace on my clothes during the pandemic. It’s so soothing and repetitive, you can let yourself go into a trance while binge-watching Star Trek.
You seem to have a thing for EYES! As I mentioned to you in a previous conversation, I shared on my Tumblr page (haha, yes, I still use Tumblr!) a photograph that you had posted to your Instagram of your weeping eye brooches, and that Tumblr post is now at 14K likes/reblogs and growing– obviously, this is a symbol that speaks to other folks as well! Whether it’s the symbolic tears of the mourning eye or an apotropaic talisman to ward off evil, the eye is a powerful and enduring emblem. I’d love to hear about its personal meaning for you.
Yes! Thanks, I’ve been thinking about that for a while, it’s really striking to me how many people are feeling a connection to weeping eyes right now. I think about the last time jewelry with a weeping eye motif was really popular and that was around the Georgian and Victorian era, death and mourning were so present in people’s daily lives and that’s where we are again. We as a society are going through a huge mass-death event and are feeling the appalling consequences of living under a government that couldn’t be bothered to help us. There is so much loss to feel and process, as well as joy and relief as hope sprouts back up to meet us. All of this emotion makes crying eyes feel like the right motif for the moment. I know it did for me.
Part of the job of art is to help us process our feelings and express ourselves, and wearing jewelry is a very potent act of self-expression. Wearing a weeping eye is unmistakable in its message, there is pain here, there is beauty here, and I’m here to feel it.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
What a fun question!
I get to my studio at the crack of noon most days (I’m not an early bird) and the first order of business is to go open the kiln from the day before. It’s like Christmas every time, I pull out the treasures and turn the kiln on to heat up,(it goes to about 1000 degrees) while this is happening I go make myself a HUGE pot of tea which I will chug continuously throughout the day, I usually spend a few minutes photographing the stuff I made the day before (while the light is still good) then it’s time to light the torch and melt that glass!
I believe I read that you also have a love for music? And cooking! Tell me more! Who are some of your favorite musicians right now? Do you have an all-time favorite album? What is a meal that you’ve cooked lately that you were particularly excited about? Or a favorite go-to comfort meal? If you can’t tell, music and food are two subjects very dear to my heart 🙂
I take after my Grandmother in that I love dancing, before the pandemic I loved ballroom and partner dancing of all kinds, I miss the music I would listen to then, blues, and zydeco music would be what I would hear live most often. But music to listen to while I work is a totally different game. Right now I’d recommend the album Deluge by Anura, it came out recently and it absolutely put my head in the right space to make good stuff. You can get it on Bandcamp from the label “Already Dead Tapes” Highly recommended. It’s a perfect relaxing but invigorating get-work-done album.
As for FOOD! Well, I am a lucky girl indeed because although I’m an OK cook I married a Genius Chef. My husband is an amazing cook who is always inventing and teaching himself how to make new things, he has made sourdough from scratch, pickles, pizza oh boy! But I think the thing he made that’s my favorite as well as being really creative was he made spiced fried chicken with a “breading” made from almond-flour and sesame seeds which just about knocked my socks off.
This is all to say, do I have a passion for cooking? Yes! It just happens to be my husband’s cooking.
Is there a particular bead and/or jewelry artist you admire or who you consider a role model? And/or if you were to draw attention to a favorite designer or artist, who would it be and why?
I am constantly amazed and inspired by my dear friend Anandamyi Arnold who makes incredible floral/fruit sculptures and surprise balls out of crepe paper, they are often so life-like that they are confused about the real thing if you’re interested, I’d check out her Instagram page under the handle @lynxandtelescope
She was definitely a role model for me as she has been making sculptures full-time professionally for years and was a fantastic example to me of how to “make it” and set up your life to work as a full-time artist in the Bay Area.
Is there anything else that you might like Unquiet Things readers to know about your work?
I’d say that I would want people to know that I’m so grateful I get to do what I love for a living and part of why that’s possible is people like you who have made it their passion to curate and proselytize about things that move you and others around you.
So thank you, and thank you to all the people who have read this, I hope you got something out of it. Perhaps you feel inspired to pick up that craft project you’ve been thinking about doing, that would make me very happy to think somebody might go make something because they read this. 😀