IMAGINE AN ELK whose antlers sprawl upward and outward like a 10-story apartment building. Then imagine there are inhabitants of those antlers – birds and squirrels and people who built a child’s tree house and left it there. Now try to see yourself wearing “The Elk With Antlers That Never Stopped Growing,” a piece of 21st-century art jewelry that encircles your head and neck like a whimsical bramble bush.
To witness this 3-D fairy-tale object and others equally fantastical, head to the Philadelphia Art Alliance for “Legends,” a show of visionary jewelry made by 25-year-old Emily Cobb, who designs her works with CAD (computer-assisted design) software and manufactures it from sturdy lightweight photopolymers and nylon using a sophisticated 3-D printer.
Printed jewelry probably sounds as much like a fairy tale as that elk’s antlers, but the future of art jewelry (also called studio jewelry) is all about computer-designed and -printed bangles, necklaces, earrings and other wearable sculptural objects.
For Cobb – who recently received a master’s degree in fine arts from Tyler School of Art, where she teaches – computers and 3-D printing are natural tools. She learned Photoshop and Illustrator, two basic design programs, in high school. But learning how to program in three dimensions was a turning point.
“It changed me. It seemed so new to me and innovative. It was where the future was going,” she said.
“She’s a total tech nerd,” said Art Alliance curator Sarah Archer, who organized the show, Cobb’s first solo exhibit. The Art Alliance does not have a collection but offers cutting-edge artists like Cobb an opportunity to show their work in a museumlike setting.
“Studio jewelry is never going to be sold at Nordstrom’s. It can be challenging and sometimes not beautiful,” said Archer, noting that she herself did not have the personality to wear antlers.
It’s also different from conventional pieces because of the materials used to make it, Cobb said. “Historically, society puts precious metals and stones on a pedestal. But I haven’t found people want my jewelry to be priced lower because it’s plastic.”
Cobb’s smaller pieces, made in series, cost from $100 to $300. Larger unique pieces, such as those in this show, start at $1,000 and go to $3,000 depending on size and complexity.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s decorative-arts collection is starting to add this type of studio jewelry, Archer said, which reflects Philly’s tradition of supporting art jewelry. Helen Drutt, a local craft collector, dealer and scholar, was an early supporter of studio jewelry. “She made people understand that it’s not about beauty,” Archer said.
The works in Cobb’s exhibit hold their own as miniature sculptures sitting in glass cases or pinned to the wall of the alliance’s first floor. But in a way they are only half of the exhibition. Each piece has a “Once upon a time” story introduction written by the artist on the title card.
Cobb invites viewers to write their own story in specially made blank books. Cobb is documenting viewers’ stories online.
Most of the writings are whimsical and in keeping with Cobb’s narrative. She embraces all the entries and is thrilled that some people are finishing each other’s stories, something she did not anticipate.
Mari Shaw, a local art lover who collects Cobb’s work and helps promote and sell it, said that the artist’s impulse to share comes from a core generosity that’s part of her makeup. “She is so humble but so accomplished,” said Shaw. “She loves teaching as well as creating. They are both giving.”
According to Archer, decorative arts of all cultures take inspiration from mythological characters and stories (think unicorns, for example). But Cobb is working with her own myths.
“She doesn’t go back to the old stuff,” said Archer.
On the gallery walls are large color photographs of a model wearing the pieces displayed. The images help contextualize and personalize the objects and show how playful they could be, if you had the personality to wear antlers.
If you want to see more of Emily Cobb’s jewelry in the real world, contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Legends: Studio Jewelry by Emily Cobb,” through Dec. 11. Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., 215-545-4032, philartalliance.org.
This story appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on Nov. 2, 2012 as part of Art Attack, a partnership with Drexel University supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.