Smile Politely

Activated by being on the body

I had the opportunity to adventure out to campus town during graduation weekend. Objective: to find a building I’ve never been to; meet someone I’ve never met; and check out some jewelry that is definitely not traditional. It’s funky, modern, different, and not what I immediately think of when I think of jewelry. After walking around (a.k.a. being lost) and asking a student in full cap and gown, I found the Art Annex Building. Opened the door and walked into an old building; the smells reminded me of my childhood and made me smile. I walked up to the second floor, searching through the winding hallway complete with old, dark wooden door after door. I turn the corner to find an open door. Enter Caitlin Skelcey and her corner art studio. Caitlin has been working on her Masters of Fine Arts in Studio Metals for the last three years at the University of Illinois, and had her convocation the day after I met with her.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at a University artist studio. I was surprised to realize she had her own room with multiple tables and shelves filled with supplies, all labeled accordingly. We greeted each other and sat down: me on a wobbly stool that I imagined toned by abs during the interview, her on a taller stool across from me. Looking around at the room I noticed pink accent walls, pieces I recognized from her website, traditional jeweler’s tools, a wall of coiled plastics of varied colors, and bones. Yep, that’s right, there are human bones in Skelcey’s studio. Which really didn’t surprise me as I had visited her website a week before to view her pieces and thought they resembled bones. Whether it was the color, shape or name, I figured she got some inspiration from bones, but I didn’t know it was so deeply rooted. 

So what is it that Caitlin really does? As she so eloquently puts it, “I categorize myself as an art jeweler who works in both traditional and contemporary methods of making jewelry.”

She first graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kendall College of Art and Design in Michigan, where she’s from, with a double major in painting and metals and jewelry design. It was during her undergrad time at Kendall that her idea of what an artist was supposed to be, changed. “When I was exposed to that, it changed my concept of what I was supposed to be as an artist, we think of sculpture, painting as what fine art is…that’s what’s different about metals and jewelry, it deals with the body and how we interact with objects — a lot more intimate” Skelcey states. It was at Kendall that she first used 3D printing where they “focused on new technology and traditional craft jewelry practices, (like) learn(ing) stone setting, and a digital modeling class. There was a lot of overlap. Soldering something and printing something.”

Caitlin explained how she uses a 3D pen. She has a 3D printing machine in her studio but explained that she prefers the pen because “the pen is very gestural, close to drawing.” She showed me a ring that she made with a metal ring in the middle and explained that she then used the pen to layer the filament over top of it. Looking at her pieces up close it’s easy to see the labor of love that goes in to it; to lay and form a layer at a time and then “filing at the jeweler’s bench”, smoothing it down to shape and refine the piece. Some of her pieces even have moving parts, or hinges that she printed on the 3D machine. She showed me how a black necklace piece rotates to allow you to slide around the neck and then rotate back to hug and lay perfectly around the neck.

It’s very obvious she is passionate about what she does. The fact that she blends the lines of body parts and jewelry is something that makes her work fascinating. You find yourself looking closer at the details to see if you can feel what she was while making it, or at least guess what body part may have inspired it. I find it sweet that she gets inspired by the bones pieces from a skull, fibula, and an arm that live in her studio, as they came from her mother’s med school kit. Skelcey’s mother is a doctor but also in Caitlin’s min mind, an artist. She’s recalls her earliest art lesson, “[Mom] drawing things for me and watching her.” Continuing to talk about the bones that her mother gave to her, she said “they’ve worked their way in to my subconscious somehow.” There is a shelf above her desk where some of these bones sit, as well as some of her jewelry and other pieces she’s made, “It’s an interesting relationship” she says as she moves some things around, “they blur together” Skelcey continues, “My pieces seem to be very biological”.

I asked Caitlin what she plans to do next. “I would like to teach, I feel like it’s the best of both worlds.” She has applied to some places that she couldn’t mention, but she goes on to say that “being able to teach at the university level, at a place that supports me in my research” and to continue to “putting out new relevant work” is what she hopes to find.

I asked her if it’s a competitive field, working as an art professor at the university level, “anything can be, but I feel like there is room for everyone. It’s especially important to learn from people that you admire or who may be working similarly. You always want to have original and thoughtful work. Everyone has their own experiences.”

In terms of her jewelry artistry she would like to try larger-scale pieces, but as she specifically states she’s been asked before if her pieces could “exist as larger sculptures” Skelcey continues to explain that “I have no interest really in (it) being something other than what it is…they are what they are.” She really has a passion for art involving the body, she wants it to be “activated by being on the body” Skelcey explains as “it says something different.”

I took a few minutes to browse her studio. She got really excited when showing me a jaw bone that she had acquired in which someone had taken the delicate time to splice open one side to highlight the nerves that run from your jaw up to your brain. She apologized that it may be weird or gross, but when standing next to someone so in love with what they do and the things that inspire them, it’s hard for that passion not to rub off on you too. She finds beauty in the innermost parts of us and translates that into functional, 3D printed, hand filed pieces of art you can wear. For Caitlin, beauty truly does lie within.

All photos (except the ring) by Scott Wells

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