In 2019, Juliette broke her collarbone. This meant a 12-week absence from the workshop, and as she says, “like any muscle, the part of the brain that deals with conceptual thinking, and making, weakens through lack of use,” so as she approached Christmas she set herself a design challenge around the theme of ‘balance’. After some “dry attempts” she ditched the idea and simply began some thought sketches and scribbled them down. Juliette managed to finish five substantial pieces before her deadline: “I stood back and looked at the five models lined up in a row and they appeared to all have explored different forms of balance.” For Juliette this is an example of how important it is to work with the material as a starting point to develop concepts, concurrently. “The subconscious mind as a habit of reminding the hands what they should be doing.”
For this year’s Fair, silversmith Juliette Bigley is displaying a series of sculptural vessels, inspired by the very familiar forms of everyday items we use such as bowls, cups and vases. Juliette’s style is simple, almost minimalist. “All of the pieces are sculptural, but some can also be functional. I’m fascinated with forms and how we interact with them, and so the surfaces of my work are both undecorated and matt, which allows the form to be self-contained rather than a mirror for its surroundings.” In this way, her work emerges from concepts rather than technique and challenges our preconceptions of how pieces should be used and displayed.
“As I work with material, forms and thoughts emerge to create a body of work through a process of iteration.
In the past her making and research has looked at the relationship people have with domestic objects. She then embarks upon the physical side of understanding what this means, what the new forms and shapes should signify and how we relate to them. “Once I have an area I want to explore, I may initially collect some images (often photographs I have taken whilst out and about), but then get straight into making forms usually in wire, paper or plaster. As I work with material, forms – and thoughts – emerge to create a body of work through a process of iteration.”
This idea of repetition is also important to Juliette, not so much conceptually and in the look of the finished pieces, but in the process of making – a ritual or ceremony that has significance beyond bending and fusing metal. When it comes to soldering for example, she says: “There is a certain mindset, a stance of the body, both feet planted firmly and spaced apart. There is a stillness and focus, which is only applied at the forge. There is ritual: where to place the various tools you’ll need while you solder, how and when to apply the solder, and the act of reaching into the right-hand pocket of my workshop apron, where the lilac lighter I use is always lying. Reach in, pull out, light the flame and place on the side. This action marks the boundary of the ceremony, just as reaching for and putting on the apron at the beginning of the working day marks its start and the change in mindset that enables focused work.”
In a previous life, Juliette had careers in both classical music and healthcare that demand this same focused attitude to work, and most importantly the ability and discipline to learn specific skills through repetition. She also thinks her time as musician has directly impacted her work as it is “characterised by a rhythm and ensemble – both in individual pieces and between the individual components of groups of pieces.” Now a silversmith for six years after completing her MA in metalsmithing from the Cass School of Art, she is currently learning TIG welding which will allow the use of long, flat surfaces: “These often appear in my work at the modelling stage but are incredibly difficult to deliver when forms are soldered together because the high heat distorts the flat surfaces. I’m looking forward to some of the new forms I’ll be able to make once I’m a bit more confident with the technique.”
Learning and new techniques aside, there is no doubt evidence of a master craftsperson at work. One of her favourite pieces on display is the ‘Interlocking Pair’. As she describes: “The smaller cylinder has a solid top and nestles into the side of the larger cylinder, which, viewed from above, has an open top through which the interaction between the two pieces is seen. Fabricated from sterling silver and mild steel, the piece has a simplicity and calmness about it that I seek to have in my work. I think that particular combination of materials is a really striking one – both visually and conceptually – and the forms themselves are familiar ones placed in a new arrangement. In two dimensions, two overlapping circles is an incredibly familiar form, but in three dimensions, there are hidden intersects, surprising angles and parts of the piece are always hidden.”
This is where the boundaries of concept and technique are blurred and stretched into a satisfying and challenging whole – just as the subconscious mind affects the conscious mind, Juliette’s work attempts to construct the physical into the non-physical spaces of where we live. “I like my work to ask questions,” she says, “to leave as space into which people can project their own ideas and thoughts”. Possessing a Juliette Bigley isn’t passive ownership, it’s a two-way exchange that will keep giving back for a lifetime.
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