I suppose it’s normal to write a text such as this at the time it’s all happening, but due to pressure of work in the ‘day job,' a simultaneous house removal and preparations for a Far East business trip, I find myself composing this a week or two after the Legnica Silver Festival has concluded and during a quiet period in the middle of the Hong Kong monsoon. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, as I am much better able to put it all into perspective now.
It is quite a phenomenon, this Legnica Silver Festival. Now in its thirtieth year, it takes place each May and June just as the gloom of late winter and spring explode into early summer. The historic silver-mining town of Legnica in southwest Poland seems to bloom itself as it becomes, for a time, the European center of jewellery art, attracting artists from all parts of the continent for one of the most vibrant events I have ever been involved in. The festival includes the annual International Jewellery Design Competition. This year, the nineteenth competition, there were 493 entries from 267 artists based in 30 countries, of which 39 artists had 62 pieces selected for exhibition in Galeria Sztuki, the main festival venue. The jury comprised Maria Rosa Franzin (Italy) Andi Gut (Germany) Ramon Puig (Spain) Theo Smeets (Germany) and Arak Wolski and Slawomir Fijalkowski (Poland).
Having sat on several juries, I know the process only too well – the care and concern, the anxiety, the frank exchange of views, the diplomacy and the professionalism that are involved. As it happened, I arrived to deliver my work on the day of judging, so I did get a little preview of the submitted work, without actually knowing the outcomes. I can say, therefore, that the judges did a damned good job. The pieces selected for exhibition were appropriate and the winners genuinely worthy of the honor.
There was no first prize awarded but the joint second prize was given to Judy McCaig and the German/Swiss group Co-operation/STANDARD. These demonstrated two very different approaches to the art and were strong statements in their own ways. I can imagine it being difficult to make a choice between one or the other, although it is always preferable to have the confidence to make a firm decision in favour of a clear winner. The McCaig offering was a pair of brooches in silver, copper, gold and plastic, current examples of her bird series, stationary rather than in flight, perhaps a reflection of life as it can be at times. Co-operation/ STANDARD’s suite of silver items, presented in standard jewelry boxes like the conventional quotidian jewelry they appeared to be, were physically slight but heavily ironic.
Judy McCaig was there to collect her prize of a kilo of silver. While most of us have at some time or other had to joust with airport security officials as we carry the finished product from one venue to another, not many jewelers have actually had the problem of negotiating a kilo of the raw material through airport security on their way back home.
Generally, the work exhibited from the competition was wide-ranging in approach and creative in use of materials. It was a mainly, though not exclusively, European show with the greater proportion of exhibitors being Polish. It appeared that most of the small number of non-Europeans were individuals studying in Europe. I was particularly intrigued by Susanne Wolbers’s use of natural sponge with accretions of paint and heaven knows what else, partly attractive, partly repulsive. Krysztofa Staniszowska showed a pair of what were described as paper masks. These cleverly folded pieces looked partly like clinical masks yet rather more like dog muzzles. Illustrated being worn by an apparently attractive young woman, these also inspired that dual reaction of repulsion and attraction, albeit for entirely different reasons. Mirjam Hiller showed a very clever piece of precious-metal engineering: a silver brooch which appeared to grow out of itself, betraying no obvious clue as to how it was constructed. Sitting next to it in the showcase was the original paper pattern which revealed the secret and in fact, a rather beautiful piece of work in itself. This was very cleverly engineered, yet managed to look like a perfectly natural, organic form with elements of chance in its growth pattern.
In another room in the same gallery Jacek Byczewski held his retrospective, a unique opportunity to enjoy one man’s creative journey through so many of the styles and movements we have experienced over the past forty years or so. This was instructive, genuinely interesting and something of a history lesson in itself. There was a group of brooches which separated into several component earrings, a group of what I might describe as ‘tin-opener’ or ‘wood-shavings’ pieces, bold, colourful anodised aluminium from the 1980s, do-it-yourself items in cardboard, a phallic group from just over ten years ago and so on. The most recent pieces, from 2008, used shattered windscreen glass from a car accident – a partly untold story in itself. Byczewski is now, I suppose, one of the ‘grand old men’ of contemporary Polish jewellery and someone whose work I had always rather enjoyed, but never seen in such a large body before. It felt something of a privilege to see a body of work which, while following other international influences, has been so influential in its own right.
Each year, some of Europe’s jewelry schools are also featured. The 2010 spotlight in Galeria Awans fell on Fachochschule Trier, Germany (based in fact in Idar-Oberstein), Edinburgh College of Art and Escola D’Art Del Treball, Barcelona. The latter is a fairly new enterprise and to some extent still finding its feet, but the work, which is tentatively exploring the relationships between technical facility and visual creativity, precious and alternative materials, holds out promise for future success. The staff who attended were clearly enjoying the experience and finding the opportunity for networking very useful. Edinburgh chose to feature the work of staff, graduates and recent artists-in-residence, so naturally their exhibition looked much more mature and sophisticated. Stephen Bottomley is clearly beginning to bring his own influences to bear on what has long been regarded as a major United Kingdom programme. Work which particularly intrigued me here were the subtly textured, matt-enameled brooches of Stacey Bentley and Lin Cheung’s as-always challenging offerings, particularly Silver Poppy.
Theo Smeets was in larger-than-life evidence with a group of students from Idar, some of whom were also major prize winners in the competition. Having enjoyed an Erasmus exchange agreement with Fachochschule Trier while I was head of the Birmingham School of Jewellery (featured in the 2007 Festival) I was delighted to see that this continues to be one of the most thoughtful and challenging jewelry programmes in Europe. There is a vibrancy, even an insouciance, about some of the work which engages, confronts, stimulates and enthuses. I was particularly impressed by the really fresh way of investigating alternative materials alongside the precious and delightfully surprised by the use of reconstituted semiprecious stones in some of the pieces. Anneke Bloemers’s felt body pieces successfully made that connection between jewelry and clothing which so many students explore, but not always with the necessary maturity, while Korean student Raehee In delighted me with her somewhat unexpected use of builder’s foam.
Just a few weeks before the event, the organisers managed to acquire new premises as a second gallery. This had previously been a gents outfitters with the trading name ‘Norman’ and there was some discussion as to whether it might retain this title or not. In the event it became Galeria Ring, but in my mind it will remain Galeria Norman. It housed two solo shows, one by Ludmila Sikolova and the other my own. Modesty (possibly false) must forbid me to say much about the latter, other than that it was a tremendous opportunity to exhibit a retrospective of the work I have been researching around the theme of morphism over the past five years or so. Ludmila Sikolova is based in the Czech Republic and also used the opportunity to show works made over a period of years. She has a particular, though not exclusive, interest in paper and has experimented with various materials. Her very singular approach to jewelry and object does pose a number of questions. I found it thoughtful, thought-provoking, playful and intriguing work. Her conical ear covers, bird-head hats, paper bodypieces and other items which simultaneously challenge and complement the body repaid several visits. Each time I felt I had begun to understand something new about them.
This is not a comprehensive review of the Legnica Silver Festival. There were other exhibitions in venues around the city; emerging artists, groups shows, recent historical works, a selection of pieces from the Ambermoda Studio competition and even copper dresses in the Copper Museum. (The town is still a centre of copper production even though silver is no longer a main activity.) Sadly, there just wasn’t enough time to see everything and I feel rather guilty that I am unable to mention it all. I also managed to arrive just too late for the accompanying symposium, Boundaries of Global Art. Although conducted in Polish with some English translation, it seems to have been enjoyed by those non-Polish speakers present.
I need to allow more than just a normal weekend to do the festival justice next time; and I am sure there will be a next time. Although Schmuck will remain the major jewelry art fixture in my calendar and, I presume, for most of us, Legnica is definitely something to pencil in as well. It is a truly enjoyable experience and one which the visitor will find exceedingly hospitable. As Schmuck has deservedly grown and prospered so, like SNAG conferences, it has become increasingly difficult to meet everyone and see everything. Legnica is so much more manageable even if, like me, you don’t plan enough time to do it all. And it is not cliquish.
But what is it that really makes this event work? Clearly there is support from the mayor and the city council. They obviously understand the importance of the town’s past history as a centre of silver mining and processing and wish to keep the relationship and tradition alive in some tangible way. There is also government support and the list of sponsors of one sort or another is impressive. However, the driving force behind the whole enterprise is a triumvirate: Zbigniew Kraska, the director of Galeria Sztuki and the curators Magdalena Banska and Monika Szpatowicz. These have to be three of the most charming, personable and dynamic individuals in the jewelry world. They get things done, in a major way.
As an exhibitor, I was greatly impressed by their professionalism and their friendly support. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble, there was no primadonna-ism, just a sense of fellowship and a real can-do approach. I think it is safe to say that they are the Festival in many respects. It certainly wouldn’t be what it is without them and their support team, especially Judia, Tadi and Tomasz who looked after exhibitors and judges, ferrying us back and forth to Wroclaw airport. And there’s a point: if Legnica, for all its charms, does not detain you for too long as a city, then Wroclaw – a gem of an ancient university centre – certainly will, with its grand squares, fabulous buildings and wonderful cafes and bars.