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Abigail Brown

by Angie Boyer

Published: March 2012

In an old granite mill in the historic Cornish town of Penryn, something rather special is being created by one of this country’s most exciting silversmiths. Inspired by her recent residency in Alaska, Abigail Brown is at work in her studio completing a spectacular piece which will eventually be displayed at the Visitor Centre in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.
It’s not every day that a residency such as this presents itself and I was curious to know more. “I applied for the residency in Alaska because it was such an unusual opportunity,” explains Abigail. “I like to keep my practice fresh and interesting and be able to produce new work with new influences.”
The trip was mainly self-funded, but Abigail was delighted to also receive a grant towards the costs from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’. Her adventures began at Bettles, a town in Alaska which is only accessible by air and has less than 30 year-round residents. “From there I took a flight via float plane to the Noatak River in the west of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is situated above the Arctic Circle” she recalls. “There were three other people with me in the group; a scientific illustrator, a Park Ranger and a volunteer who is a retired documentary maker.”
“Naturally, there was a lot of preparation beforehand, I had to decide what I could realistically take with me in terms of art materials. I had to put serious consideration into the type of clothing and equipment I would need to survive in a wilderness environment such as this. As the Gates of the Arctic National Park is the size of Switzerland and hundreds of miles from the nearest town, it was vital to have the right equipment and not forget anything. I read up about wilderness camping and ‘leave no trace’ procedures – and how to conduct myself in the event of a bear encounter!”
Was that time well spent, I wondered, when she mentioned scary prospect of a bear encounter. “It certainly was – at one point we were charged by a very large grizzly bear!” Suffice to say she survived the day and – bears aside - describes spending much of her time in this frozen terrain studying the plants of the region.
“Despite the beautiful wildlife and the stunning and vast mountain scenery, the plant life was my main focus. I found it fascinating that under such huge skies, the plant life was so intricate and beautiful in its tiny detail. Some of the plants take three years to produce a flower due to the short growing season and the tussocks can be over 150 years old. The place has such stark beauty and is truly one of the last wildernesses on earth.”
“On a personal level, I gained massively from the experience,” she continues. “I realised what I am capable of! From an artistic point of view, it was very rewarding. I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time undertaking some observational drawing, something that I have rare chance to do in everyday life.”
The piece of work which will be exhibited in the Visitors’ Centre in Bettles is based on her research material and sketchbooks and is made predominantly in copper, with some gold detail, to link in with Alaska’s extensive copper and gold mining history. “In addition to this very special piece, I plan to continue to develop my designs to include within my own silverware collection,” she adds.
Although Abigail shows her work regularly at some of the country’s major events and exhibitions throughout the year, she still manages to schedule in lots of travelling time for herself, having also taken a volunteer position in Nepal prior to her trip to Alaska.
“My trip to Nepal last year came about when I replied to an advertisement requesting a Jewellery Tutor for a charity, The Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (www.ebtrust.org). I spent three months working for the charity in Kathmandu teaching survivors of child trafficking and deaf Nepali adults in this amazingly beautiful country,” she says. “It was a fantastic and very rewarding experience, an enlightening time – to live and work in the 14th poorest country in the world. The adults I was teaching, in particular the deaf women, have very few prospects and opportunity to earn a living.”
“I experienced fantastically beautiful country in a way that you can’t do as a tourist and shared experiences with both volunteers and the Nepali students. I had to learn to communicate with the deaf students through Nepali sign language, so until I had learned this sufficiently, I had to do a lot of charades!
“The whole experience improved my confidence and was probably good preparation for the Alaska trip, even though the two residences required very different skills. I really was working for the whole three months that I was in Nepal, so I had to take that time off from my own work. I have some ideas about work that I want to develop from the trip, but I think this will be a gradual integration, because I have to work so hard to catch up on the time off from my own studio. I believe everything I experience, particularly visual, eventually influences my work, but it is a subtle process.”
The curvaceous forms of the contemporary silver vessels, bowls and jewellery that Abigail makes reflect her fascination with nature and the human form, as well as her instinctive talent for design and balance. Graduating from Loughborough in 2001 with BA (Hons) in Silversmithing & Jewellery, she specialises in hand raising and sinking techniques using a variety of metal and wooden hammers and stakes to transform flat sheets of silver into curvaceous sculptural forms to adorn the body or to enhance a space.
“My studio is in a building where I can work at all hours without the noise of my hammering the silver disturbing any neighbours,” she explains. “My work is very labour intensive and the hours and hours of hammering metal can be like torture for anyone listening!”
These hours of dedication to her craft are all worthwhile though, the work she creates is widely collected and has attracted the attention of the judges in several prestigious awards. In 2010 she was the only British Finalist in the BKV Prize for Young Applied Arts in Munich, Germany, which is awarded by the Bavarian Crafts Council (Bayerischer Kunstgewerbe-Verein e.V.). “One of the main objectives of the BKV is to promote the younger generation of artists, the Prize is awarded to works that show unique artistic creation based on fine craftsmanship,” explains Abigail.
“2010 and 2011 really did see my work receiving recognition within Europe, particularly in Germany” she continues. “In addition to two collections of my work being exhibited in 2011 at the ‘International Handwerksmesse’ in Munich, I was also selected for the prestigious ‘Silber Triennale’ and had my piece exhibited alongside influential makers such as Hiroshi Suzuki. That exhibition toured Germany and Belgium for over a year and is now drawing to a close.”
Abigail says that she is delighted that her work has been so well received in Germany and has gained recognition there. “It has given me more confidence in my work and I now know that it has a position in the international silversmithing and craft scene. But of course I am a perfectionist and I am now aiming for the next goal!”
What might the next goal for be, I wonder. “I am always looking to develop my work and find ways to develop technically and artistically,” she replies. “I am currently very interested in the idea of silversmithing for the body and am developing my jewellery to include pieces that utilise traditional silversmithing techniques. I am developing a collection of vessels based on my experience in Alaska. Last year I made ‘Isis’ for exhibition at ‘Collect’ at the Saatchi Gallery. This was the largest and most significant piece I have made to date and I would like to continue to produce work on this scale. I aim to continue to exhibit abroad, building on the success that my work has enjoyed in Europe in the past two years.”
“I am excited about the future – the past year has taught me that anything is possible!”
Abigail Brown
The Old Grist Mill Studios
Tresooth Lane
Penryn
Cornwall
TR10 8DL
E: info@abigailbrown.co.uk
www.abigailbrown.co.uk

 
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