Aside from clothing, there are few things that we keep as close to our bodies as jewelry. Molly Epstein’s work explores the point at which the relationship to the object enhances awareness of one’s own existence, while connecting the emotional to the physical being. In the process, she brings science and art together in extraordinary and moving fashion.
Can you first discuss your background. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born in 1980 and raised in suburban NJ. My mother is a potter and my family owns a bicycle shop. Growing up with an artist mother and frequent visits to the bike shop influenced what I was attracted to from an early age. Getting dirty meant that you had been hard at work, it was not something anyone in my family was afraid of being. It was something that was looked upon with pride.
When did you first start working with metals as a medium? What drew you to it?
At 13 my mother signed me up for 3 art classes at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts in Summit, NJ. I took to jewelry making immediately. I think the material itself, silver, in particular, was just so beautiful to me. The amazing process of sawing through it with such a tiny saw, and the satisfaction of successfully soldering 2 pieces together was a challenge I met with absolute glee. I think back now and realize there was familiarity with metal because of the bikes I was surrounded by. That “shop smell” was pretty much in my blood.
Different mediums often require their own ways of approaching them and have distinct work flows. Can you discuss working with metals and how it influences the way you conceptualize new projects?
I usually draw my ideas out on paper, sometimes just a quick sketch, and if something needs to be particularly accurate, I will use a CAD program to lay things out. I use drawing to figure out proportions and throughout the building of a piece. I also use wax to sketch a thought before I move to metal but most of the time, the material itself guides me and things change and evolve along the way.
People view jewelry purely in ornamental terms but there’s more to it than that. Can you discuss the nature of jewelry and the way it and the body interact?
Jewelry has such power; it links generations and symbolizes social identity; it changes our own level of confidence when we wear it. Jewelry is a status symbol, and changes how people are perceived. It also has the power to heal bodies and comforts our hearts by what it symbolizes. Jewelry can even function as a medical device to help improve function or healing of our bodies. Do you remember when a kid would break their arm and everyone would sign their casts? That is a form of adornment. People seek to beautify their worlds, objects have meaning, and making and wearing jewelry is a way in which we create a more beautiful world.
What made you incorporate science in your art? Was it difficult bringing the two together?
I don’t think it was particularly difficult; it was an evolution. At some point in college I started to make things to “heal” certain physical ailments of my own. Making objects requires intense focus in order to achieve the desired outcome, and during these intense periods of study of my own body and during the creation of these objects, I would work through whatever ailment I had and realize where it came from. The whole process was a release of bound emotions in many cases, but other times, the objects would actually assist in physical healing.
After undergraduate school, I began to desire to create actual medical devices and eventually found an opportunity at the University of Washington. I immediately applied to their MFA program with the intention of working with a surgeon to create prototypes for medical devices. This relationship was thanks to Mary Lee Hu, the Head of the Metals department at the time. It was partly luck, but also just simply made sense. Metalsmiths have a long history of making useful objects, medical devices included. We know how things work, we know how to build objects, and how to use tools.
A lot of your work juxtaposes the metallic with the organic. In Pulse Clip 1 and Pulse Clip 2, it happens naturally as a result of the jewelry’s shape and form. Meanwhile, works like Manifestation requires a more conscious juxtaposition on your part. Can you discuss that metal-organic interface that jewelry can form?
For the most part, I am drawn to certain materials, but I also choose them with knowledge of their own inherent meanings. The materials that I use speak of the body, without necessarily being wearable pieces, like in Manifestation. The juxtaposition of metal with silicone, is one that just often feels right to me.
Can you discuss Presence: Amuar’s Breath? What were you exploring in that work?
The traumatic death of my friend Amuar was an enormous loss for me. Truthfully, this piece is a memorial to him. It is an interactive piece that glows with a soft light and mechanically “breathes” when a person approaches the sculpture. When there is no one there, the sculpture is dark. When attention is paid to the sculpture, it comes alive, and symbolically gives Amuar his breath back. The breath is significant due to the way Amuar passed away. He suffered a fatal asthma attack, because his asthma was medically uncontrolled. If he had had proper health care, he would be alive today. There is a tremendous amount of grief that I was processing during the creation of this piece. This loss has informed a lot of my other work, and in general how I view the world. I am acutely aware of the presence of grief and trauma that is part of the human condition, and unjustly exacerbated by the color of one’s skin.
Another work that clearly incorporates science on a more literal level is Heartbeat Device. What were you exploring there?
In Heartbeat Device, I was exploring ideas about how awareness, mindfulness really, affects our bodies. This piece detects the pulse using a sensor and mechanically feeds the heart rate back to the hand of the person using the device. It is a biofeedback machine. It was intended to offer the opportunity to become mindful of what you experience when feeling your own heartbeat..
What are you working on now?
Right now I have 2 young children doing remote school, and since we moved “homeschool” into my studio, I have been working on simple pieces that are meditative and easy to make while still being available for my kids. I am making some stained glass pieces and slowly working on 2 gold chains for my daughters, which is something that I have been wanting to make since they were born. The pandemic has slowed things down a lot, and I am quite enjoying that aspect of this dark time.
For more of Molly Epstein’s work, visit her website at mollyepstein.com.