Selections from the Collection: Armillary Neckpiece

Posted in Artist's Commentary, Narrative Works

Tory Hughes, Armillary Neckpiece, 1992
Polymer and mixed media
I believe most art is a snapshot of answers we’ve found in that moment. My more meaningful pieces are all illustrations of my current set of solutions, like anatomical drawings from another era, beautiful even when superseded or augmented by more information.

All of us have Grand Ideas that live within us, deep oceanic layers of connection to question, image, concept, content and feeling. I’ve found it best just to yield to those magnets, to sink into that familiar yet enigmatic embrace of what most identifies ‘me’ to ‘myself’, whether anyone else can relate to it or not. ‘Enigmatic’ because by definition no one else can see those deepest aspects of us as clearly as we can, whether we like it or not. One benefit of self-identifying as an artist is that we are expected to tackle these Grand Ideas. Whether we resolve them for ourselves or others is not as important as our willing attempt to do so.

Me, gosh darn it, I need to understand how and why the Universe works the way it does, and where my place lies within it.  A ubiquitous Grand Idea that everyone wrestles with, more or less consciously, and which has lots of room and time for everyone to investigate. We find answers, whose presence changes the question, and then we ask again and find more answers.

Armillary, 1992, shown here and also Orrery, which I’ll talk about elsewhere, are illustrations of answers I found during challenging times when the Grand Idea was literally a question of life or death.

In 1992, I was invited to exhibit my work at a show at Joanne Rapp Gallery / The Hand and the Spirit in Scottsdale, Arizona. The show’s concept was that the neckpieces be non-traditional, non-bead. Perfect for an artist working in polymer and mixed media, the most versatile materials around! My theme, of course, was “Cosmologies”. I made six pieces for this show, and also wrote a short blank verse for each, then lettered and illuminated each poem and presented the booklet with the jewelry.

Willows in the Wind Neckpiece, 1990

TL1 Neckpiece, 1990
The show’s combination of an intriguing topic and a sophisticated venue to exhibit specialized pieces excited me tremendously. I’d been developing a new style of linear neckpieces when the invitation arrived. Here I had an opportunity to use my new approach as a form for my questions and answers of the Universe.

I made a series of six pieces for this show. They were made under much emotional stress. I had almost committed suicide, as a matter of fact, and what held me back me in was my belief that leaving the planet at that point would solve nothing, just delay the inevitable lessons a bit longer. And to get to those lessons, I’d have to go through adolescence again. Eek! That was such an appalling thought that I opted to stay- although in the moment I could not have told you why. So the Grand Idea was a vital question.

You know, really, not all my art is this intense.

But whether I like it or not, this is the life and questions I received: it’s my assignment, so I have to do it. Even less intense art is still responding to those big magnets, the Grand Ideas…Just takes different forms depending on the way we ask the question.

Armillary is one of my attempts to represent the machinery of the Universe. I had a dream years ago where I strolled around an enormous construction, an architecture on the edge of space. Immense, gleaming arcs revolved around and below me, huge slender gears, lines of force, thrumming wires of energy held and energy being released, platforms and thin-walled chambers enclosing smaller assemblages of wheels and springs; all was quiet and very purposeful. The heavens were close in, stars overhead as clear as the moon, scintillating galaxies shimmering between vast struts and curves of moving machinery.

I wanted to make this. And I wanted to answer ‘what keeps me here?’.

An armillary is an astronomical tool, developed in 4th C. BC in China and the 3rd C. BC in Greece. Rings of brass represented different aspects of celestial movement: equinoxes, solstices, the ecliptic, and can include bands for stars, planets, and other phenomena. These engraved rings and bands surrounded and moved about a globe, representing the earth. Rings of influence centered on the earth.

The arching construction of Armillary neckpiece centers on its wearer in the same manner. Rings of influence, aspects of the Universe that constrain and command my movement through my life, the external imposition of control on my free will, circle and contain me. Beautiful patterns, these constraints, these cosmological mechanics…But constraint none the less.

A saying: Limits exist to focus our attention, for maximum growth.

In my piece, astrological signs carved into the metallicized polymer referred to planetary impositions upon me: I didn’t want to be a double Cancer, and I didn’t want a grand trine in Fire, with the turbulence these two together can bring. And I was not happy with the unavoidable developmental stages we must go through. Each step is necessary and usually challenging, and there’s no skipping a step. It is  a grand progression happening in the midst of strife: thus the Fibonacci series scribed on one polymer arc as well.

Everything on this has a meaning for me: the blued steel of the mainspring of a real pocket watch flexes, then returns to its strong spiral shape, whatever torque is applied to it. Narrow lines of glowing cobalt glass beads refer to maps of the heavens, deep and radiant colors against the velvet black of space like those I saw as I walked through the machinery of the heavens in my dream that night.

The question remained though: why should I stay when things were so grueling, made so little sense? The demise of a relationship left me not just questioning myself and my intimate partners but the presence of the Divine in my life: I felt betrayed by Spirit. With no trust in the Divine, no secure connection, how and why should I keep living here? I believed in other places, other realms. I was used to moving….Why not go somewhere else now?

As I made this neckpiece, my solution appeared. Fortunately, my brain’s inability to understand a reason for staying was not the largest awareness within me. Some knowledge of mine, bigger and deeper than my mind, found and add the small glass sphere with the mustard seed in the center, suspended beneath all.

Not constrained by the predictable patterns above it, the mustard seed hangs from the arch of astrological signs. Faith. One of my audience members at a slide show years ago pointed out that it is joined to Venus, the sign of love, of the heart, of beauty.

My life’s reply had been within me. Yet until I was willing to confront the question by making the piece and giving the question a physical form, I couldn’t receive the answer.

The answer had to come through my subconscious providing information as a physical form, that my mind could then look at and interpret. Symbolism and intuition are the communication tools of the subconscious, not surprising since at this level information is holographic, not linear, so linear tools don’t work. Like the difference between two dimensions and three dimensions, like driving a car and flying a plane. Different tools, and each appropriate to its environment.

Like the psychological and metaphysical rigors associated with this piece, this series was technically more demanding as well. I want my pieces to be truly wearable, not just a sculpture with an opening through which a neck fits. That was a basic requirement, and meant that the construction had to be flexible, resilient,  and moderately sturdy. Each one, particularly Armillary, activated the engineering genes I’ve received from generations of ancestors.

First I sketched the concept. Then I bought an old display mannequin and cut pieces of card stock to the shapes in my sketch, and taped them onto each other and to the mannequin.

Using polymer to mimic antique ivory was a technique I had just invented, and involved the surface application of different paints and stains. This was my first major use of the imitative techniques, which have become quite influential since then and for which I became well-known.

Brass gears were sanded and patinated to echo the toothed wheels I saw in the dream, polymer elements resembling planets were made and added, glass and Lucite pieces were sanded down and painted., then glued on to polymer elements.

The glowing bluish iridescence visible on many of the elements here comes from interference paints, another effect with which I was experimenting liberally at this time. I found that acrylic paints and polymer were completely compatible. I did a lot of painting on unbaked polymer, working back into it, deforming it, then baking it. Interference paints and pigments naturally mimic the sheen of metal surfaces. I also layered paints over silver leaf and worked back into the polymer after baking.

Most of the marking was done after baking. Signs and symbols were carved into the rigid baked polymer, and paint used to darken the carvings. In some cases, additional metallic paints were then brushed across the surface.

Design challenges arose: I wanted arcs that stood up from the body as the rings and bands on the armillary stood at angles, a sculptural approach that I accomplished at that time just using polymer and tension on the arcs. Now I would stiffen the arcs by laminating them with an internal metal mesh.

I needed thin metallic and cobalt lines to create that underlying grid of navigation lines. They had to be flexible yet maintain crisp precise shapes. I found that spring steel, also known as music or piano wire, would adapt temporarily to stress, then return to its original shape unfazed by the experience. And I found a gauge of spring steel that was fine enough to accommodate the thin blue beads.

Spring steel is a tempered steel wire is fine, so smooth it is almost slick, and so does not glue well to polymer. How to attach it to the polymer elements? I made small hooks at the ends of the wires;  they entered the polymer and opened into the  channels I pierced for them. Like the wire hangers on Christmas ornaments: the springiness of the wire keeps the hook opened and tight against the inside of the surrounding material.

Unobtrusive short pins of steel anchor some elements, and elevate others slightly. The large steel mainspring that I used arrived with a small hole at either end, so connecting that was straightforward.

I am proud of this piece. Armillary translated a challenging image and time into a piece that visually and emotionally resolved the questions I asked in that moment. It was not an easy piece, and required much persevering: I could sense more than I could see the final piece, as I began. I kept at it because I really wanted to see this object in the world, not just as a sense in my mind. Armillary is a landmark on my journey of navigating my own Grand Ideas. And like all landmarks, having reached it I could move on from there, and have done so.

We rest at the vista points along the way, taking a moment to enjoy and integrate the unique information of a particular spot, and then we continue along our journey. Everything we make is a snapshot of the step we take right now.