Selection from the Collection: Orrery Neckpiece

Posted in Artist's Commentary, Narrative Works

Tory Hughes, Orrery Neckpiece, 1992
Polymer and mixed media

Why are we artists, anyway? For me, this career is the most flexible and marvelous -as in ‘full of marvels’- I could imagine.

What other way of life encourages me to make such a marvelous thing as this?

There’s a spinning comet in the upper left, mounted on miniature ball bearings; there are overlapping circles and arcs, toothed and smooth, a little plumb bob dangling at the upper right. This piece was a total joy to create. There were challenging moments, yup, but I love this one. Throw in tiny planetary references and an improvisational approach to edges and Orrery is one of my all-time favorite pieces.

To begin: An orrery is a model of the planetary system. Antique Greek mechanisms for plotting and predicting the planets’ movements existed back to the first century BC. Modern versions arose in the early 1700’s during the Enlightenment, that grand investigative era when we were still figuring out the line between science, magic, technology, identity.

The first modern orrery was designed by George Graham and made  by John Rowley for the Earl of Orrery, thus their name – or we’d be calling them rowleys.

I made mine for The Hand and The Spirit show in 1992, as part of the same series as ‘Armillary’. To make it, I followed my aesthetic and technical compulsions, and went as far into them as I could. Creative immersion as vocation: how fortunate are we to work from love and curiousity!

Orrery is another of my investigations into the iconography of machinery, of the engineering of the metaphysical, of the intersection of what was known and believed about how the universe worked. Positive and negative shapes, intersecting arcs of movement, notations on the piece of what rules govern the system, found objects added to the piece, metallic surface treatments, all come from this reference.

We live on a ball, in space, that moves around and around, and when we are still or very attentive, we can feel and see this. Next time you watch the sun rise or set, imagine the ball of the earth upon which you stand, revolving in the direction of the sun’s face, shadows being cast by the biggest lamp in our universe, as we rotate toward the light. Wheels within wheels.

The silhouette of this piece comes from the shape of an ancient Greek harp, represented in Gustave Klimt’s earlier paintings. This shape shows up in the background of several of his images, like ‘Der Music’, below, from 1895. Like most of us, I am fascinated by Klimt.

or again in this portrait of Joseph Pembauer, from 1890.

That Greek harp shape is oddly beautiful and evocative. The shape tugged at me for several years. Then I was invited into this show, and the freedom of design gave me an opportunity to construct it as part of the neckpiece.

Although Klimt’s opulent patterning  usually gets the attention, I find his shapes and compositions most intrigue me. Very peculiar and very beautiful simultaneously. They work, somehow: articulating ‘why’ is a good perceptual exercise.

So Orrery is also influenced by Klimt’s approach to space. Polymer is so darn useful. Using polymer and other media, I could translate and create imagery in a three-dimensional realm. Then I could cast the elements against each other and include depth and movement and surface texture. All of this then is set on a human body, and the integration of a human body becomes part of the design as well.

Imagine hanging a flat piece of this shape on the subtle moving curves of a human body. It would be awkward, uncomfortable and unattractive. I feel that jewelry, even unique pieces like these, should be wearable. So some design and technical challenges arose.

Orrery and Armillary both were designed and drawn out, then fabricated on a mannequin. This is not how I usually work, and in fact the pieces in this series are the only ones I have ever sketched before making. But the combination of content, technical challenge, and unusual aesthetic approach needed more precise designing.

To develop a shape that worked better on the human form, I separated the overall shape into several sections, and linked them together with either a flexible fine steel braided cable, covered in nylon, or lengths of spring steel wire. I also added open and movable elements like the angled piece on the upper left.

Working on a mannequin made this more feasible, since I made shapes then pinned or taped them onto the form to see exactly how the elements had to fit together, where the attachments needed to be, how long they had to be. More like designing armor, in a way, tailored to the underlying sculptural contours of the body.

The surfaces are densely layered with lines of mapping and navigation. I mixed a specific color for the large central element, then laid a grid of black polymer lines on this. Onto this I embossed areas of gold leaf.

Then I added a personal variation of photocopy transfers onto that. I transferred the ecliptic and various lines of astronomical information from the image of a large star map. Before baking, while the toner was melted and viscous on the polymer, I gently blew a cloud of metallic powder across the surface, which adhered to the toner but not the surrounding polymer. Then after baking I could brush off any extra, while the metallic powder on the toner remained. I used this same technique to create the metallic imagery on the disc under the rotating comet in the upper left.

I also carved and engraved various mechanical markings into the central element. Those areas stand out since they trap the paint with which I stain the surface of the piece. When I added the markings, I let them determine shapes that referred to metal machine parts, then after I added the carving and engraving lines, I cut into the edges of the baked polymer to increase that reference to mechanical elements, rather than jewelry elements. A design that comes from function, from the demands of the earthly world, rather than from a classically established canon of harmony and symmetry existing in an abstract space.

After this, I extended various elements to curve into the supporting side shapes of the neckpiece. That toothed gearing on the right is part of the large central element. However, the curving L-shaped indicator scale on the upper left is attached by thin cables to the upper left edge of the central piece, and then has an opening through it that allows it to be strung on the bead cable for the neckpiece, that begins in the central element and goes up to the clasp. Both of these were coated with metallic powders, embossed, scribed and modeled individually before baking. After baking, additional markings were incised, when the material was rigid and could handle a different kind of mark.

The comet on its tiny ball-bearing swivel is nestled between these elements, and held there floating on another fine cable. The star map on it, to give a location through which the comet can move, was transferred as above, adding metallic powder to the viscous toner.

Above the central element toward the left, four tabs extend upward, attached to the central piece, but freestanding, then bridged by a thick ribbon of imitative ivory. The four tabs have applied metallicized polymer in linear glyphs representing the four elements in alchemy: fire, air, earth and water.

On the upper edge of the ivory polymer is a brass spring, which carries a line of iridescent beads from their starting point at the right edge of the ivory, across the tabs and up to the arrow. This is another element that is both functional and evocative, since that large central piece is fairly heavy, for polymer, and I wanted to support it as much as possible, while keeping in the conceptual spirit of the piece.

Markings on the scale, the gearing and elsewhere are references to astronomical data: the planets, the zodiacal signs, various constellations.

Then there are little planets scattered across the piece as well. An orrery, after all, tracks the planets in their orbits. Thin brass rings, heavier brass gears, and a watch spring in a brass cage interact with polymer and lucite beads that rest on the surface or are coming off the edges. A vintage brass stamping of the earth, filigreed and backed with polymer, safe in its orbit and accompanied by the moon, balances the sun on its fabricated ridged disc, and accompanied in its turn by a tiny antique bead representing Mercury, and acting also as a pivot for the brass arrow that points across the piece. At the lower left is another brass ring, and suspended from it is a lucite cylinder, carved and gilded like a device to measure time.

Much of this piece, as design, deals with positive and negative space, and treatment of edges. Edges are very important, and emphasize the use of positive and negative space. I have written about this elsewhere, as attention to contour and edges are usually neglected, even by sophisticated designers. The edge of a piece is the boundary you put in place between your world, and the viewer’s world. This is a strong statement. Be specific about it.

I appreciate the chance to write about this piece. Even me, the maker, find it an astonishing piece. But having used this approach once, I know that I can apply it again for a different but equally exciting piece. And the years of practice and refinement of my craft and aesthetics will add to it. I will genuinely miss having this one around me, though, I confess.

I love the link to another artist that I felt with this neckpiece. Klimt would have put this on immediately, and looked quite good in it. And Gustave and I would happily have raised a glass together to all artists everywhere, that we can share the delight of this great, marvelous dance of creativity we live within.