Metalsmith's handmade tools, jewelry and other artworks are a tactile experience
Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on July 18, 2008
“Life is all about touch,” asserts metalsmith Sue Aygarn-Kowalski. The graceful curves and smooth surfaces of her functional hand tools entice you to pick them up, handle them, even use them. A treasured moment for her as an artist was when she saw a child reach out and instinctively pet one of the hammers she had on exhibit. That is how she wants her audience to respond to her work: with sensitive hands as well as appreciative eyes.
The same tactile quality extends to Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski’s jewelry collection, which includes pod-like brooches bristling with tendrils, and delicate wavy-edged earrings resembling petals. One look at her work, crafted in metal and wood, and your fingers start tingling with an urge to touch them. The artist’s wish to engage our senses is tied to her heart-felt belief in the value of direct and conscious contact with the world around us. “My work is an argument for aesthetic experience over speed and efficiency,” she says, “for skill over blind use, and for an absolute love of process.”
Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski grew up on a sheep farm in Kemmerer, Wyoming. “Yellowstone National Park was in my backyard,” she says, recalling hiking there with her parents when she was as young as 2. Her mother has always been a strong and loving influence, “the stuff fairy tales are made of.” Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski describes her as tall, with soft gray curls tucked under a floppy hat, wearing baggy overalls. “She made work fun,” instilling in her daughter “the value of good work and doing something well.”
As a child, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski felt a “constant desire to live physically and to push hard physically.” Even strenuous chores on the family farm didn’t exhaust her boundless energy; she ran laps around the playground at recess, and eventually joined the track team in seventh grade. She took art classes throughout high school, realizing her natural affinity for three-dimensional expression when her teacher found her sculpting insects from the paint during a painting assignment and suggested she switch to clay.
She entered the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee on a track scholarship and started out as a graphic design major. Then came a life-defining experience during her junior year, when she signed up for a class in metalsmithing. The professor was demonstrating with a blowtorch, and the assembled students watched as he held the flame to a strip of metal and heated it into a soft, shiny puddle. Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski was awestruck by the transformation. When the teacher asked for a volunteer from among the group to practice the technique, she immediately stepped forward to be the first to try her hand. Then and there, she decided to changed her major to metals, fascinated by the material’s qualities as “strong, durable, usable and infinitely shapeable.”
“There was no way I could do anything else but this for the rest of my life,” she says. Her college program included a year of study in Paris, where she met fellow traveler Ross Kowalski, also a student from the University of Wisconsin, whom she would later marry.
A foot injury during her senior year curtailed Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski’s efforts on the track team, and she “threw herself 100% into metalsmithing,” taking as many classes as possible. Her undergraduate projects, while developing her technical skills, began to define her direction as an artist. Inspired by natural forms, these initial pieces explored “systems replicating systems,” such as the design similarities between maple-tree seeds and dragonfly wings.
She worked as a goldsmith in Milwaukee upon graduation, later relocating to the Southcoast of Massachusetts when Mr. Kowalski was offered a teaching position in this area. Then, during a trip to Italy, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski chanced upon a museum exhibit of 18th-century tools. Entranced by the objects’ physical beauty and historical significance, “that’s when I found my voice.” Back home she began crafting her own complex instruments, including a compass and a metronome.
After a year of work on this series, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski decided that she wanted and needed the “community and intensity” offered by graduate study. She enrolled in the master’s degree program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, with Susan Hamlett as her advisor. Ms. Hamlett encouraged her to create work that “wasn’t confrontational,” but instead would “argue for the good, for what I revere.” She taught Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski that artwork is “only right when it comes to you naturally.” Her master’s thesis exhibition – held in 2003 and featuring a group of levels, hammers, even a self-portrait as a center punch clothed in studded leather – was a celebration of her love for tactile expression and precise craftsmanship.
Her work today in her New Bedford studio encompasses a number of simultaneous projects in various stages of completion. She begins each new piece with a firm idea about the look of the finished product – “I can picture it in my mind” – but she leaves a clear “20% open to intuition” or the possibility of the need for changes or adaptations that might present themselves during creation. The multiple techniques she uses to transform raw metal and wood are varied and complex.
To watch Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski at work is to see magic happen before your eyes. Her hands take on each distinct task with focus, precision, instinct and experience. Each step in the process – from wielding a blowtorch, to roll-printing a pattern, to cutting with a handsaw, to forming on a lathe, to shaping with a hammer, to sanding and oiling – all require a different type of touch, ranging from strength to dexterity to tenderness. Every segment of the object must fit together perfectly; being off by even a fraction of an inch means they won’t join properly. It is a meticulous process, and one that still thrills Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski today as much as it did when she was first learning as an undergraduate.
Her ongoing jewelry projects include the Breaking and Mending Series, tiny floral shapes joined in grid-like clusters and held with several pins, so they can be fastened to a garment in whatever unique configuration pleases the wearer. She is also currently adding to a series of chokers and bracelets in round pillow-like forms, each one cushioning a minute silver ball in its center. And she recently fashioned “Stella,” a curvaceous hammer decked out in a ruffled silver gown. In addition to her studio work, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski serves as exhibit preparator at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, where she also teaches workshops in jewelry and metalsmithing.
In a recent career honor, her “Goblet” was purchased by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, where it will be on permanent display when the museum’s new Columbus Circle location opens this fall. Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski’s work is represented by Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge and Kusmin Art Gallery in Plymouth.
A devoted animal lover, always accompanied at the studio by her chocolate Labrador Retriever named Winston, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski recently started a project to help animals in need. When she saw a news story on the increase in abandoned pets due to home foreclosures, she decided to create and market a line of sterling-silver key-chains, necklaces and zipper-pulls decorated with dog and cat emblems. These hand-crafted items are available for $25 each, with 100% of the proceeds going to benefit local animal shelters. For more information, please contact the artist at 508-397-3978.
In today’s culture of manufactured plastic utensils and computer-generated imagery, Ms. Aygarn-Kowalski wants to awaken and challenge our eyes and our fingertips. Through the inventive detail and sensuous texture in her tools and jewels, she encourages us to “live physically in an increasingly digital world.”
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