On alchemy, a Lalaounis residency, and the charms of Athens: a conversation with jewelry designer Marilyn Yakumithis

 

 

For artists who work with metals, tools are everything. So when Marilyn Yakumithis couldn’t find a torch to solder anywhere in Athens, it briefly seemed as though a creative crisis was on the horizon. How would she make the most of her time as a resident at Lalaounis if she couldn’t work? But creatives know how to innovate, and what could have been a block became a catalyst for a new method and something of a creative breakthrough. The result was a new method, techniques she thought she’d never brave, and even trying out new materials entirely. This is no small feat.

The jewelry artist spent this fall creating in Athens and fell in love with Greece in a way she had never expected. As part of Lalaounis’ residency program, she worked out new techniques and was able to find inspiration in the halls of the museum. Athens itself affected her more than she expected, and despite the initial crisis, she found herself more relaxed and inspired.

As a Greek American, the time in Athens also gave her the chance to connect to the Greek land in a new way. For many Greek Americans, there’s something of a fractured relationship to Greek culture, typically distilled through the Greek Orthodox churches that pay the predominant role in nurturing Greek expat communities. For Yakumithis, it was new to spend so much time in Athens. She connected to Greek history through visits to the Benaki Museum and exploring the buzzy, chaotic city.

Read on for our interview with Yakumithis and to see more of her stunning, mystical designs!

Tell me a bit about your background growing up Greek American. Did it figure much into your childhood and identity?

I’m really close with my Yiayia, who grew up in Chrysso and lived in Greece until her early 20s. I appreciate her sharing everything with me over the years (language, recipes, stories about her village) because it’s something important to me.

My dad was really involved with the Greek community and I went to church with him growing up. My cousins and I went to Greek school and Greek dance, so I was influenced by different forms of Greek art and culture at a young age.

It’s amazing to have the opportunity to work within the hallowed halls of Lalaounis. Tell us a bit about the residency program and what you’re learning there.

It’s a beautiful museum! It features the original works and influences of Lalaounis and shows the evolution of his creative process.

The JAIR program was created to share metalsmithing techniques with the public, to give people a better understanding of the work that goes into the process of metalsmithing. Lalaounis hand fabricated all of his designs, which is incredible and hard to fathom because they’re so intricate.

The museum has two studios; the ZEM workshop (jewelry metalsmithing studio) and the ZEDET workshop (jewelry craft studio). I’m working in the ZEM studio because I work mostly with traditional jewelry materials, like silver and stones. The other current resident, Ginevra Montoschi, works with alternative materials like bone and found objects. It’s been great talking to Genie because our work is so different, it’s always nice brainstorming and getting out of your own head when you’re making work. She’s also really fun and interesting!

The most inspiring experience from this residency, so far, was touring the Lalaounis jewelry factory. Everything is hand fabricated by goldsmiths and I was able to sit with a few of them and watch them work. I have never worked with gold, but I feel lucky that I had the experience of watching them transform it from its raw material state. There was something really special about watching the gold melt from small, solid pieces into delicate granules that were then added to jewelry to create texture on a finished piece. Goldsmiths are alchemists.

 

The ritual and history connected to jewelry and adornment in general figures prominently in your philosophy as an artist. When do you begin to view jewelry as an object for empowerment?

It interests me that people wear jewelry for different reasons and that we assign meaning to these objects. Jewelry becomes an object of empowerment when we say it is; I usually wear about 5 rings every day, but there are three that I always wear and feel uncomfortable without. Each ring is from a different place I’ve lived, and because I move around a lot they are three constants in my life that go everywhere with me. When I look at my hands I’m reminded of places I’ve been, physically and emotionally, and it makes me feel stronger moving forward.

There’s also something empowering about wearing something intimate that has a story. Jewelry can be received or given as a gift, or you can choose it yourself. I remember where and when different pieces came into my life, and the memories make them more significant and empowering to me.

Or the idea that stones have specific metaphysical properties. If someone needs to feel confident, they might find jewelry set with a stone that will help them spiritually, and they can leave their house that day feeling better about themselves. Jewelry can be powerful that way.

What imagery or symbols from Greek culture do you find most inspiring and why?

The evil eye is the most inspiring. My uncle brought me a glass charm from Greece when I was 5 and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I’ve always been disturbed by “the gaze,” so the idea that there is an object to protect you from it and break its intensity is really fascinating. People collectively experienced that same discomfort centuries ago, and someone designed an amulet to counter that energy…. and it’s still relevant today.

I’m also inspired by imagery from ceilings of Greek Orthodox churches, particularly the gold stars and halos of saints. I love walking into dark churches and only seeing these bright gold forms, then taking a few steps into the light and seeing the greater images that they are part of. I try to add details like that within my jewelry; I’ll use stones and textures that reflect light differently so the pieces change depending on the angle you look at them. I’m interested in wearable pieces that require consciousness; when something changes and you notice something new about it.

You’ve mentioned loving your time in Athens. How has working and living in Athens affected your creative process?

I feel more relaxed. I think letting myself try a new way of working has really helped me creatively because I’ve been calmer and trying a lot of new things.

Nature and religious imagery have been big inspirations, but so have the people I’ve met. I feel most inspired when I have new experiences, and there have been a few that influenced the series I’m working on here. I’m very thankful for this time in Athens because it’s helped me get over a lot of things that were holding me back creatively, and now I feel better experimenting because that’s how to move on.

I know you had to make some changes to your method based on the materials available. Sometimes these “limitations” can turn out to be gifts, in the end. Are there materials you’ve started working with in Greece that are having an impact on your craft?

Yes! Soldering is the technique I feel most confident with and most of my work involves a lot of soldering; not having a torch or pickle was difficult in the beginning, but it helped me overcome my fear of alternative settings. I usually work with bezel settings because I like their aesthetic, but someone suggested casting prongs. I have been wanting to use raw crystals in my work for quite some time but it’s difficult setting them the way I’d like to with bezels. It ended up being a fun challenge, working with metal and not using two basic essentials; fire and acid. Now I know it can be done! It took me a minute but I finally let go after realizing I needed to completely shift my thought process because the situation called for some unknown techniques. That morphed my aesthetic in an extremely positive way. I’m excited to take what I’ve learned here and combine it with other techniques moving forward.

What Greek artists, living or dead, are you most inspired by?

I’m more inspired by periods of art than specific artists. I visited the Benaki Museum last week and realized how much I love 18th and 19th-century Greek jewelry. I was overwhelmed by the intricate patterns and settings of pieces from that period. I’m also interested in Byzantine art and fashion because I love the intensity and drama from this period. I think that influence comes through in a lot of my pieces. I admire El Greco’s work for that reason, but he’s not necessarily an influence.

A question I ask everyone – do you think it’s important for Greeks to identify with their Hellenism? Why or why not? Identity is such a hot topic currently…

That is a difficult question because identities are so complex. I don’t really have an answer!

Personally, it’s important for me to identify and explore Hellenism because it’s always been present in my life. I always felt like I was missing out before I came to Greece because my Yiayia grew up here and I still have family here. I think it’s important for Greek-speaking parents to share the language with their kids, because my dad never taught me and it’s disappointing not being able to speak fluently with people and relatives while I’m here. I can read and write fluently, so that’s been helpful for looking up directions. The alphabet is something that should never be abandoned because I notice a lot of phonetic signs in Athens; it’s necessary because English is a common language for many people and there are a lot of tourists, but I love taking the bus to my family’s village and watching English disappear. I like feeling present in that way. Every culture’s language is unique, and when you examine language as the way we communicate you can see how cultures are shaped by their languages.

On the way to the airport I asked my dad how tell my uncle “I’m happy to be here and finally see you,” and the literal Greek translation was something like, “ it brings me great happiness to be able to see you.” The translation was warmer and more appreciative, much closer to the emotions I wanted to express. (I think I think we talked about that over the phone!)

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