Conversations with Strange Beauty: Mark Brose

To somebody who doesn’t know your work, can you describe what your work looks like? Can you describe the stairway ring? It’s one of my favourites.

The stairway ring is in sterling silver and eighteen carat gold. The ring is fabricated and cast. The gold stairway travelling into the ring is cast. The ring is built with a shank and an extended box-like height that goes relatively high above the finger. It’s an open box from the top and from one side of the open box, a stairway travels down into a certain amount of darkness on the other side.

Looking at this work together – I wonder, is it apart of a series?

There are three rings in this series. The series was built around the concept of travel. The third ring was never made because I became too disabled to actually make it at that point. Due to advancing disability due to multiple sclerosis, I was developing a tremor in my hands. The tremor eventually made it impossible to, not only manufacture the jewellery but to even really sketch my ideas. So there’s only two existing pieces from that series. They’re both on display for Attract/Connect. The one is the stairway, another is a boat built on the same structure of ring. The third ring, which doesn’t exist, would have been a bridge. This ring would also have the same box form that sitting above the finger. It would have had a circular cut down from the top and a bridge would have spanned across it built in eighteen carat gold. It’s imagery would have been inspired by the bridge that spans the Don Valley.

The interesting story about this series is I decided I wanted to do a series about travel and it wasn’t until probably a year later that I really figured out what that series actually was about. I knew it was about moving forward, but I didn’t really connect with the fact that it was about me moving forward into disability, that I was moving somewhere. I was having a conversation about the changes that were happening to me in building these pieces. The stairway ring didn’t get quite finished as I originally intended because of how my disability advanced. It was very close to being finished but it didn’t get its final polish. It’s fine how it is – it’s quite beautiful with its satin finish. It just doesn’t have a high polish as does the boat ring. I made the boat ring in two heights. It’s also in a shorter styled box that’s lower in height so to be more practical as a piece that you would wear everyday. The original height was designed to create a big statement when they’re being worn because they exist quite high off the finger.

That’s what I love about them – how high they sit off the finger.

They demand their own space. They demand that you react to them. You don’t get to wear gloves when you’re wearing these rings. They really want their own space. That’s appropriate for a piece of work that is actually discussing an idea that might not necessarily want to be hidden away.

Tell us a bit about the other pieces. Is there a connection between them?

There are so many pieces. There are almost thirty pieces that I’m showing. I guess the very first connection is – I’d have to probably describe all my jewellery in a way as self-portraiture. So they all describe me in a moment of time. They’re all dealing with ideas or emotions or concepts and I guess arguably, any artist who makes a piece of art – the art is somehow a kind of self-portrait.

Historically, for a lot of my work, I would begin with three conceptual words – tension, connection and movement – to use as sign posts to carry me forward into a study or place that I wanted to explore. These sign posts have carried me to quite different places which have resulted in quite different visuals. My explorations often deal with contrasts in material and the exploration of the meaning of precious and non-precious. Ultimately my work is about personal emotion and story. This is not necessarily apparent when looking at my work. I expect everyone will find their own connection or meaning in the pieces that speak to them. It’s also important that my work is compelling in its imagery. I enjoy designing beauty into my work that invites a deeper look.

Close up image of sterling silver bracelet with blue elastic detailI don’t really like the concept of bling. I don’t really accept the idea that a ring should always be about a diamond or about a stone. I think that’s appropriate for some occasions but the reason I’m making jewellery is for other reasons. Although sometimes I have explored that idea – what is bling? What looks, or is, precious in a piece of jewellery? For example I’ve a bracelet in the show that’s fabricated from sterling silver. It’s a relatively complex piece built with two hinges and has a distinctive look. For all intents and purposes, once it’s worn on the arm, it looks like a sterling bracelet that has a series of blue precious stones set across the top. Once you get close, if you look closely, you might notice it’s actually not precious stone but blue elastic band pretending to be stone – just blue elastic band woven into the design. I wanted to talk about what is precious. If you decide it is precious from afar, is it still precious when you get close? What makes one material more precious than another? Does it make it more precious that you can change the elastic tomorrow and have instead of a blue ‘stone’, have a ruby coloured ‘stone’ because you’ve dug into your bag of elastics and found one that’s that colour?

We make a lot of associations with diamonds and stones like wealth and status but you seem to be questioning whether or not diamonds are a worthy form for admiration.

A lot of the market for diamonds was created by one company. A company built a market by, among other things, getting Hollywood starlets to wear diamonds. It’s a clear white rock. It’s got a lot of sparkle to it but why does that rock look any better than another rock? What’s so important about diamonds? Why are diamonds considered so precious? It’s the hardest material known to mankind. The hardest. There’s nothing harder than diamonds but does that mean you want to look at it?

The idea of precious material – I did address that in a number of pieces and this is also around the time I was becoming more disabled. There’s a ring that is specifically a self-portrait. It uses as a feature a small piece of steel that I hammered and burned and abused to get it to the place where I needed it to be and that became as the stone. The design was to then force jewellery’s, and society’s precious metal to celebrate this burnt piece of steel. Sterling silver and fourteen carat gold are forced to act as simply the shank and structure of the ring. Gold acts as the structure to hold a sterling silver plinth that holds up and celebrates this nasty blackened piece of steel. Steel is the most common metal to be found on our planet. It’s found everywhere. It’s cheap. It builds all of our buildings, we make shovels out of it. And in this circumstance, the gold and the sterling is just there to celebrate the fact that steel is the highlight of the piece.

The steel in that ring represents me. As I became more and more disabled and as my ability to function in the world, my ability to function as a jeweller became more and more compromised, this is how I chose to represent myself to the world. This was me, a burnt, bruised, compromised piece of steel but yet still worthy of respect and even celebration. Forcing these precious elements of gold and silver that usually get the celebration and focus, to act in the role of support for simple steel was a statement about how the world needs to re-organize itself when it comes to disability. It’s me re-characterizing myself and the world around me. I was not accepting that just because I was losing so much because of advancing disability that I should become any less important than I was before my disability. I was dealing with a world which suddenly chose to define me differently and somehow less valuable, as a person who suddenly had a disability as opposed to a person who didn’t.

Would you call yourself a “jewellery maker”?

I am a jewellery maker, but often when one thinks of jewellery, one’s mind can go a lot of places. My jewellery comes from a place of sculpture and self-investigation and questioning so the work falls probably in the middle of sculpture and jewellery as opposed to just strictly jewellery.

How did you come into working in this medium?

I went to OCA, the Ontario College of Art, in the general studies program. I was exploring different ways of expression and I had a big love for photography. I was doing some illustration courses and I took a metal shop course but I also took a philosophy course. There was a student in this philosophy made a lot of sense. I really respected who he was. One day I was in the atrium of the school and you could see from the atrium down into the basement jewellery studio. And that guy was working in the jewellery studio. It occurred to me that if he could do it, I could do it. I decided to take a jewellery course to see what that was about. I fell in love with it immediately.

It was working with these small intimate elements and processes that were very easy to control. It wasn’t like building a twenty foot sculpture. You could have it all contained right where you were working. You could begin, middle and end the process very quickly. It was very accessible. You could be very expressive. It’s also interesting because a lot of people are open to the idea of jewellery. People are drawn to jewellery. There is a ready audience if one is wanting to explore in this medium.

That was in my third year. I took one course and by the fourth year, I was taking almost all my courses studying jewellery. So I just specialized and did quite well and won a scholarship at the end of that fourth year. After that I graduated OCA I enrolled in the gold smithing program at George Brown College. It was more of an industry focused, less conceptually organized program. This was a good next step as it allowed me to study a lot more of the techniques of fabrication. OCA had already taught me the tools and structure to explore ideas and content.

After I came out of gold smithing school, I started my own shop and found a certain level of success. Unfortunately it wasn’t too many years after when my advancing disability forced me to close my shop. I had a very intense and rewarding time of jewellery making and then had to stop. It was more than 15 years later when I was unexpectedly able to return to the bench and start making again.

When it became obvious I would be unable to make jewellery, I began exploring other forms of expression. I involved myself in performance and dance and still do that to this day. I’m a photographer. Some of my photographs are featured in this festival in a group show titled Urban[eyes]. I also began to make film. I have just completed my fourth short film, a co-creation. This film is called 29,200. It will have its release some time in the very near future. And I am again making jewellery. Because of the fact that I had to leave jewellery, I was able to go and explore other forms of expression. As a result, I’ve been able to study many different creative languages and thankfully am able to enjoying exploring in them all.

Mark Brose, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art, is a multi-disciplinary artist and disability-rights activist whose creative explorations include jewellery/sculpture, photography, film, dance, and theatre. Among other accomplishments, he was co-creator of the short film in.clu.sion and the soon to be released short 29,200. He played Gordie Howe in the award-winning heist comedy Oops!, and danced in Peggy Baker’s Geometry of the Circle as part of the Vancouver Olympiad. Mark has exhibited his jewellery/sculpture both nationally and internationally. He has performed/exhibited in a number of Tangled events including the Toronto: Street Level photography exhibit and The Neat Strange Music of Ahmed Hassan.

Mark Brose will be giving an artist talk on Friday, April 24th at 5:30 in the Musideum, Suite 133.

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