Chewing gum on the sole of a shoe, a penny lying in the gutter, a hastily stubbed out cigarette; for most of us, these mundane, even mildly unpleasant everyday objects are not worth a second glance. For Glasgow-based jeweller Kristina Merchant, they are the inspiration underpinning her unique work, modern day artefacts that express something profound about society’s attitude to waste, litter and beauty.
Using piercing, press forming, and hand-carved Amber, Kristina creates startlingly realistic replicas of objects she describes as “awkward” and “temporary” to adorn the body. Her unusual collection, SCOUR, has been selected for Shine 2023, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s celebration of the industry’s most compelling up-and-coming talent.
So what first attracted you to a career as a maker, and how did you get started in the industry?
There was one specific memory related to my love of making, and sculpture especially. It was whilst I was an Artist in Residence on the Isle of Skye that I first fell in love with disregarded materials. I had to set my own brief, and it was inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, the land artist and environmentalist. He makes pieces using natural materials that are temporary, they will degrade over time. To create a piece, I collected seaweed that caught my eye because it was fluorescent green, and followed the lines of the natural bedrock of the seascape. From there, I went to study at the Glasgow School of Art.
How did you make the transition from natural artefacts into more urban artefacts?
My main focus was to use materials that are just disregarded, so my current sources of inspiration are similar to the waste on the seascape in that sense. Anything that's around me will inform my work, anything that’s temporary in nature. I moved to Glasgow, and I was working in hospitality, so my landscape became the urban landscape.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine 2023?
The title for my collection at Shine is called SCOUR, and it consists of pieces selected from my graduate collection. These pieces highlight the societal norms of littering in particular - the cigarettes, the chewing gum, and bottle caps. I have a rich history with this type of urban landscape going back generations where my nana Irene, worked in a cigarette factory and later went onto running her own pubs in various parts of the world - which I have memories of dating back to when I was very young. Whilst studying at The Glasgow School of Art I worked part time at a local pub called The Bell Jar. This landscape is where I observed and captured the nature of British culture. Collecting these disregarded objects sourced from shared drinks and cigarettes inspired my jewellery. I designed a narrative to provoke a sense of change in human behaviours, similar to the concept behind the Speculative Design method which highly influenced my research.
What have you learned from the process of planning and creating this collection?
What I've learned about my practice is that it’s a material exploration. I find the object that inspires the piece first, and then I decide how I'm going to make it. Figuring out how to create very realistic objects was the main challenge. I worked with amber, and through sanding and the pendant drill, I was able to achieve detailed forms. I learned a lot about the material properties of amber whilst creating this collection. It's a very brittle material that breaks easily, and young amber is sticky and chewy, whilst older amber is more firm and powdery.
How would you describe your design style?
I’m still figuring it out, but I would say that my design style is very conceptual and contemporary. It’s inspired by land, art and environmentalism. I taught myself how to carve from still life objects, because I enjoy using the subject matter as a direct reference.
In regards to environmentalism, I’m exploring the societal norms of littering, there’s no anti-smoking message with the cigarette piece, for example. It's just; be wary of what you do with this material, because it's precious. For example, I found out that the cigarette filter is the same celluloid plastic found in sunglasses, so you can actually melt it down and reform it into a new material - which is really cool. All you need to do is use nail varnish remover on the filter and it turns from solid to liquid straight away.
Did you explore any new techniques or materials whilst creating this collection?
The technique of press forming was a big part of my collection, especially with the Pavement Pennies. This was something I hadn't done before, and it was so amazing to see 2D turned into 3D. I started off using piercing and just trying to make my own bottle caps, but they just didn’t have that realistic effect. So then I used a brass rod press form that I carved into to create my own tool.
What do you enjoy most about being a maker?
I think what I enjoy most about making is the challenge, the question of what makes jewellery. To me, jewellery is performative. I like viewers to second guess themselves, to say hang on, I need to look at that again. It’s the awkwardness of the objects that draws them in. The placement of jewellery is really important to me, too. So for example, I have pieces that look like chewing gum, and if you have chewing gum on your back just walking down the street, a lot of people will come along and grab it. That’s what jewellery is all about - you’re supposed to touch it, to interact with it.
So do you have a favourite piece in this collection?
I think my favourite piece has to be the Pavement Pennies, because they’re the most fun and realistic. Whenever I’ve exhibited them, at my degree show for example, people have to look twice. So I'm very proud to make something that looks so real. They’re also challenging to make. I taught myself enamelling to finish the colour and through over firing and under firing, worked out how to get the texture right.
What kind of person do you think is most attracted to your collection?
I think my pieces are aimed at all contemporary art lovers. Those who find beauty in the unexpected. People that want to promote the importance of repurposing, and reusing materials, especially in this current climate, as well as people that like to wear playful jewellery, that's my main kind of clientele. Although at the moment, I'm still figuring out my audience. I don’t know where I fit in, in terms of whether my work is precious or commercial.
What’s next for you - what are your professional and creative goals over the next two years?
I'm eager to still keep learning new techniques. I’m particularly interested in lapidary, it’s something I learned to love through carving amber, it's very similar. I’d like to move on to more minerals, or Scottish rocks, or any material that's going to be a challenge, but also familiar to me. Carving, polishing and engraving to look like transparent glass is something that I'm really interested in at the moment. I'm currently going to the Glasgow Lapidary Club to learn more about it.
In the next few years, I aim to start my own business and get myself a stockist within Glasgow. I think it's important, I live here. What else am I doing? I work for Current Obsession, a jewellery magazine, and I'm learning how to do social media and marketing, so I can use these techniques in my own work. I've just finished my Artist in Residence at Glasgow School of Art, so this is now a new world to me - it's graduate life and I’ve just got to rip that band aid off. I'm starting to build up my own home studio, saving up to buy a hydraulic press, a rolling mill and other equipment. A rolling mill is very important for me, as I’m rolling sheets of silver down to create these crinkled papers.
Shine has already taught me so much and has definitely helped me in terms of confidence in writing. Just hearing other makers’ different stories has been so amazing, and exhibiting in London is just great.