It is not unheard of for creativity to flourish in times of crises, and this was certainly true for jeweller Kali Forbes, who spent the lockdown of 2020 developing her first demi-fine jewellery collection, Hepworth.
Confined to her London home, Kali escaped by dreaming of the British countryside, the backdrop to her childhood years. Recalling the rolling hills and windswept dales led her to dwell on the rural-landscape-inspired work of Barbara Hepworth, a sculptor Kali has long admired and who became the underlying theme for her designs.
The resulting twelve-piece jewellery collection pays homage to the late artist’s abstract, organic forms on a miniature scale, and was selected for exhibition at Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s showcase of promising new talent.
“I enjoyed a very outdoor life exposed to the natural elements as a child. I was born in the countryside, and lived there until I was seven, and our holidays were always in the UK. We would go camping in the Lake District, sleeping under the orange canvas of my family’s A-frame tent, or to my grandparents' chalet, a wooden bungalow in a 1970s Cornish holiday park.” Kali explained.
“When I was designing this collection during the lockdown, I was feeling really trapped. I live in London, and my studio is based in South London, so I live a very urban life. Although I’m lucky enough to have a garden, a little touch of paradise, it’s a very London garden - small and over-looked. I think I was subconsciously reflecting on a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in Snape Maltings in Suffolk, and yearning for the countryside and the feelings that I had there as a child.”
Kali began her jewellery career at Camberwell College, before earning a Bachelor’s degree from Middlesex University in Jewellery Design in 2011, a course that led to coveted work placements with veteran metalsmith Clive Burr and celebrated fashion jeweller Florian Ladstäetter in Vienna, Austria.
It was during the latter course that Kali began to nurture an ambition to launch her own jewellery brand, a dream she would realise after completing a Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art in 2014, and trying her hand at various jobs within the industry:
“After I graduated, I began doing some free-lancing, before starting to teach, which was amazing. I taught at the British Academy of Jewellery, and did a bit of lecturing at the Royal College of Art. I love teaching, but it’s very intense. Even part-time, it’s difficult to run your own, young, emerging business. I stopped teaching at the end of 2018 to focus on my own practice. I then worked for two years doing bespoke commissions, things like wedding rings, engagement rings, birthday gifts and so on, before beginning to develop this collection last year.”
Hepworth is a professional and creative milestone for Kali, whose previous work on commission has often been collaborative in nature - as much the client’s vision as her own. Cast in recycled bronze and finished with a layer of 18ct gold vermeil, this is her first demi-fine jewellery collection, and thus her first opportunity for full artistic freedom, the start of a journey in developing a signature design aesthetic.
“It was really enjoyable having total creative control,” she explained with palpable enthusiasm. “When you’re working on a bespoke commission, it’s a real honour to be involved in that special moment for a client, but it is very client-led. Whereas when I was designing and creating this demi-fine collection, it could be whatever I wanted it to be, express whatever I wanted to express, and look however I wanted it to look.”
Designing a collection of jewellery, as opposed to one-off bespoke work, was also a fresh experience for Kali. She describes being able to explore the “language” between each piece - how the rings, necklaces, earrings and bangle included in Hepworth are connected to one another.
“Another thing that I enjoyed about putting together a demi-fine collection, is that there's a real cohesion through the pieces, so there's threads that run through them. You don’t really get that thread when working on private, bespoke commissions, it’s very client-led and you’re designing almost in a silo. Putting together a jewellery collection allows you to design pieces that speak to each other - there’s a unique language between them.”
Hepworth is also a body of work produced during an unprecedented moment in human history - the first global pandemic, and the first of many lockdowns in the UK. As a result, the conditions in which it was produced are unique; everyday life ground to a halt, and there were few distractions to the creative process.
“I got a full immersion in the designing process, which isn’t something you would usually experience, as when you’re running your own business, you have so many things happening, so many plates spinning at once. At that time, very little was going on at all, so other than the daily planning of how I was going to financially survive the pandemic, and all the other fears and anxieties around Covid-19, it was a full immersion.”
Barbara’ Hepworth’s sculptures are notable in that they are often unextractable from their surrounding landscape. As significant as the work itself, is the interplay between the piece and the rural environment in which it is placed. It’s therefore testament to Kali’s talent as a maker that in spite of being unable to leave her urban home whilst designing Hepworth, she was nonetheless able to invoke the essence of the British countryside in her tribute to the artist. This is achieved through contrasting and irregular textures, implying natural phenomena such as erosion and decay. Moreover, Kali’s use of bronze, a material that harks back to ancient artisanal practices and was often favoured by Hepworth herself.
“I find Barbara Hepworth’s work soothing; the way that her sculptures frame the countryside but also diffuse into the landscape. They have an organic natural feel to them, but you can tell that they’ve been created by a human being. I wanted this collection to have that aesthetic balance, that juxtaposition between organic forms, natural textures, and the sense that something is man-made.”
Another way in which Kali uses her work to honour the natural world is through a commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, an area she has ambitions of developing further as her brand grows. “The environmental credentials of my business are really important to me,” she explained earnestly. “When casting, I only work with recycled and fair-mined metals, and the gemstones that I use are all traceable. In terms of ethics, I always try to work with the most ethical materials. I looked at the packaging I’m using last year and made sure that as much of it as possible is made from paper and is recyclable.” This innovative outlook has been widespread among the makers selected for Shine 2021, and seems to be representative of a new, more socially aware era of jewellery making.
Kali is also embracing innovation in terms of the techniques used in her work. To create the flowing, naturalistic forms prevalent throughout the Hepworth collection, Kali utilised an increasingly popular tool in the jewellery industry - Computer Aided Design (CAD). Working with a tablet and a stylus, she did not utilise any of the programmes typically used for jewellery design, however:
“I modelled the pieces of jewellery on a computer in a three-dimensional space, using a software package that's actually designed for the gaming industry. The reason why I wanted to use this program is because it can be organic and fluid, almost like modelling a piece of clay. A lot of CAD software packages, especially ones geared towards the jewellery industry, are a bit clunky, you build forms from what they call primitives, so they’re preloaded shapes and you don’t have this fluid way of working. I also use a tablet with a pen, which gives me real freedom of expression. I can build up textures and create organic-looking forms which evoke a sense of movement."
CAD is still a relatively new technology in the context of jewellery-making, an ancient craft steeped in tradition. What’s involved in the process of digital 3D design is therefore often unknown to the public, and sometimes even within the industry.
“When I explain that I design and model my jewellery using the computer, it can be a bit misleading - I think people assume that you just press a button and the computer does everything for you, which is not at all the case. These are very much hand-made pieces. The only part of the process that I suppose is different to traditional jewellery making is that rather than carving the wax by hand, I’m modelling that on the computer and 3D printing it, but there's a benefit to that - it aids the creative flow and allows me to work a lot quicker. I'm able to realise things in my head, and then get them out and into a physical 3D form at a faster speed, which enables me to refine things much quicker than if I was traditionally carving pieces by hand.”
Although Hepworth is Kali’s first foray into producing work that is wholly her own expression, she has already laid the foundations for a striking signature style, shot through with deeply felt influences, themes, and motivations for every creative decision. It is work worthy of the artist that inspired it, to whom Kali’s sense of personal connection is undeniable.
“One of the most inspirational images that I saw of Barbara Hepworth actually was not of her work, it was an image of her and she was carving a sculpture, with a mallet in one hand. She was wearing a boiler suit and several really chunky chains. I found this really inspiring because it's quite similar to how I dress and how I feel about the clothes we chose to wear in our daily life. I don't want clothing to prevent me from doing my work. It needs to enable me to move and function. So obviously things like high heels are not going to help me to make jewellery, which is a very physical process. When we talk about practical clothing, I think people have in their heads something that's almost devoid of decoration and accessories, but it doesn't need to be like that. That was one of the reasons why I found that image of Barbara Hepworth so inspiring, because she was there doing her job and bossing it.”