An in-depth conversation with Steven Gordon Holman about epic mythologies, omens and relics, mysteries of the West Desert, and the narrative behind his captivating contemporary jewelry.
Name: Steven Gordon Holman
Place of Birth: Leamington, Utah
Current City & State: Providence, RI
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: Hmmm…I would say Mythic, Rural, and also Urban. I tend to work with cultural mythologies and personal anecdotes, searching for the intersections of the two and from there exploring new narratives. I think that my work is obviously rural, coming out of my upbringing in the West Desert, but also there is something urban about it. I like to think about old mythologies infiltrating contemporary pop culture, and my narratives gaining credibility in the real world through their use.
Q: You note that your work incorporates both personal and cultural stories, myths, and iconographies, can you elaborate?
A: Storytelling is a major part of the rural culture that I grew up in. Whether it was myths from the old country (mostly Norse) or Native American lore, or even the lore from the early days of white settlement in Utah, cultural myths seemed to be everywhere. It was striking that these stories bore stark commonalities with one another, even if their origins were not the same. Things like creation myths, natural encounters, etc. were all very similar. The other narrative aspect of rural life was the ever present relation of personal stories, and of course, gossip. Whether it was a narrative of a big hunt, the trophy that got away, the secrets of your neighbors past, the real reason something happened, or didn’t, personal stories turn into epics: myths that become larger than themselves with no one really knowing what exactly is truth or fiction…really everything is eventually told, and everything is believed.
Q: Does each piece incorporate both perspectives or does only one area come to the forefront in each work? Do you want each piece to tell a full story or do you prefer to complete a series to formulate a more narrative perspective?
A: I think that it really depends on the piece…some pieces incorporate a whole story, or at least attempt to, some have a written accompaniment, whether a poem or just a hinting title, and some are just fractions of the world that I am building. I think it is important that each piece fits into the narrative, that it continues the larger narratives or invites the wearer or viewer to create their own. In making a mythic system believable there has to be varying levels of depth, some are icons and some are physically stories.
Q: Your works are incredibly sculptural, why do you choose to convey your stories into jewelry as opposed to objects? What is the importance of adornment for you?
A: I think that the interesting thing about jewelry is that it has a value as costume. I am really interested in ritualistic adornment, in things worn for ceremony and performance. By taking on this object you become something else, you are signaling that you are the translator of its message. Obviously jewelry is more engaging in the public sphere than a sculptural object, it gets out there and meets you. I think jewelry also falls into the category of believable objects, and also objects of belief… Talismans, amulets, objects of remembrance, all things we take upon ourselves that bear cultural importance.
I also like the intersection when adornment of “necessity” becomes adornment of habit, superstition, or ornamentation. I’m thinking about the way that camouflage went from a necessity for hunting to a cultural marker of rural culture, and how it is now being adopted in urban and pop culture as a fashion item. But even smaller moves seems significant as well, such as a hunter wearing a specific belt as a token of luck. Maybe he notches it after each kill, maybe he uses it to gather tokens of his travel. These are the kinds of things that make adornment exciting for me.
Q: Who would you identify as your target audience? Is it limited to the demographic you most identify with or is it exposing/explaining your demographic to an outside audience? Are you making work only for The Tribe or are outsiders permitted?
A: I’ve been exploring the world of hunting in contemporary context through stories, myths, and technologies. I grew up in a family that is really into hunting as a practice, for sustenance, and also for sport. I think there is a notion that hunters are barbarians, that they don’t respect the land or nature. Obviously for some that might be true, but the vast majority of hunters that I have known have a huge respect for nature and their place in it. There is a huge difference between hunting and poaching, and I know that for some that’s hard to understand. True hunters hunt for sustenance, use all that they can, but they also don’t feel the need to hide that it is exciting; it’s a ritual that everyone in their lives has been part of. The Tribe started in the West Desert as an embodiment of the more reverent, ritualistic aspects of hunting and gathering. As I developed my work and began to explore hunting on a broader scale I realized that the Tribe included many more contemporary and urban cultural ideas, as well as mythologies and stories from the world in general.
This brings me back to ideas of my audience. I am presenting these stories, ideas, and objects through my own experience, so it is naturally easier to identify with them if you know a little about me or my background; but my goal is that it is translated to a wider audience. I would hope that the work is recognizable for everyone, whether emotionally, socially, geographically, or spiritually. I think of the work as a chance to encounter, explore, and revel in our more base instincts – a way to connect with a rural past or present.
Q: How do you see your myths and iconographies translated on another’s body? Particularly someone who perhaps does not share your heritage or background?
A: I hope that there is definitely a feeling of the piece being archaic, some sort of relic or artifact that is of another time, but also of this time – I guess timeless in its combination of markers. I think that the works are big enough, imposing enough, that they can’t be ignored, and I think that that points to ritualistic, occasional, performative use. Obviously there will always be a tie-in to fashion with jewelry, and I like that sort of moment when a piece can vibrate between aesthetic adornment and ritualistic meanings.
Q: Let’s look at several of your series of works and talk through your conceptual focus – let’s begin with your series, Cradles and Braids. Is this where you first began using found animal materials in combination with adornment?
A: I have really only just begun to think of things as series, and I think that I would almost rather say categories. I think that the idea of a series is too start/finish, & collection has the same sort of resonance through its use in fashion. I think that categories better describes what I am doing, as it is flexible, like storytelling. I might find that some pieces that I did a while back move into a new category as work begins to relate to them again, or maybe I move back and forth between two categories intermittently, but the finality of a series is a bit too much for me as I am never fully resolved in my thought processes.
Cradles and Braids was a sort of moment for me when I realized that adornment was something special in art. I was thinking of antlers of a natural adornment for mule deer, and wanted to somehow reference jewelry. The wrapping of the antlers was an attempt at jewelry, adorning the adornment, and the form of the antler naturally lent to a sort of caressing, sensuous arrangement. Something in the juxtaposition of function and adornment, and comfort and weaponry, made me think about these as trophies both masculine and motherly… taking something traditionally male and weaving it with something softer, more nurturing.
Q: From here, you move to turning animal remains and archaic stones into wearable jewelry? Why such a focus on natural materials?
A: Material specificity is important to me, it can lend credibility and accountability to the work. It is important that I know where the materials I use come from, and also what they signify. The natural materials come from West Desert where my family farms hay and cattle, and hunts both animals and stones. My family on both sides were settlers of the valley we live in, so my history is very much embedded in these objects. Many of the stones and fossils I use can only be found where I grew up, and my father’s sisters have made their living quarrying them. It’s this history, the traceable lineage of the material that is important to me. There is also importance in the non-natural (if there is such a thing) materials that I use, as they are implements of hunting and our contemporary culture. I often go to sporting goods and farm stores to find materials.
Q: In your series, Mother's Pearls, A Rabbit's Den, you note that the rabbits from the West Desert as fortunetellers: identifiers of drought, famine, or disease. Have you always felt the animals of your area are seers of sorts?
A: This is more a piece than a series, but it is important in that it introduces the Rabbits as one of the seers of the desert. Rabbits are a big deal where I come from, they’re everywhere. Growing up we raised orphaned rabbits, they’re under every brush and every rock: we sometimes hunted them, they’re the high school mascot, they’re just a major part of life it the desert. My grandfather told me that you can tell the state of nature by rabbit populations, a boom might mean a mild spring ahead or the end of a drought, a lull might mean disease or a hard winter. He also said that rabbits were the most clever and hardy of animals, and that they always come back from hard times. Because I was so aware of rabbit lore I also recognized that they are similarly respected in other cultures and stories. They are said to move between life and death in some northern lore, and artists such as Joseph Beuys have referenced these ideas. There are other animals, magpies and crows, for instance, that were traditionally seen as seers, and that was also significant to me. I was, and am to some extent, in a world of my own, trying to tap into deeper currents, searching out and trying to connect omens and events.
Q: Specifically in this work, you note it was for your grandmother who searched the desert for treasures – a piece of anticipation and dreams unfulfilled. Can you explain the dichotomy of thought that the rabbits provide knowledge, yet the desert remains a mystery? Is this at all a representation of your relationship with your grandmother or a comment on familial relationships? A: My grandmother was a funny character. She was a poet who enjoyed searching for rocks and precious stones and decorating her home and garden with them (often literally gluing them to the architecture). She left an affluent lifestyle in Montana to homestead the harsh desert with my grandfather, and although she was optimistic I’m not sure she ever really felt settled. There are also circumstances in the life of my grandparents that made it so they never could get ahead as they imagined, and those sorts of things can never be accounted for. I think that the knowledge of the rabbits is really part of the mystery. The way they survive, and even thrive, in harsh, unforgiving environments. The thing about the desert is that even if you think you know everything about it, even if you spend your entire life in it, you can always be surprised for better or worse. The piece is referencing very specific moments in my family dynamic, shifts that occurred, things that are too long to explain here, but I think that they are things that echo through the history of human relationships. These are the things that are warned of in fables and myths, and somehow seem to always repeat.
Q: In your series, Beginnings – you continue your representation of the rabbit, can you elaborate on the significance of the rabbit for you personally? Are they just an icon of your surroundings or do they represent something more? By using remnants of their bodies (their hides and bones), how does their actual history impact your psychological one?
A: I explained a bit about the rabbits’ roles as seers, and their resilience. I also tend to use them as stand-ins for family members in the making of these myths. The piece, Out of the Mouths of Rabbits, is about a dream I once had, more of a nightmare, where I was a rabbit and I was in a field eating clovers. I heard a thump and turned to see another rabbit sitting next to me, and I could vaguely recognize it as a relative. Suddenly things got cold and a snake began to emerge from the rabbit’s mouth, and at the same time the rabbit’s skin became hollow, like a cloak. The snake prepared to strike and I woke up. Because of some familial circumstances at the time there was a resonance in this deception, of someone so close being almost a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The horsehair in the piece references the mare-lock of northern mythologies, or rather it is an actual mare-lock. If you found these tangles in your hair or the hair of a horse it was said that you had been ridden by the mare in the night, and while you were being terrorized it plaited the lock into your hair. The material history of the piece, the physical weight and abrasiveness, the way it slithers around your neck, makes wearing it an experience. A moment of tactile repulsion mixed with the danger and beauty in realization, a sense of clarity.
Q: Your series, The Tribe, seems to take your work deeper into a conceptual world more reflective of your childhood experiences from the landscape of western Utah.
A: The Tribe actually began as an exploration into what it would mean to make the work more current, if that makes sense. I felt that the work I was making was too rooted in the past, too archaic, too natural and somehow needed to relate to now. I literally went to a local salvage shop and a hunting store and began looking for things that were definitely contemporary products of industry, but that still held value and meaning in the belief system that I was building. The Tribe also marked my realization that the audience and subject of the work was not dead, but was very much alive and well, and growing toward popular culture through reality shows like Duck Dynasty. I mean, I could never have imagined seeing anyone I grew up with standing on a red carpet in custom camouflage suits, or giving life advice from the cover of a magazine at the grocery, but it seemed that suddenly the gap was closing. And at the same time artists like Supaman were gaining popularity and credibility through their rural, cultural narratives. The work was becoming an embodiment of these ideas, a cultural mashup, a time-shift, a representation of the new Tribe. It is sort of a childhood full of different and contrasting experiences merging in a realization that the two worlds I felt I belonged to weren’t as separate as I imagined, and that there was a whole cultural network that was making these connections… if that makes sense.
I also began to explore the structure of storytelling through physical representation with these first works. To Segment and Stretch, To Braid and Unbraid, To Segment and Join, To Wrap and to Hide; all studies on the development and evolution of story.
Q: In your artist statement, you note “In the creation of these artifacts I grapple with notions of hunting, gathering, and storytelling, attempting to reconcile the misconceptions about what it is to be a hunter today.” What do you consider the misconceptions of being a contemporary hunter?
A: The ideas of barbarism, stupidity, aggression that I touched on earlier seem to be the biggest misconception to me. Today’s hunters utilize new and old technologies to partake in a ritual that really we are all a part of. I don’t think I can name one hunter who hunts with wanton disregard for the nature around him; but on the contrary, they depend on it for their success. It’s as if all of the spiritual connections, the shamanic rituals and conversations that were traditionally present in the view of a hunter and provider, have been overshadowed by the popular view of the brute, and I don’t think that is a fair assumption of what it means to be a hunter. I don’t have a grand plan to exact reconciliation or acceptance, but more so to open up a conversation. I’m not sure if the reconciliation is for others, or maybe just myself.
Q: It seems from this series forward, you are really forming what you call new material allegiances (and some of the most interesting and unexpected combinations of materials), can you discuss what you mean by this? It sounds like they are meant to work harmoniously not just aesthetically, but conceptually – how do you see each component serving as a place marker to complete your narrative.
A: I think that through these works I am beginning to understand the importance of the implements of the contemporary outdoorsman, and also the balance between the old and the new. This is relevant on a few different levels, each component functions as narrative, history, and location reference. This comes back to what I said earlier about truth in material, the inherent power and history is there to lend credibility to the idea presented.
Q: Several of the pieces from this series are incredibly heavy in weight, is this merely because of the materials you are selecting or is this intentional for the viewer? Is there a conceptual implication meant to be conveyed to their body?
A: I think that in jewelry there is always a consideration of weight, and some go to great lengths to mimic heavy objects in lighter materials to consider wearability. Personally I think this is a bit too deceptive. While I love a moment of surprise at an illusion as much as anyone else, in my work it is something that I am not interested in. The heavier pieces are typically the geode works, and I think that aside from the obvious physics of their weight it is a physical representation of their story: the pressure, growth, searching, quarrying, and anticipation of finding out what’s inside. The weight aids in narrative metaphors, and somehow makes the experience or wearing more truthful.
Q: Trophies, introduces a natural material that is less permanent that you have used before: potatoes. Can you describe your process for using potatoes? How do you see this material fitting in conceptually with your previous work?
A: The potatoes came in through a couple different avenues…I was working on the Stone Rabbit brooches, which have a 3d printed core, and showed them to a visiting artist, Märta Mattsson. She said it was funny that the structure looked like a carved potato. A few minutes later my professor at the time, Myra Mimlitsch-Gray said the same thing, and said she sometimes does material studies in potato. This sort of ruminated in my mind for a few months, and one day I started thinking about my mother’s hands as she peeled and carved potatoes, and of the importance of potatoes as a staple in the diet of rural communities. I began to carve shapes out of them, and to experiment in preserving these shapes. The ritual of peeling, carving, and drying was cathartic, and paralleled the motions of my mother as she prepared the meals of my youth. There was also a link to taxidermy, of preserving and displaying these vegetables that had just as much value both physically and form the standpoint of survival as meat. Thus, Trophies.
Q: Your most recent series, The Horse and The Well, seems a bit more subdued than some of your earliest works. Still striking, but incredibly minimal and more abstracted that some of the iconographies you have represented before. Can you discuss the ideas for this series as well as your material choices?
A: These pins were very quick, and very small, and are now a study for some works to come. While I was in upstate New York working at a horse farm there was a terrible accident. The horses escaped in the night, and one couldn’t be found. I went to help search, but by the time I arrived the mystery had been solved. The horse, the blackest I had ever seen, had fallen down an abandoned well in the forest. It was an awful moment, a sight I can’t forget, and I believe an omen for the hard times that the farm would soon face. The horse’s body couldn’t be retrieved, and I was asked to fill the well in, entombing it. The black clay used for the forms was embedded with hair from the horse, an obvious physical connection. The suspended materials were each chosen for their links to the past and present, tokens of mourning.
Q: With titles like First and Last, Mother and Father, are you considering ideas of family? Ideas of existence? Ideas of the bigger picture?
A: The titles serve to describe the choice of suspended material, while leaving room for interpretation. The ideas of first hunts, last shots, relationships lost physically or emotionally, and the lament of loss and time, all shift and move through the works.
Q: What concepts are you currently thinking about and how are they manifesting into your jewelry?
A: I am always working in a few different directions. I think that is the only thing that I can really say is constant. I take a few steps forward, then some back, then to the side, then forward again, I don’t know. I would like to explore the ideas of mourning and ritual more thoroughly. I am also working on some pieces that are physically and technologically interactive. Honestly, I’m not sure what’s next, or finished, or even if anything is really ever finished.
Q: Who (artists, philosophers, writers) do you draw inspiration from?
A: I am interested in the mythic aspects of Joseph Beuys work, as well as his use of material markers. There are a handful of contemporary jewelers whose conceptual ideas are really intriguing to me: Akihiro Ikeyama’s spiritualist approach to antler work, Kerianne Quick’s material investment, Märta Mattsson’s interest in the ideas of the macabre and the beautiful.
I am also taken with the work of Maynard Dixon, a painter of southwestern American life and husband of Dorothea Lange. I guess I love both of their work for the stories they tell, but Dixon in particular captures both the beauty and loneliness of the southwestern deserts. Also Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, a Native American artist who makes works rooted in material and commodity issues as they relate to our collective past and present.
I like the writing of David Abram, he is invested in nature and relationship in a really interesting way that highlights the subjectivity of different experiences. I also honestly read a lot of articles in hunting magazines… There are some really great pieces in Field & Stream that explain the psychological and ritualistic behaviors of both animals and humans, and some are just plain entertaining.
Q: Ok, last question. A major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may lose a limb — what works do you rush in to get?
A: This is honestly a really hard question; I really don’t know where to begin. I’m going to chicken out and say something form Beuys, Dixon, and Quick-To-See Smith because I love their work and it’s always on my mind.
For more information about Steven and his work, please visit the following:
Images (from top to bottom): Mother's Pearls, A Rabbit's Den (detail), 2013, Neckpiece, 24 Dugway Geodes, Bronze, Waxed String, 16 x 9 x 3 inches / Mengz and Bill wearing: Talismanic Gun Sling, 2014, Gun Sling, Leather, Steel, Canvas, Bullet Casings, Cartridges, Mule Deer Antler, Quartz, Tourmaline, Nylon Paracord, Iron Crystal, Mule Deer Call, Cave Bear Tooth, Apache Tear, Sound, 30 x 4 x 2 inches; Coyote Story Trap, 2014, Neckpiece, Iron Chain, Steel Coyote Trap, Brass, Powder Coat, 24K Gold, Sound, 14 x 13 x 4 inches; Winter Ghillie Story Suit, 2014, Hood, Duck Canvas, Leather, Bungee, Nylon Paracord, Cotton Thread, Twine, Sound, 24 x 24 x 12 inches; and Hearing Aid, 2013, Neckpiece, Hare Ears, Nylon Strapping, Paracord, Brass, Tattoo, 16 x 5 x 1 inches /The Tribe: Warning Whistle, 2013, Neckpiece, Potato, Tourmaline, Whistle, Nylon Rope, Gear Tie, 16 x 9 x 4 inches / The Mare, 2014, Neckpiece, Horsehair, Mule Deer Antler, Paracord, Steel, Brass, 29 x 9 x 2 inches / Cradles and Braids: Cradle, 2011, Mule Deer Antler Sheds, Copper Coated Steel Chain, 16 x 13 x 9 inches / Mother's Pearls, A Rabbit's Den, 2013, Neckpiece, 24 Dugway Geodes, Bronze, Waxed String, 16 x 9 x 3 inches / Out of the Mouths of Rabbits, 2013, Neckpiece, Mule Deer Antler, Horsehair, Brass, 14 x 8 x 3 inches / The Tribe: To Wrap and To Hide, 2013, Neckpiece, Mule Deer Antler, Hare's Ears, Dugway Geode, Quartz, Camoflage Tape, Steel Tie Wire, Brass 16 x 7 x 3 inches / Stag Mount, 2014, Neckpiece, Mule Deer Antler, Bone, Hide, Paracord, Silver, 16 x 9 x 2 inches / The Graces, 2014, Neckpiece, Dugway Geodes, Rabbit Skulls, Bronze, Steel, Paint, Waxed Cord, U-Bolt, 16 x 9 x 4 inches / Trophies: Rabbit Trophy, 2013, Brooch, Potato, Elm, Silver, 3 x 2 x 2 inches / The Horse and The Well (full series): First, 2014, Brooch, Ceramic, Horsehair, Mule Deer Antler, Silver, 3 x 2 x 2 inches; Father, 2014, Brooch, Ceramic, Horsehair, Silver, 5 x 2 x 2 inches; Mother, 2014, Brooch, Ceramic, Horsehair, Quartz, Silver, 3 x 2 x 2 inches; Ages, 2014, Brooch, Ceramic, Horsehair, Baltic Amber, Silver, 2 x 2 x 2 inches; and Last, 2014, Brooch, Ceramic, Horsehair, Bullet Casing, Silver, 3 x 2 x 2 inches / The artist’s studio (2 images) / The artist in his studio / The artist’s studio and his canine companion Ladybird