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Taking Shape

Taking Shape

Taking Shape

December/January 2012 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Jewelry Metal Paper

Fluttering Series earrings, 2011; oxidized sterling silver, waterproof handmade paper; 3.25 x 2.25 x .75 in. each. Photos: Hank Drew

Jewelry artist Tia Kramer's kinetic creations.

"I don't sit down and sketch something out and say, ‘I'm going to make this,'" says jeweler Tia Kramer. "I think very much through making."

Her work bears beautiful witness to that approach. In Kramer's hands, wire and handmade paper come to life, as if the organic shapes and vibrant fiber webbing grew from seed. She patiently coaxes her creations into being, stretching wet, delicate paper made from chemical-free fibers around recycled sterling wire forms. Once dried, the paper, now remarkably durable, is imbued with an intuition of its own; if stretched or dampened again, it remembers and assumes its original shape.

Kramer's path toward full-time jewelry making has been similarly instinctive. Though she loved art from a young age, it was never her only interest. As a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, she expected to major in anthropology or religious studies.

An art class changed her mind. "I realized, ‘Oh, wait, this is actually a way that I process; this makes perfect sense,' " she recalls.

The unexpected genesis of her jewelry came during her senior year, when she was tapped to create two 20-foot hanging sculptures for the psychology department in 2003. Seeking materials that were light, durable, and colorful, Kramer chose wire and paper, a medium she'd worked with in fiber arts classes and at a job at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

"I started making these little maquettes and would hang them to see how they interacted with light," Kramer says. "When students or other professors came in, their automatic reaction was ‘I want those for my ears.' "

Kramer casually began making earrings and other jewelry, her "rudimentary, self-taught forms," as she describes them, taking a back seat to sound, installation, and performance work during a post-baccalaureate year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-2000s. Then came another fork in the road. When the prospect of six-figure loans put her plans to attend graduate school on hold, Kramer decided instead to move to - wait for it - Antarctica.

Several months later, she was driving a 33-ton vehicle known colloquially as Ivan the Terra Bus over frozen ocean, working for the United States Antarctic Program, which conducts scientific research. To feed her urge to make, Kramer revisited her jewelry materials, which were light and portable.

The stark environment turned out to be the perfect place to refine her designs. The all-white landscape served as an ideal background to explore color, and in the isolated community she could see her work in action every day, on friends and colleagues.

Normally, "when you sell [jewelry], it goes into the world and you don't see it. But there I got to really see how things moved," she says. Movement is critical to Kramer, who sees her dynamic, kinetic jewelry as "performative sculpture."

In 2008, Kramer relocated to Seattle, and started making jewelry full time. She has embraced the Pacific Northwest's craft culture, and the craft community, near and far, has returned the gesture with gusto. In the past three years, about 20 galleries and museum shops have begun carrying her work, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, and Velvet da Vinci gallery. She also earned one of 12 emerging artist slots at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show this past November.

Where will her winding road lead next? To Kramer, the most interesting trajectory is the one she'll never personally follow. "I love that when you make a piece of jewelry and someone buys it, it becomes an extension of [that person]," she says."It's not just about the artist any more."

Brittany Kallman Arneson is a writer and graduate student in St. Paul, Minnesota.