Cass Partington on minimalism, rings and doing the dishes…
What was the first piece of jewellery that you ever made?
It was in my early twenties when I was at university. I took some classes with the late Patsy Miers. I think the piece I made would have involved some kind of repetitive soldering exercise, like a chain. I think we had to do three things: a box, a chain and something else…it was before we were allowed to make whatever we wanted. So I made a chain, which I do still have, somewhere…and I made a little daggy pillbox with my initials in the top. This was before I studied jewellery. I originally studied arts and criminology at the University of Melbourne, so I was just taking part-time jewellery-making classes at night. I had always been interested in jewellery. I loved it and wanted to have a go at making it. And I found out Patsy Miers was running these classes near where I lived. It sounded like a great opportunity to try my hand at making jewellery…so that’s where it began.
When did you start making jewellery full-time?
I finished university and I started working full-time in the corporate sector, which I found excruciatingly boring. A lot of people I worked with actually told me that I should probably be in a more creative environment. I’d always wanted to go to art school but had never done it. So one day I rang up Collingwood TAFE, when NMIT was situated there, and asked them about getting an interview for the Graduate Diploma of Engineering (Jewellery). I got in; it was considered fulltime at that time, it was three days a week and it was a two year course, which I absolutely loved. I loved the feeling of grabbing my toolbox and putting my jeans on in the morning and walking to TAFE to go and make stuff rather than going to the office. It was a complete revelation.
What was it that attracted you to jewellery as a creative outlet rather than something else?
I was and always have been a great lover of jewellery. I’d never really thought of it before as a career but I’m very glad that I made the move at that point. The teachers at school were very good, particularly Roberto Porcini who was fantastic and inspiring and told us from the beginning that there was no reason that we couldn’t be making money what we were learning there and couldn’t start practising as jewellers straight away. So after that I still had to work part-time for a few years to supplement my income but essentially I have been making a living as a jeweller since then.
How does what you made then compare to what you make now?
To be honest, in the beginning I was just excited to be able to make and create anything at all. And, of course, metal is a great material to explore with in terms of creative potential…the possibilities of surface treatments and the way it can come up when you work it has always made it special in my eyes, and that’s always appealed to me. But my work in the last ten years or so has been very influenced by the city and by the urban landscape. And also by being in the studio with these fantastic people, Nicky [Hepburn] and Anna [Davern]…
Speaking of the studio, when did you move in?
I started doing some part time work for Julie Carter who was in this building [Carlow House] quite a while ago. It was through this that I met Nicky and Anna, who already had a studio up here. I remember the first time I came up to this room, our studio, for lunch and thinking, ‘my god, what would I give to be in a fabulous, creative space like this?’ And then Jacqui Archer, who used to be here, was moving out and Nicky and Anna and I had a chat about it and they said I could move in…I was beside myself with joy.
Looking out the windows of your studio, your surrounded by the city in such a grand way…and you often refer to the city in your work. Is it a conscious reference?
I think so. I’m definitely influenced by architectural forms, and the aesthetics of a cityscape and other similar things. Years ago I had a little window installation called ‘Metropolis’ at e.g.etal Little Collins. It was comprised of multiple rings stacked up to various heights, which formed a little cityscape of towers of rings. Some of them were made of Perspex so that the LED lights I installed at the bottom of the display lit up the rings like lit buildings against a night sky. Ever since this exhibition there have been stacks involved in my work. I always believed in the idea of ‘strength in repetition’ and I think that idea can be seen in cities too.
Take us through an average piece, from beginning to end. Do you have an idea and then sketch it? Or do you start creating and see where it goes…?
I usually have an idea and then I sketch it. I don’t know where they come from…from all sorts of different places, I suppose. I try to work out the details at this stage, but sometimes I get a bit excited about wanting to make it before I’ve really thought about everything enough. But that’s sort of how I work too: I just want to give it a go and then refine it in later iterations of that piece. The techniques I use are pretty basic jewellery making techniques…for example; most of what I do in terms of patterning is achieved with my saw or my drill or my hammer. The simplicity of this allows me to do a lot of customisation. In the last few years I’ve been working a lot more with gold, as opposed to the early years when it was mainly silver and industrial materials. It’s also really obvious that I love rings. The only thing better than a ring is a stack of rings.
How is working in this studio? Do you share and bounce ideas off one another?
All the time…and we always have done so. To be honest, I don’t think I’d even be making jewellery any more if I hadn’t moved in here. This workshop has just been the most wonderful thing. Nicky and Anna are both teachers as well so I’m constantly learning. We’re all quite different people and our work is quite different so that helps as well—we can be objective about each other’s work because we’re not all trying to do the same thing and we’re all sort of coming from different places. We’ve always just got on fabulously well. Ten years is a long time to share with the same people. I’m very proud of our long, creative relationship and the fact that it functions so well.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I suppose it’s quite clean and modern. It’s an aesthetic that I find appealing but it’s also an aesthetically that is intrinsically connected to what I’m capable of from a technical point of view and also what I’m working with in terms of materials. I enjoy working within this aesthetic—I like the finished product to look very sleek and neat—it’s certainly not overly decorative. I’m attracted to the organic and the decorative in other people’s work but not necessarily my own. I’m quite influenced by modernist architecture…but having said that, if I was to build a house I don’t think it would necessarily be clean, neat and minimal. I’m not really a neat and clean person in my life…and that’s why I get amazed that my pieces end up looking so slick and clean and mechanical. The process is not as neat as the finished product would indicate. When making any jewellery you get into a big mess. It doesn’t look that good along the way, it only really looks great at the very final endpoint. I think I do get somewhat amazed each time I finish a piece and look at it. Some of the techniques I’ve been using for quite a few years have developed really naturally: some of the patterns I use look almost lathed but they’re actually done with a saw…
I can’t create a curved line using my saw, which is the tool that I prefer to use. I can only do a straight line, and I can make it as neat and as perfect as I possibly can. And I must say I’ve noticed that architects are quite drawn to my work. I once had a client request a ring, a stack of three—two titanium and one white gold—and he wanted it to work like a cylindrical slide rule. On the 18ct white gold ring there were three carefully placed gems so that when you turn it they lined up at certain points…needless to say after my first attempt I ended up making it again. I didn’t show him the first one, which didn’t work exactly. But the second attempt worked. And that’s what I mean: it might look mechanical but its not really, it’s all made with a saw by hand.
Can you see your work evolving in different ways?
I hope so. I’m pretty proud of my Arcade range and I think that was a real diversion for me and what I’m usually doing. Being interested in simplicity, I decided to explore how pixels could be incorporated into jewellery. I arranged gems in patterns that were appropriations of imagery from arcade games: the original and most basic pixel formations. I think it was in keeping with my aesthetic, but it was also a little bit adventurous. I’d love to do some more work along those lines. I think my work has evolved in a technical sense; I’ve gotten technically better at making jewellery by sheer virtue of practice. I’m also doing more special rings for people now, which I really enjoy. I love knowing that my rings are associated with something meaningful. I get a pretty big thrill out of making significant or important rings for people who are going to love them for a long time…I’ve always thought of rings as a permanent thing. I love them. I love the scale of jewellery: its size, its wearability, its portability. My work does incorporate architectural elements or elements of the urban landscape but, when compared to architecture, I’d say that I’ve always loved or preferred the scale of jewellery. It’s permanent, but it’s also easier to hold on to…in most ways.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the studio?
I like to spend time with family and friends. I would like to be doing more travelling but that time will come, I’m sure. I’d like to spend a significant amount of time in the big bustling cities of the world and make work in response to different cities. I’m going to New York City in September. I made a pact with a friend of mine in Sydney that when we hit 40 we’d go to New York. I’ve never been so obviously I’m pretty excited about that…and I love a big city.
What’s the best thing about making jewellery?
I’m just so pleased when someone loves a piece of work. I’m constantly blown away when people do love my work. I’ll never get sick of people saying how much they love something I’ve done. The other day a person asked me about getting another ring made, because a little while ago she’d been given a stack of my rings and she just loved them so much. It’s a thrill to hear that. I think that’s what it is about for me. It’s not that I necessarily think that jewellery ‘has to say something’…I mean, it can. But I just really like making things. I also love being creatively engaged in this workshop…. I think one of the main reasons we all get along so well, and the reason it’s such a happy environment here is because when I first moved in the girls said, ‘You’re not allowed to get pissed off about the dishes.’ So we have a rule, if the dishes are annoying you and you think they should be done, then you have to do them…just don’t get pissed off about the dishes.