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Jewellery & Metal (MA)

Mairi Millar

Mairi Millar is a multidisciplinary artist from Trinidad & Tobago whose practice centres on the materiality, power and ritual of objects.

Prior to her RCA MA study, Mairi received her BFA in Jewellery from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2018 where she won the Dorothy Nisbet Kison scholarship and was awarded a further residency upon her graduation.



Degree Details

School of Arts & Humanities

Jewellery & Metal (MA)

For millennia, humans have always held a strong relationship with the sense of touch when it comes to belief. Clutching a talisman, wearing an amulet close to our skin, a statue worn down and polished from years of pilgrimages; tangibility gives us that sense of control amid chaos. 

Throughout the history of jewellery we have countless examples of humans placing faith in small objects we can carry and hold close to us. Whether it’s our hopes or fears, having a vessel for these abstract emotions that we can see and hold helps us to better understand them. When we place so much of ourselves in an object, when it lies intimately on our skin and carries our aura long after we’re gone, where’s the line? When does the objects’ matter become our own?



— Vials of bone ash separated into different pigments
Lost Souls of the Thames
Lost Souls of the Thames (the aftermath)

When I heard there were bones washed up on the foreshore of the Thames, I descended by the entrance near the Battersea campus. Collecting them felt to me like saving them from wandering forever in the river. Not only is the Thames and what wanders in it rich in history from centuries of trade and city life, but the key is that it is also tidal. Each low tide becomes a window, with different treasures to be revealed, then their fate is to be buried or move along.

Collecting the bones of animals discarded by centuries of East London butchers felt like a ritualistic act. Taking them and cremating them, breaking them down and sieving them into fine powders that can be reassembled and sculpted, moulded, carved, felt like a new life. Many don’t like the idea of burial for that reason – like the bones wandering the river, it feels like a prolonged death.

Separating the colours achieved in the kiln into their own vials, I felt like each one was its own precious pigment, each vial the colour of a soul, or an aura, in some way.

I knew the bone had to return to the Thames. I saw the Thames as the river Styx in Greek mythology, a river of souls to cross into the afterlife, so I wanted the ring to contain a Charon’s obol. A Charon’s obol is the payment you give the ferryman (Charon) to take you across to the afterlife. In my piece, the skull cameo acts as an obol, and its washing away signifies not only that the fee is paid but also that the ‘soul’ can now scatter and travel. The rest of the ring, coated in bone ash, is washed away by the small waves of the foreshore, leaving behind a skeleton of a ring. A ghostly cameo in thin silver wire, reminding us of the process and fluidity of life and death, but also acting as another obol in itself, as a return fee from the river for rebirth.



Medium:

Bone ash, sterling silver.
Thoughts and Prayers (the aftermath)
Thoughts and Prayers — A cameo inspired by old Roman garnet and carnelian rings, rendered in dried pigs' blood.
Thoughts and Prayers

Coming from the initial inspiration of transubstantiation it was natural that the next material I'd experiment with was blood. At the time I had had a lot of heartbreak and frustration seeing countless reports of mass shootings in the US, where I had lived for four years, with no action taking place. In a lot of instances you would see the term ‘thoughts and prayers’ being thrown around in place of actual change. This brought me immediately to the biblical motif of Pontius Pilate ‘washing his hands’ of Jesus’ death, or even Macbeth with his blood stained hands trying in vain to rid himself of guilt. 

During the development of this piece the horrific murder of George Floyd took place. This brought another perspective to the work, realising that we are so quick to point the finger and look to others for action, and never quick to self-reflect or believe we are part of the problem because it’s a painful truth. It’s a wound we carry from years of being raised and living in a diseased society. To carry that wound with us and remind ourselves there’s always something to be done. We are imperfect but we must take accountability.



Medium:

Pig's Blood, Gold Vermeil, Sterling Silver, Bronze
Tethered
Tethered (detail)
Tethered (detail)

Hair for me was the material of the pandemic. Everyone was more aware of it. Without being able to get it cut professionally, hair growth became a symbol of time, reminding us how long we’d been inside.

For me, hair was a symbol of anxiety. With the amount of stress and fear I was facing being alone in a room, in a country that was not mine, away from friends and family, I started to lose my hair. Hair was falling out in alarming amounts, whether on my floor, in my bed or as a horrifying pile in the shower drain. And to make things worse I already suffer from a nervous tic that urges me to pull at my hair whenever I feel anxious. Hair became a physical reminder of my deteriorating mental health. 

But hair loss was not the only side-effect of my anxiety. Chronic brain fog became something I battled with every day. Wanting to be productive, trying to distract myself, it was impossible to focus on any form of entertainment media or ingest any form of writing over five words at a time. My memory felt like it didn’t last for more than a couple of hours. 

So I turned in vain and desperation to The School of Life: An Emotional Education, by Alain de Botton, to see if rationalising my anxiety could help. Naturally the words did not leave the page. My mind was shut to any information it was trying to tell me.

The book was meaningless to me at that point, and so became scrap for experimentation and alteration. I started to sew into the page with strands of my fallen hair. I only had to focus on this repetitive action. The voices of panic quietened a bit and the brain fog was not an issue in those moments. No new information was trying to get in, and the task was simple. 

I was using what I saw as the material of my anxiety to help cure or temporarily subside it. To get it out of me and onto an object. To reveal the parasite I found hard to explain.



Medium:

The artist's hair, "The School of Life" by Alain de Botton
Don't You Let Her Drown

‘and Francis [Bacon] said to me, You’ve got a little man haven’t you?..in your head you’ve got a little man, that tells you you’ve got to work tomorrow. All my friends... they didn’t have a little man and they died; because they didn’t have a little man and they drowned...you don’t let that little man drown, ever, you keep him alive’ - Stephen Fry

Medium:

lard, gold vermeil, sterling silver, bronze.
The Blank Page
The Blank Page
The Blank Page

Every artist knows creation anxiety. The anxiety of the white page. The fear of revealing to yourself and others that you’re not as brilliant or talented as you thought you were. The pressure that you could put anything on that page, but that’s the beauty of it as well. It’s pure possibility. 

Vellum, both skin and paper. Skin made sense to me because the fear we sometimes bring to the symbol of the white page is as if we were plastering our sketches and ideas onto our own skin; branding us as either worthy or a fraud. 

Paired with the narratives in my work of body, jewellery and transformation, as well as the surprisingly beautiful sheen of the vellum, I wanted to transform it into a pearl. 

I couldn’t ignore the significance of skin as surface, as superficiality, and then the origins of a pearl, a covering; layers over an irritant. In my case, the seed of an idea ‘coated’ by materialising it. Art in itself about making the abstract into something we can experience externally.

In making it a pearl necklace, the idea of value naturally revealed itself. The anxiety comes from the idea that our creativity and the ‘suffering artist’ are commodified, it is our value and worth: our power to turn an ‘irritant’, a trauma, an idea, into something beautiful.



Medium:

calfskin vellum, sterling silver, silk thread.