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Q&A With Local Artist Frances Strathern

At the age of 14 Frances Strathern fell in love with lamp-work while visiting an art show in Edmonton with her family. Eight years later the artist has her own vibrant gallery space, Franny E. Adornment Gallery, in Calgary’s Art Central–selling one-of-a-kind hand-crafted jewellery accented with semi-precious stones, glass and objects found in nature like butterfly wings, twigs and recycled glass. We chatted with Strathern about her career, her art and her hopes for the future.

by Allison Onyett

Where Calgary: Where did you first discover your passion for jewellery making?

Frances Strathern

Frances Strathern: About eight years ago my family and I went to Edmonton to watch my brother play basketball. While we were there we went to an art festival and I saw a man making glass beads. It took me by surprise and I just knew I wanted to do that. My parents bought me a book and told me that if I was still interested after I read the book, they’d set me up with all my equipment and it just sort of went from there.

WC: Where did you go to school?

FS: Alberta College of Art and Design.

WC: When did you decide you wanted to be a professional artist?

FS: In my first year of college when I took my first jewellery making class. That was something where I knew I could combine my knowledge of glass with the new knowledge of metalsmithing to make a living.

WC: During the course of your education, how do you think you developed as an artist?

FS: In the first two years I was focused on the technical side. I was more interested in becoming good at something rather than the conceptual side, or tying them together. In my third and fourth year it was a big flip – I fell in love with the conceptual side of things as well as the technique and find meaning behind the process.

WC: How is it that you came to the decision to launch your own gallery, especially at such a young age?

FS: It’s no secret that artists don’t make a lot of money, so I knew that I had to balance both business and art if I was going to be successful, and a small little gallery in Art Central seemed like the perfect way. In the summer of my second year my brother and I actually came down to Art Central because we were interested in the whole atmosphere of it. I saw this space blank and fell in love with it, but the money and timing wasn’t right because of school. When I graduated in May I just had a feeling that the space had become available again, so I called them up and it was! I set up an interview and just went for it. I guess I just feel like it was meant to be here for me in a weird way.

WC: This is a gorgeous gallery space. Can you tell me a bit about the look and how it came to be?

FS: I had a lot of support from my parents, not necessarily financially, but with the labour to put it together. My mom is an interior designer and my dad is a carpenter, so it was the dream team I had working for me. We wanted to maximize the space while also accenting my jewellery.

Butterfly Locket, photo credit Charles Lewton-Brian

WC: Is all the jewellery in the gallery yours?

FS: About 90 per cent. I have some of my brother’s shirts which he silk sceens with his own drawings and some wooden cuffs and wooden rings made by my cousin. I think I’d eventually like to get more artists in here, but I need to figure out the logistics of the business side before I do that.

WC: When you’re working on a piece, what are you thinking and feeling?

FS: I try to envision the person that would be wearing it, or what type of person and go from there. I always tell myself, “nothing is for nothing.” If I’m struggling with a piece, I’ll come back to it, but won’t give up on it. For more simple things where I know exactly what I’m doing and where it’s going, I just enjoy the process of it and get lost in watching the flame and the glass.

WC: Do you have a routine when you’re working?

FS: No. In my day-to-day life I don’t have a routine, I’m really bad for that. If I have a dream or an inspiration from something I see, I will sketch it down in my notebook and then see where it takes off. Sometimes I will do more drawings or make a copper model of it then translate it into the metal I want the piece to be in, but no set routines. Processes obviously have a systematic way of evolving, but apart from that I just go for it when I’m in the moment.

Metal and Glass Locket, photo credit Charles Lewton-Brian

WC: Can you name some of your favourite pieces?

FS: In my first year of college I made my first big project for my mom combining my glasswork with metal. I made a long hammered necklace with beads between the chain. It’s one of the designs I tend to go back to because it gets a good response and my mom likes it, which is important.

The butterfly locket is another favourite, because a lot of work went into it and the result was exactly what I had envisioned in my mind. It’s always really rewarding when you envision something and then it just becomes.

Apart from that, I’ll always go back to my glasswork where the beads have changed over time but the process is the same from when I started at 14.

WC: Where do you get your butterfly wings?

FS: I get them from a really interesting guy who travels all around the world and picks them up off the ground after they’ve died. It’s really important to me that they aren’t harvested and killed and the wings plucked off them. He also teaches me about the types of butterflies and the meanings of them.

WC: What are some of the other unusual found objects that you use?

FS: Bottle caps, traditional dog tags, twigs that I turn into metal, recycled glass from old bottles, old shoes that I’ll rip apart and use the leather, and old jewellery. Right now I’m working on some new stuff for guys and girls with old stamping dyes used to make newspapers before they had computers and typewriters.

Beautiful Beads, photo credit Charles Lewton-Brian

WC: How is your work an expression of yourself?

FS: I’m kind of a hippie at heart and embrace the raw organicness of my jewellery. I do try to steer away from it sometimes because I want to appeal to all different types, but for some reason it always turn out that way, I can’t help it, it’s just my style.

WC: Now that you are not only an artist, but also a small business owner, how do you feel that has impacted your work?

FS: There is definitely a switch. In school you are given projects that you really focus on and put hours and hours into. Being a gallery owner, and selling your work, you have to balance that with a production line while sticking to your roots and appealing to your customer.

WC: What is unique about your jewellery compared to everything else out there?

FS: I think one of things that sets me apart from other lamp workers or metal smiths is that I try and make every facet of the piece and try to combine as many aspects of jewellery as possible — glass work, making my own tiny beads, and my own clasps. I know there are a lot of artists who just assemble things, which is fine, but it’s almost like a challenge for me. I want to make 100 per cent of the piece as much as I can so that nobody else will have it. Even if I make replicas of things it will be different no matter what.

WC: Do you do custom pieces?

FS: I do — probably 40 per cent of my business is custom pieces. I enjoy doing custom work because I always learn something from it and then it triggers inspiration for other projects.

WC: Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

FS: Ideally I’d like to keep the shop and branch out, whether that means opening up another shop or have my jewelry in a bunch of stores throughout North America. That’s what I’m hoping but I try not to think about it too seriously and just kind of go with it.

The Franny E. Adornment Gallery is located in Art Central, 100 – 7 Ave SW.

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