We’ve said it before – sustainability, ethical practice and embracing the circular economy are important issues now. In our latest interview about how these issues impact on designer-makers we talked to DN member and jeweller Jo McAllister.
Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began?
Jo McAllister answered: From the start, my practice was purposefully sustainable in a holistic sense for several reasons: I spent my mid-thirties (whilst at college) with a lumbar disc that prolapsed on a regular basis and there were times when I could not physically get to college or stay in the workshops for long. Increasingly I used the bench I had set up at home, a live/work warehouse apartment in Poplar (London), bought as a shell and designed as one large space divided by half height walls.
Working from home meant that I would not entertain using chemicals that required extraction or were not safe to use in a place where I ate and slept. Also, as a mature student still working as a picture editor on a national Sunday broadsheet, I was determined that my workbench would not replace my desk as a treadmill. I was very clear that my creative practice should work with my life, for me.
In 1999 during the second year of my degree in Silversmithing, Jewellery & Allied Crafts at London Guildhall University, I first used stones as tools to work the metal directly. I used a stone as an anvil and a stone as a hammer, inspired by a Warm Springs Apache woman called Jan Loco, who cuts her metal with poultry shears, goes into the desert, finds a boulder and uses a rock to run a tracery of texture over the silver with a wish to imbue the piece with ‘the spirit of the place.’ What captured my imagination was the idea of working outside, in the desert. I had the idea that I could pack all my hand tools into a camper van and work in whatever landscape took my fancy. I still want to do this at some point. A long-term dream is to spend six months to a year living and working in the desert and to then contrast this with living and working in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, as I have strong emotional connections with both landscapes.
I structured my MA around the idea that my practice should fit holistically within my life rather than building my life around work. My business began almost seamlessly whilst I was studying. I managed to cover the course fees for my MA by selling work from my Degree Show in 2001 and during my MA.
DN: What inspires you?
JM: Light and space inspire me. Landscapes, whether ancient or contemporary, natural or constructed inspire me according to how I feel within those landscapes. My work is still influenced by the feeling of being surrounded by white light, searingly dry heat and desiccated textures in the desert, even though I have not been in a desert for some years now. Walking in the wind is exhilarating and feeds my belief in myself. Looking at light glittering on water puts me into a relaxed mental space where my imagination can roam at will.
Cloud-watching is built into my practice. It’s a metaphor for daydreaming, wool-gathering or flights of fancy. Working in my studio, I watch the sunlight on a chair at the end of the garden and purposefully take time out of making or writing to bathe myself in sunlight or to watch the clouds speeding up above. I was given my first camera when I was seven and my practice has developed from a lifetime of looking, through which I have developed my own set of visual patterns. Visual oscillation certainly inspires me to think, whether it is caused by colour resonation on architecture in Oaxaca City, by experiencing James Turrell’s monumental light sculptures or by walking under Antony Gormley’s Matrix III sculpture that was suspended from the ceiling at the RA.
DN: Do you address the issues of sustainability and ethical practice in your practice at the moment? What have you done and what impact has this had on your practice?
JM: When the Covid-19 pandemic started I had a really strong feeling that I did not want to make new work with materials that are extracted from the earth, when I have lots of beautiful work that already exists. This was definitely influenced by the quiet of lockdown. I kept wondering whether the polar ice-melt would be slowed because industry and traffic were not belching out fumes at the same rate. I made a single new piece in 2020 using silver I already had and items that I had found or been given over the years. Apart from that piece which was part of exploring a new direction for my practice, I worked solely to commission or sold items from stock.
DN: What are your concerns around making your practice sustainable /ethical?
JM: A move to using fair-trade or fair-mined gold is a current concern. I’m unable to find the equivalent in fine silver which is my main material, however most of the silver supplied in the UK is recycled. This is another concern as there is the view that as long as recycled metals are considered acceptable and promoted as an ethical option, industrial mining will continue as usual, even though there is probably enough gold and silver already in circulation that could be recycled to satisfy demand for new jewellery. Silver and gold are almost endlessly recyclable and I’ve always recycled and re-used a high proportion of my own off-cuts.
I keep pieces that have not worked, for decades sometimes, as they often end up being adapted for use within another piece, thus minimising the metal that I recycle or the scrap I send to be refined. I’ve started to work with heirloom items of low intrinsic value but with huge sentimental value in terms of the memories they evoke of those who are no longer with us. I want to present them in a way that references the habits and lives of the people who once wore them whilst they are incorporated into jewellery that will be worn with relish today.
Another aim is to develop my narrative work to incorporate the gemstones that I have amassed yet seldom used over the past few decades. I’m only just beginning to work with gemstones, and that is another ethical labyrinth to negotiate. I would like to purchase fair-mined gems when possible for commissions and gradually move towards the same for my new narrative work using gemstones. At the moment however, I am using gemstones from stock and some that I purchase whilst I develop a new design vocabulary of form and colour.
All the energy for work areas and the house comes from renewable sources. I bank with ethical institutions. In terms of reduce/re-use/recycle, supporting organic farming, making short journeys on foot and wearing more layers in winter rather than turning the heating up, I feel that as long as I do what I can in my life and my practice that I designed to be holistic and sustainable in the broadest sense from the outset, at least it is all going in the right direction. I think that if millions of us do what we can to improve the way we use precious resources it is a more feasible proposition than far fewer people operating at 100%.
DN: The cycle of making is a creative act but also produces waste. Have you thought about how you might reduce waste?
JM: In terms of chemical waste, I produce very little. As I use fine silver, my pickle solutions can be used for years and years without copper becoming concentrated. I use salt and vinegar until I can’t stand the smell any longer and need a break from it. If I ever want to etch, I will use salt-water. In my ultrasonic tank I use hot water from the kettle rather than the less efficient heating element, liquid dish detergent and bicarbonate of soda.
I clean my work using hot water, bicarb and a bit of aluminium foil. The bottle of oxidising solution I use will last longer than I will; I’ve had it since about 2002 and I discovered that if I decant a tiny amount into another container it will go ‘off’ and work much more quickly when I come to use it, even months later, and produce a much darker colour more quickly. I still have 85% of it left. Any plastic I use, such as bags for my work, are re-used many times and then recycled. When I run out, I’ll replace them with glassine bags.