Ashley Gilreath describes herself as a metalsmith, enamelist, and time traveler. She hand fabricates all of her work using high quality precious metals and vitreous glass; sometimes utilizing heirlooms or found objects that she scavenges from the dark and secret corners of antique stores. Her work is both decorative, functional, and conceptual with thoughtful layers and hidden stories. I talked to Ashley to get a better sense of her process, motivation, and her story. Enjoy our interview!
CP: What can students expect in your enameling classes?
AG: My main focus when teaching, besides demonstrating this specialized enameling technique, is providing students with a sense of independence. My job is to make sure they leave my workshop with the confidence to work in their own studios and on their own artwork without feeling intimidated by the materials or tools. Students should expect to feel challenged while also exploring the beauty and history of this process. I want them to feel motivated to take more enameling workshops from other artists that will continue to inspire them, and to push their skills while also having fun.
CP: For readers who do not know, what is champlevé?
AG: Champlevé is an enameling process that involves fusing glass inside of recessed areas on a metal surface. There are multiple ways in which one can approach the creation of these cells, but in the case of this workshop we will be using the “saw and solder” method by saw-piercing a design then soldering it onto a flat background. The spaces are then filled in with wet enamel using a small paint brush and a technique called “wet-packing.” Through subsequent repeated layers of wet-packing, then firing in the kiln, we completely fill the spaces flush with the top edge of the metal.
CP: I read in one of your Instagram captions: “Enameling days are by far my favorite days.” Why are enameling days the best?
AG: The days I spend in my studio can oftentimes feel repetitive, especially when working with the same materials over and over again. More often than not, I’m working on jewelry pieces that are primarily metal, with maybe a few stones or pearls here and there. There’s an inherent beauty in the act of repetition, and a comfort in the routine we create in our studio practices. Like many artists, I have days where I feel gratitude and frustration in equal measure. However, when there’s a commission or a project that relies on the vibrancy of enameling and color, there’s a part of my brain that lights up with anticipation. I thoroughly enjoy the challenge that the enameling process presents to me, how even the simplicity of a single shade can animate the metalwork. It allows me to be illustrative and painterly, to bring movement and narrative to an otherwise static metal object. Enamel is luminous and alive in a way that precious stones just can’t replicate.
Source Material and To My Valentine, 1926 (Brooch Series)
CP: Who or what are some of your inspirations?
AG: There are many concepts and objects that influence my artwork, some of which include mourning jewelry, archaeology, and the histories of common everyday objects. Most importantly, time capsules play an incredibly vital role in the way I consider my environment/artwork, and how I connect with my materials. We generally associate time capsules with buried treasure, but they’re usually a container that is hidden and filled with personal secrets and bits of ephemera; something we very rarely run across in our lives. But what I find is that there are time capsules everywhere, hiding in plain sight, and simply understanding and observing your environment can yield amazing and wonderful moments.
CP: Where are you from and how does it influence your work?
AG: Though I am originally from Louisiana, most of my childhood was spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Both my mother and my father were from the same town in northeastern Louisiana, and the majority of our family members stayed in the area.
I’m a third-generation metalsmith: my grandfather was a jeweler and watchmaker, as was my uncle, who has since left the jewelry world to pursue other interests. I have artists (sculptors, woodworkers, painters, photographers) on both sides of my family tree, and have benefited greatly from their legacies. I inherited and was given many of my grandfather’s tools, and they are an invaluable part of my studio practice to this day.
Locational identity as a concept plays a large role in my work, with emphasis being placed on how the land, plants, and manmade structures around us act as bookmarks of our everyday experiences. For example, soil from the land of my grandfather, land that he tilled, nurtured, and raised his family on, has more of an impact in my work than if I’d simply dug up a handful of dirt off the side of the road. The patterned fabric of your aunt’s favorite apron may act as a trigger for memories of holidays spent cooking together in her kitchen. It’s my belief that the wallpaper, furniture, books, light fixtures, the hallway clock chiming every hour; everything and anything that usually blends into the background of our memories actually anchors us to those experiences. How a commercially produced object, like a vase or tablecloth, once placed on your kitchen table can then transform into a precious addition to your family’s evening meals. There’s an intimacy and sentimentality in the materials that come from these inherited spaces that simply cannot be counterfeited.
CP: Do you have any rituals or practices? Can you talk about your process when you approach a new project, or body of work?
AG: Whenever I start thinking about a new project, I spend a few days drawing and mapping out each individual component and step in the making process. I prefer to use tracing paper and sharpie ink rather than sketchbook paper in order to arrange the layers of my work, as the transparency of this material allows for easy overlapping and editing of the designs. I’m able to draw two things that may seem dissimilar, but by laying one on top of another and rotating them at different angles, I can then see an entirely new pattern emerge in their forms. I then cycle through the entire fabrication process in my head, step by step, making sure that how I envision the piece assembling will actually be feasible with my tools and skillset. Once I’ve rearranged or solved most of the problems that may arise, I then draft my piece by illustrating multiple points of view. With my enamels, I meticulously test every color on copper, silver, and gold, drawing graphs and charts as reference. Making these test tiles is very time consuming but is a necessary part of the making process. Enamel can have a lot of angst when it comes to its social interactions with different metals, so one has to know exactly what that glass will be doing once you’ve fused it in the kiln.
CP: Do you have a favorite motif or style?
AG: Much of my jewelry work in the past couple of years has been shaped and cast directly from molds of family heirlooms. I use a mold making material that allows me to take impressions of said heirlooms, pour wax into the mold, then cast the surfaces in precious metal. My intention is never to make an exact replica of the entire object, but rather to capture the edge, corner, or a small patch of the surface that can act as a reference point to what the original use to be. I also collect antique books, and I use the designs on their spines, covers, and page corners as inspiration for how to blend organic and geometric linework together. Mourning jewelry and the role that enameling plays in their visual language is another piece of history that fascinates me; how each color and shape can symbolize a various emotion, making subtle references to a hidden narrative. It’s lovely how the surface of something as simple as a ring can become an epitaph and a reminder of someone you continue to love after their death.
CP: Your found object work evokes a thoughtful feeling of longing, as if there is a hidden story or memory waiting to be discovered. Do you feel like you are excavating stories when you use found objects? Why do you choose to tell certain stories rather than others?
AG: One hundred percent, yes. When I give presentations of my artwork, I will oftentimes say that I feel like an archaeologist, slowly peeling back the layers and residues of these people’s lives. I’m time traveling to the past, reliving my family’s experiences vicariously through their personal effects. Sometimes it’s by gently emptying out the pockets of every jacket and sweater in my grandparent’s closet, and sometimes it’s by scanning and cataloging birth certificates, wedding invitations, and yearbooks, etc. There’s always something waiting to be discovered, a little detail that will bring forth a new narrative to explore. Whether or not I create artwork based on a specific narrative depends upon the difficulty of the subject matter and any visual details I can find that will support its history.
I’ve also conducted extensive interview work that involves voice recordings and handwritten letters from family members who have, since their collection, passed away. A voice is as unique to an individual as is their handwriting, so these are materials I cherish deeply.
There’s a concept in Welsh culture called “Hiraeth,” which is difficult to define in its entirety but is usually summarized as a longing for home, for a person, place, or time that may never have existed; a yearning for a place which you cannot return to, or grief for the lost places in your past. The first time I read about this concept a couple of years ago, I felt validated by its existence; it helped me define what I was always chasing through my artwork.
CP: Many of your forms look streamlined, but then the inner motifs and designs often embrace asymmetry, revealing only glimpses of the whole. Is that juxtaposition intentional?
AG: Yes. I like how hidden and secretive most of our inner lives are, regardless of how rich they can seem in outward shared experience and collective memory. We tend to strive for balance in both literal and figurative ways, but I enjoy the uneven/imbalanced lives we often lead, the way we convince ourselves things are okay when they aren’t, how things can still be wonderful and pleasing without manufactured perfection. There’s beauty in the broken things, beauty in mistakes, beauty in the way objects wear down or are refashioned and remade. There’s also an expected asymmetry in the way we experience certain events we share with one another, and these differing perspectives will produce memories that often can twist and evolve into something unrecognizable. That’s one reason why I approach my artwork as focused impressions of larger concepts, that it’s simply an abbreviation or window through which I view the entire narrative.
I Am Who They Were. Casted sterling silver, casted bronze, microscope glass, transparent decal. 2011.
CP: “I Am Who They Were” is like the coolest necklace I’ve ever seen. Can you talk about that project?
AG: I designed this necklace to be a direct representation of the staircase at my maternal grandparents’ house. Hanging along the walls, a long trail of family photographs spanning many generations stood as witness to the moments in the lives of those who lived in the house. The layers of rich personal histories that rest within those frames deserved to be remembered, and I wanted this necklace to reflect the weight of those experiences piling one on top of another. Not only did I hope the visual weight of the necklace would feel imposing, but I cast the frames with silver and bronze with the intention that their physical weight be uncomfortable as well. Losing these people and their combined experiences is a great loss, and as we know, loss can be a heavy burden to bear. By adhering the photographs on microscope glass, it allowed my skin to show through as my family’s skin so that my experiences, my memories, my faults and flaws, would visually blend our lives together.
CP: You are a self-described “time traveler.” If you had a time machine, where and when would you visit? Do you have a favorite era?
AG: My answer is probably going to be fairly predictable based on what you’ve read up to this point. Rather than pick something grandiose and spectacular, I would honestly like to go back to when my grandparents (on both sides) and their siblings were young, to see how their everyday lives unfolded. This would land me in the years between 1910-40, and would take me around the world. My great-uncle used to tell me stories about how he and his friends would dress up in their best suits and sing Italian opera on the street corners downtown, serenading the young ladies walking by. My grandfather would talk about what it was like growing up on a tobacco farm in Georgia, making moonshine, and fleeing the police. I want to watch my great grandmother crochet doilies by the fire at night, and I want to walk into my great aunt’s candy store, sampling treats from each jar. Simple moments, small things; but a dream nonetheless.
CP: If you could collaborate with an artist living or dead, who would it be?
AG: I’m hoping to collaborate in the future with my friend Abigail Heuss, whose artwork is delicate, intricately layered, and visually arresting. Her work and my work often unintentionally parallel one another, both in their design and narrative content. One of us will call the other to discuss a new piece, and it usually turns out we’ve been working on similar ideas independently. She’s definitely a kindred spirit. We’d like to participate in a residency with one another in the future, so we can have uninterrupted time to devote to a body of work.
If I had the opportunity to collaborate with someone in the past, it would probably be René Lalique or Valeri Timofeev. A chance to learn all of their fabrication and enameling secrets? I think my brain would explode. I’d constantly be repeating under my breath, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy…”
Example of the work of René Lalique
Example of the work of Valeri Timofeev
CP: What do you collect? What are you drawn to when you are scavenging for objects?
AG: My husband describes my aesthetic as a “Curiosity Cabinet Lifestyle,” and honestly, that’s pretty accurate. I tend to gravitate towards small items, things that easily fit in a pocket or on a shelf. Large items are too visually loud; it feels like they’re shouting at me, begging me to notice them. Whereas small objects like to hide and blend into their environments, whispering to one another. Tugging open drawers, digging through crates, and prying the lid off of metal tins oftentimes will yield the most fascinating things. Postcards, sewing scissors, drawer pulls, salt spoons, letter openers, music boxes, recipe cards, and hat pins are just a few of the things I enjoy collecting. I’m attracted to objects that have been obviously and lovingly used; with inscriptions, notes, scratches, gouges, and other surface imperfections. It feels like the ghosts of those memories and those moments remain within the object. Items with interesting silhouettes, highly tactile surfaces, or repeat patterns also tend to catch my eye.
CP: The 1960s movie The Time Machine ends with the protagonist taking three books with him upon which to rebuild the future of a humanity that’s forgotten its past. You talk about your belief that objects can influence can be a bridge between past and future generations. What three objects would you take to a humanity that’s forgotten its past?
AG: This is a tricky question to answer, so I’m going to answer quickly without agonizing over my choices because I could spend an entire afternoon debating them. I’m going to continue the three books theme and hopefully that’s not considered cheating! I would bring a cookbook, a book of Mr. Roger’s philosophies and everyday musings, and a book of poems by Pablo Neruda called Odes to Common Things.
1. A cookbook because cooking can be both an intimate and a group activity, and the meals we share at one another’s table are oftentimes the most fulfilling experiences we have in our lives. We strive to know other cultures through the food of it’s people, and the rituals we associate with cooking and breaking bread can build deep and meaningful relationships.
2. When I was a kid I wrote some letters to Mr. Rogers and he always wrote back. Each letter he wrote was individualized to reflect what I’d written to him initially, and he did this for every single kid who wrote him a letter. How amazing, right? He cultivated a legacy of compassion and empathy that continues to positively affect our world as a whole, so who better to help reshape a new culture than someone with such a kind heart?
3. Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda is an observant love letter to how the simplicity of an object can evoke powerful emotions and rich sensory memories. It’s ultimately a text that moves beyond the ethnography of humanity’s tools and elevates them as an artform, discussing their embodied forms of knowledge and how they affect us.
CP: We’ve talked a lot about the past, what does the future look like for Ashley Gilreath?
AG: The future holds more enameling for me. Pushing my enameling on more dimensional surfaces, challenging myself regarding my own fabrication techniques, and expanding my exhibition portfolio. I have folders and sketchbooks full of drawings and designs for larger, more conceptual pieces, but I’ve been pushing them aside the last few years in favor of establishing more wearable everyday jewelry pieces. I’m feeling confident in that aspect of my studio practice, so I’d like to go back to my more intricate and technically challenging pieces.
CP: Any closing words?
AG: Read more books, write more letters, eat more cookies, and be good to one another.
Ashley graduated from the Metal Design program at East Carolina University and has been an Artist-In-Residence at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts(TN), Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago, and the Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft(NC). She has exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, Fuller Craft Museum, The Metals Museum and has been published by Lark Books and American Craft Magazine. She teaches workshops in both metalsmithing and enameling at craft schools around the country. Ashley’s artwork explores the hidden narratives of everyday objects, and our relationships with heirlooms as artifacts of genealogical history.
Cory Marie Podielski is a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and writer for the John C. Campbell Folk School. She has been writing for the Folk School Blog since 2012 and enjoys interviewing artists, musicians, and craftspeople. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the banjo, dancing, printmaking, playing in clay, and assisting in Folk School bread baking classes. podielski.com