Camden Close-Up: Kelvin Birk
Camden Alive is a programme of arts and cultural events that celebrates the people of Camden. Sharing our diverse heritage through creativity, Camden Alive has captured the sights, sounds and spirit of the borough and what it means to live and work in Camden. Through music, dance, food, fashion, gardening, performance and visual art the stories of our neighbourhoods will unfold and be showcased
In this series, we are speaking to artists and creatives who worked with residents on the Camden Alive projects. Today, we are speaking with Award-winning jeweller Kelvin Birk, who worked alongside Katrin Spranger to create work with Camden residents during a series of Camden Alive workshops that took place in 2019.
As part of its Camden Alive programme Camden Council, together with K2 Academy of Contemporary Jewellery and Camden resident artists are delighted to announce the opening of The Gallery at Swiss Cottage Library on 17 May 2021 with the exhibition Connecting Values: exploring co-creation through making. Read more here.
- Tell us about your recent work with Camden Alive and how it fits within your body of work.
My recent work with Camden Alive was a collaboration with Camden residents where we produced a jewellery piece which contains different objects, which represented a specific value to the participants. The residents were ask to contribute a small object which had a certain value and meant something meaningful to them. All kinds of different items were brought in, all with different meanings and significance - a key to their first flat when they reached Britain as refugees in the 70s - a figure of a dog, which represented their well-loved family dog - or a tiny perfume bottle which was given to them by a close friend who passed away.
These items were then covered in precious crushed up gemstones, just like many of my own jewellery pieces. Together, we then created silver claws and stems, which held the encrusted item and connected them all to a big neck piece. The crushed stones hide and camouflage the items slightly but also give them a different look and value - something with a very personal value is covered in precious gemstone splinters and gains a new different meaning and value. The neck piece’s title is ‘tell- tale’ and it really tells many stories and can be read by the viewer in many different ways. It has not just got one story but many different ones, and if worn, the wearer carries a multitude of tales and communicates with the viewer and exchanges a great number of non-verbal information and messages.
My own work has always looked at value and how different societies perceive it. From early on in my carrier I’ve transformed non-precious materials into precious jewellery and played with the notion of value. I use a lot of gem-stones, broken ones, cracked ones and splinters but also whole ones, in my own work. This piece is the first time that I’ve used other people's pieces and let them become a focal point of my work. In some way, I have stepped back and became the facilitator and not the sole owner of the piece.
- What has been your most career-defining moment to date and why?
There are several of them. They might be small little things and not always plain to see when they happen but proof significant in hindsight. It’s more the sum of several things, then one big event. The first solo show; a commission to design a piece for mass production; or just a bespoke commission early on in my career with a very valuable gemstone, which I could never afford to use by myself. Though the most enjoyable and exciting moment in my jewellery life so far was the invitation to be a judge for a jewellery and silversmithing competition in Taiwan. The trip to Taiwan, with all expenses covered, was a great and new experience which gave me an insight into a very different culture and way of working.
- What were the best parts of working in Camden?
Camden, and especially the location of our studios, is very central. Through this, one gets to meet lots of people from different backgrounds, countries and ethnicities. Each of them brings their own special contribution and style with them, which makes Camden (and London) the great place it is.
- How have you been keeping during lockdown? Do you have any tips or activities to share with us?
I’ve been going to my studio more or less all the time during the lockdown. I have my own studio and cycled to it, so no need to get in contact with people.
Being creative and making is maybe the thing which kept me going and I hope more people discovered their creative side during lockdown. Even by just making or drawing simple things, we discover the joy of it and how being creative can cheer you up, bring a balance to your life and how it overall can be a very enjoyable part of our lives. I hope the lockdown has taught many of us just get going with making and creating but still without being too precious and perfect about it.
- What’s next for you?
Hopefully making more new work. People are starting to come back and I have already received a few bespoke commissions. I have also produced a series of pieces which are about how jewellers are interpreting Covid and its effects. These pieces will go to a touring exhibition in the USA within the next month.
The concept of value has always played a big role in Kelvin Birk’s work. What is valuable? What makes different materials precious and valuable? Birk has been combing non-valuable materials like concrete and other non-precious materials with silver and gold from an early stage in his jewellery-making career, looking at the different perceptions of these precious and common materials.
One is not always aware of all their intrinsic qualities of precious materials, their beauty and how these qualities can be used. Birk tries to explore these qualities further through new approaches and experiments where he consciously disregards what is traditionally considered valuable as well as the way he is handling these materials.
This approach has led Kelvin Birk to crushing and pulverising precious gemstones and working with this new found material. He uses all types of stones: rubies, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, tourmaline, peridot etc.
The stone fragments and pieces are then stuck back together or stuck directly onto a metal structure. In this process Birk allows the nature of the precious materials to dictate the final outcome of the pieces. The mixture of stones, silver and the adhesive dictate the final form of the work and he allows chaos to take over, revelling in a lack of control.
The ultimate question is: does the value of the item decrease? Is the broken stone still a stone? Has Birk enhanced the value by working on it?
By consciously destroying valuable materials and then using this altered material, Birk gave them a new value. He is creating something different and hopefully beautiful. The value has been shifted or transferred from the commodity value to an artistic value.
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