Inside Josée Desjardins’ creative mind

Blog, Exhibitions

Twenty years ago already, author and artist Anne Barros was mentioning Quebec jeweller Josée Desjardins in her book “Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art”, describing her work as a representation of “the best of Canadian jewellery in the nineties”. Looking at her practice since the very beginning, almost 40 years ago, one can hardly define Josée Desjardins’ approach in a traditional way, due to its multidisciplinary nature. Using jewellery, sculpture, media arts and performance, she harmoniously blends various materials and mediums to achieve complete freedom in her practice.

With her most recent body of work, Josée Desjardins shares fragments of her own past through the use of various objects she has been collecting over the years. She reconciles and reinvents the past, present and future with new and unexpected compositions, thus reclaiming her own history.

As her solo exhibition Mémoriaux is approaching at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, from October 12 to November 4, she takes us into the intimacy of her creative universe, marked by nostalgia.

What made you choose jewellery as a medium?

This story starts very early in my life. As far as I can remember, I was always fascinated by small objects and trinkets that I would assemble, tinker and collect. I don’t recall having to take the decision to undertake a creative career. It just happened naturally, from one project to the other, from one encounter to another, until I came across jewellery. The very first time, when I was about 15 years old, I met a boy. He was very handsome. I would sit by his side at the Balcon vert hostel in Baie-Saint-Paul, observing him while he would manipulate metal wire, leather, feathers and shells. I remember the dexterity with which he was assembling unexpected, delicate and poetic ornaments. I was immediately struck. Not only by the materials and gestures, but also by the bohemian lifestyle he embodied, living off his creations, going where the wind blows, and not owing anything to anyone. It seemed to me like this represented ultimate freedom. As I was slowly trying to understand my own identity while seeking independence, it simply felt right.

Your recent work explores questions of memory and family heritage. Does your interest for jewellery stem from your own family heritage?

Other than the fact that I have always been supported in taking this route, especially by my father, who reoriented as a potter later in his life, no, my family has no relationship to the world of jewellery making. On the contrary, after the revelation I had when I was 15 years old, it took me two years to discover, not without surprise, that I could study in order to become a jeweller. I then enrolled for the first time at the École de joaillerie et des métaux d’art de Montréal. It was 1980, I was living in Hull, and was travelling to back and forth between every week. I quit after two burdensome semesters, and decided to study fine arts at the Cégep de l’Outaouais. My time in Cégep confirmed my interest for small scale and three-dimensional forms, and jewellery became part of the picture once again. I finally moved to Montreal in 1983, and seriously dedicated myself to jewellery at the age of 20.

With your latest body of work, which will soon be presented in the exhibition Mémoriaux at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, you share fragments of memories in a very intimate and personal way. How do you expect the public will read your work?

I am aware that there is a certain risk in unveiling yourself through your artwork. And, I have to admit it, as the opening reception is approaching, I feel a bit intimidated. So I try to think of artists that I admire and that have had an influence on me since the very beginning. Sophie Calle, on one hand, has made her life, especially the most intimate moments, into an artwork, thus trying to bridge the gap between art and life. Louise Bourgeois, on the other hand, explores themes such as the domestic sphere and family, while staging various memories from her childhood.

Looking at my work altogether, I see it as a portrait of various periods of my life, although from a very personal viewpoint, the different themes I have explored refer to preoccupations and events that are exterior to my own life. With this latest body of work, which includes jewellery, objects, a paper piece and a video piece, I enter a phase in my work where I focus my attention towards the interior. What fascinates me in this exploration of intimacy and creation, although it is very personal, is that I strongly believe in the universal aspect of it. And it is with this in mind that I invite the public to be touched by my work and by the way it encompasses universal feelings.


Les fiançailles (Neckpiece) – Turned wood, sterling silver, brass, embroidery, cotton, Plexiglas, pigment – 2018 (Photo: Anthony McLean)

Do you usually want the public to enter your personal imaginary realm, or do you want to keep a certain part of mystery?

I hope that my work can spark curiosity and enchantment, thus engaging the active process of penetrating the sinuous paths of my personal universe, as well as the more indolent process of letting oneself be charmed by the evocative force of each piece, without trying to make sense of it all, other than perhaps hearing the echo of one’s personal history.

I see people who show interest in my work as more than potential wearers or vehicles who can bring my pieces to life. My creative process involves making connections, and this project helps renew the relationships that may revitalise the connections with buyers, the public, or with any individual that engages in a dialogue with my work and who seeks to resolve “something”. An individual might be touched by the aesthetic aspect of the piece, but, hopefully, mainly by the ritual that the object invites the viewer to take part in.

You often incorporate found objects in your work, most frequently keepsakes from your own past. What makes you choose to work with one object over the others?

It really depends on the project. This is the very first time that I incorporate object that are this personal in my work. For Mémoriaux, everything is about accumulation, nostalgia and alchemy. I have been collecting the most random things as if they were precious treasures ever since I was a child. Amongst my family, I am known to be the one guardian of the most incongruous keepsakes from past generations. Old lace work, hair locks and an old gown from the fifties have been following me like witnesses of a rich and complex past. Being of the nomadic type, my suitcase has become heavier and heavier over the years. With every move, I feel the weight of the past, and every time, I think of burning everything into a huge bonfire, but I still always end up keeping and accumulating these significant objects. I revisit them every time I move, as they accumulate and clutter more and more. With time, I realise that I have lost the sense of meticulous accumulation, as if I didn’t need these old markers anymore in order to go forward with life. In 2016, I went over 53 years of small keepsakes of mine and from my family – mother, father, grand-mother… I undertook to make this background story into jewellery and visual art pieces through metamorphosis, just like an alchemist.

Amulette 1 (Neckpiece) – Burnt wood, sterling silver, various stones, pearls, glass, paper, blue coral – 2018 (Photo: Anthony McLean)

Following the theme of objects, what makes you keep or collect specific objects?

As I once was telling my friend Dominique Lapointe, a prominent art theorist and pedagogue, about my obsession for objects, she suggested something rather interesting. She noted that most artists maintain a strong relationship with objects, which is noticeable early in their childhood. She even went on with stating that we could easily detect an artistic profile in children who show strong attachment to objects. Therefore, to answer the question, I would say that my impulse to collect is somewhat mysterious and is comparable to a mission. I often go completely nuts over the most mundane objects, those that most people see as mere detritus.

You also incorporate unconventional materials to your jewellery works. What usually guides your choice of materials?

My material choices reflect the concepts I am trying to put forward in my pieces. Unconventional materials are often present indeed, but another important aspect of my work is the use of techniques that I borrow from other disciplines. Most of the time, one comes with the other. For instance, for the project centered on my mother’s gown, which tells both her story and the story of an era, I have created a series of brooches that incorporate embroidery hoops made from hand turned driftwood. The pieces were lathed in a wood turner’s studio and are used to hold the sections I took from the gown. On these sections, I embroidered, beaded and felted textile brooches, thus inscribing symbols that connect the past, present and future.

In this same project, I have made one-of-a-kind wearable pieces, which can be understood as jewellery in a more traditional way, but also some more unusual objects, which can be appreciated as stand-alone art objects that have the capacity to deliver a story and suggest new meanings. Here, I believe that the influence of my multidisciplinary approach increases the ability of the pieces to be appreciated for what they are, translate, symbolise and create.

Altération 2 (Brooch) – Turned driftwood, sterling silver, patinated brass, fragment from a night blue taffeta gown, textile (lace and crochet work made by the artist’s grand-mother), embroidery, black coral – 2018 (Photo: Anthony McLean)

You are now almost 40 years into your career. How do you feel your approach has evolved over the years?

As mentioned earlier, my approach has become more and more personal with time. It also evolved on two complementary axis. On one hand, I chose the direction of relational jewellery, which I consider to be an art practice that connects with everyday life and that allows to inhabit both the private and public spheres. This approach fosters reliance and rituals in order to regenerate magic for people. On the other hand, I have embraced multidisciplinarity. Although I have always explored various mediums, especially for my exhibitions and openings (for instance in 2010 for the group project “Le cabinet de curiosité”), I now fully assume the multidisciplinary artist label. As my process emphasises the relationship to the self, to others and to the world, as well as the use of many different mediums such as video, performance and sculpture, the artist book becomes an unavoidable avenue to complement my conceptual jewellery work.

A good avenue to understand how my practice has evolved is to look at how I have changed the way I have been labelling myself or signing my emails over the years. Early in my training, I would label myself as a jeweller. Then, I went for contemporary jeweller, and then contemporary jewellery artist. In the past few years, I also used Artiste, joie et joaillerie (Artist, joy and jewellery), simply my name, Josée Desjardins, and finally, craft artist. More recently, I have been using Artiste en métiers d’art non discipliné et indiscipliné (Non disciplined and ill-disciplined craft artist). All these variations show a position that is hard to define, and will remain hard to define as long as I keep creating.

I would like to develop on the term craft artist. Long shunned, craft seems to slowly be regaining its credentials. Moreover, with time, I realise how deeply attached I am to craftsmanship and the precise gesture responsible for the utilitarian accuracy of an object, as well as to the relational nature of my work, which brings me to create pieces that are extremely close to people. I am particularly touched by the intimate relationship that connects the artisan to people’s everyday lives, significant moments and rituals.

I now see myself as an actual artist, in a reconciled practice; there is no longer a separation between fine art and craft. Invested in a creative process that is close to the body and to the artisan’s gestures, my work translates a hybrid vision of the world, in search of an updated image.

Mémoriaux is presented at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, from October 12 to November 4, 2018
Opening reception on October 12, from 5-8 pm

Share on social medias