Since the very beginning of his career, Toronto artist Paul McClure has been investigating the microscopic world within the human body. Starting March 25, he will be taking over the exhibition space at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h with his brand new exhibition Slice: Biodigital Jewellery, which was first presented in Toronto last fall at the Craft Ontario gallery (image above). With this series of works, McClure continues his exploration of cellular and microbial structures, while navigating the intersection between handmade and digital technologies. McClure discusses his creative process and the conceptualization of this new body of work in a thoughtful and engaging interview.
The new body of work you will be presenting at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h fits within your continuous exploration of the microscopic world of bacteria, viruses and cells. How would you define the new direction you took with this work?
The microscopic world of the human body serves as a framing device within which I explore forms, materials, and techniques. By zooming in on these microbial forms I’m not only asking questions about the physical body but also existential questions about mortality, beauty, and life beyond the visible. As a full-time educator I don’t get a lot of time to make art, and when I do I always run out of time before I feel I have fully explored a new discovery. For this reason my work evolves gradually. In that sense it isn’t a new direction – it’s a continuation. Recently I’ve been using a cutaway technique to visualize the internal structures of my forms. I’ve increased my use of digital technologies to design and make some components in combination with traditional jewellery methodologies. And I’m working at a larger scale than I have before.
You started to develop this body of work during a residency at Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery in the UK. What kind of equipment were you able to access and further explore while you were there?
Yes, I was very fortunate to spend 4 months at BCU. The School of Jewellery (SoJ) is a wonderful hive of learning for all the related fields (goldsmithing, silversmithing, art jewellery, jewellery design, fashion, horology and gemmology). Birmingham itself is a city full of jewellery making – traditional manufacturers, independent studios, and cutting-edge technologies. I went to Birmingham to research CAD/CAM, and specifically to use the Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM) technology of additive manufacturing. The SoJ has an industry partnership with Cooksongold (the UK’s largest supplier to the jewellery trade) to enable student access to a DMLM machine – basically a 3D printer for silver and gold.
I also had the opportunity to learn more about how the SoJ educates the next generation of jewellery designers and makers. We have established a new partnership between George Brown College and BCU so that our graduates can go there to complete a degree. So this was also a learning and networking opportunity for me as an educator.
- DMLM silver build model in final stages of print, exiting from silver powder
- DMLM silver build model being removed from printing
- Completed silver build model, fused to stainless steel build plate
Click here for more details on the fabrication process
What prompted you to centre your work around digital technologies?
I am a generalist when it comes to the craft of jewellery making. Digital technologies are important tools to learn for designer/makers in the 21st century. I want to stay current and I want to have some fun with something new and challenging. I am also drawn to the precision, the detail, and the geometry inherent in the digital.
Do you feel like there is a relationship between the themes you are exploring and the processes you are using to create the work?
One of the processes I use is cutting away or slicing through forms to reveal something inside. For me the slice is a powerful symbol and action. It represents a curiosity, a way of understanding through looking. If we think of it in terms of anatomy, the slice is also a threshold between life and death, between the animate and inanimate. Using computer modelling makes slicing much easier, it allows me to try out various slices to see what surprising pattern is revealed before committing the time and labour that handmaking demands. The new series of work, Slice, also alludes to the method by which computer models form, virtually slicing them into thousands of cross-sections that the 3D printer then builds layer upon layer, slice by slice.
Digital technologies also lend themselves well to working in multiples and variations. There is a nice correlation there to the multiplicity and mutations of microbes. This is something I explored with the new collection of 3D printed nylon brooches.
The use of bright colours, always in stark contrast with the neutral tones of metal or, in this case, with the black 3D printed nylon forms, is a defining element of your work. Knowing that colour can be highly symbolic, how do you usually choose the colours you are to include in each piece?
Computer modelling and rendering software produce exceptional visualizations that can be cut away, made translucent, reduced to wireframe or rendered in vibrant colours. My work references these digital aesthetics, transmuting them into the tangible world. There’s an incredible satisfaction in realising an object that you spent days looking at on screen. The bright colours also reference the scientific and medical visualizations I use in my research. These visualizations are often highly aestheticized with colours to make them more easily understood and certainly more attractive.
Obviously there’s a very playful quality to my work and the use of saturated primary and secondary colours brings joy to these jewels. Afterall, the English word jewel has its etymological origins in the Old French jouel and in turn the Latin gaudium, meaning joy. We all need some joy in these dark days, no?
While on sabbatical from teaching at George Brown College, you had a whole year of residencies and research trips planned out, which was shortened by the global pandemic we are currently facing. How did these changes affect your production, and did they have a noticeable impact on the work’s outcome?
The lockdown happened just as I was returning from the UK. I was meant to be on my way to Copenhagen for another residency focussing on wearable technologies. That never happened. But I was fortunate that I could lockdown in my home in Toronto where I also have a fully equipped jewellery studio. I had been planning on producing more work with the DMLM process but that was no longer available to me. As an alternative, I was able to send my design files to be 3D printed in nylon – and that is how I ended up making all the colourful brooches. While the conceptual development began before the pandemic, a few pieces are in response to the new coronavirus.
I can’t deny the irony of taking a sabbatical to create new work based on microbes and being walloped with a global pandemic. There is also the fact that my earliest work was in response to another pandemic in my lifetime, AIDS. The COVID-19 pandemic is a brutal wave that is hitting us all in very different degrees. While it hasn’t been easy and the magnitude of deaths is grim, I am very fortunate and privileged in this crisis. I am an eternal optimist and I try to hold on to that every day.
Left: CRISPR. Brooch. Silver, with 3D printed and fabricated elements (2020)
Right: Microbes Yellow. Neckpiece. Laser sintered and fabricated silver, acrylic, nylon (2020)
Photo credits – Paul Ambtman (jewellery photography) et Paul McClure (Birmingham and process shots)