[Look through the workshop]
Peter Pinson: It's June 2013. We're in Seaforth, a northern suburb of Sydney. This is the house and studio of Darani Lewers and Helge Larsen.
Helge, in 1958, the year you met Darani, you had established a business, a type of studio, in Denmark. Can you tell us about the background to your practice at that time?
Helge Larsen: Yes, it is a long story to come to that. It wasn't really a gallery, it was a workshop and a shop. We showed what, at that stage, was contemporary Danish jewellery. If I can just go back and tell you how I got to that stage, and this is a little bit of a long story, I'll make as short as possible.
I was born in Denmark, as you can hear, and grew up, and I want to mention that when I was a boy, I had five years experience, five years of German occupation. I might say it's irrelevant to my...but the military and German soldiers in the street, really, for a long time in my life forced me to think about travelling, in particular, apart from all the nasty things.
Anyway I went to normal school and started already drawing and painting when I was 14. When finished...nearly finished school, I said, "I want to be an artist."
My father said, "I understand you very much." He was an engineer, but had always wanted to be a painter, could only paint on Sundays. He said, "But you won't be able to live from it."
So I said, "Can't you do something like ceramics or furniture design, or do silversmithing?"
I said, "All right, I'll do that, in order to make some money". So I started an apprenticeship. It was four years from eight till five, every day except Sunday, and at the same time, night school from four till eight at night, three times a week. I learned a lot. I didn't particularly like these, but I stood it because I wanted to get some technical skills, which I did.
I finished my apprenticeship and, actually, I got a silver medal for the work that I finished, the master...master work, that was given to me by the King of Denmark, in some strange coincidence. I then said, "Now has come the time, perhaps, to get involved with the arts," but I had to do the...I was in the Royal Danish Navy for a year.
And then I started at the Art and Design School at Copenhagen, at that stage, concentrating on silversmithing.
The apprenticeship had been jewellery only. Now, I wanted to...the larger scale work. I did that and after that, I applied for a job, actually strangely enough, in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie had been in Denmark, and he wanted to start a school in Addas Abiba for silversmithing. I didn't get the job, my colleague got it.
I got a scholarship to America. I lived and worked in Denver, Colorado, and studied at the University of Colorado, but I didn't do very much study, I must admit. I got involved in the silversmithing and also had a wonderful time visiting New Mexico, looking at, and sometimes sitting, watching, the Navajo Indians and also the Zuni in New Mexico. I lived in Taos, for a little while, in New Mexico.
So after two and a-half years, I returned to Denmark and thought, "Now has come the time." But in between I said, "I have to find out how to sell all the work I'll be doing one day." I took a job as female shop assistant in a very fancy gold- and silversmithing shop in Copenhagen.
I was there for a year, but worked with one of my old colleagues from the design school and we decided to start our own workshop and shop. A shop where there was a...people could come in and buy things, but also see how the work was made. That was quite unique in those early years.
The first year was a bit tough, but after that, it went very well. I think after two, two and a-half, three years, my partner called me and said...I was upstairs, and said, "There's an American girl downstairs. She wants to work here for a couple of months." Because I hard really a wonderful time in America, and got a job everywhere I went. A Danish silversmith in America, at that stage, was like the King of Denmark.
So I said, "All right, she can work there...she can work here. Come in on Monday, and we'll talk in English." She came and, of course, this American girl was Australian, and that was Darani. She can take it on from here. Isn't it true?
Darani Lewers: [laughs] Yeah.
Helge: It was a bit of a long story but eh....
Peter: Darani, your mother, in the late '50s, early '60s, was an important Australian abstract expressionist painter. Your father, in 1962 when he died in an accident, was held in very high regard as perhaps Australia's most important abstract sculptor. Can you tell us how that background propelled you into a career in the visual arts and how that journey took you to Denmark?
Darani: Well, like Helge's story, mine's a long story and I'll try to make it, like Helge, as short as possible. Of course, growing up in an artists' household, you take on the values that surround you. When I told my parents that I wanted to be an artist, they pointed out that to be a painter or a sculptor, I was unlikely to earn a living and that perhaps I should consider being a jeweller.
And I took their advice and I looked around to see if I could find some training as a jeweller. There was only one arts school and there were no courses in jewelry, so I contacted the trade and I asked them if they would take me on as an apprentice. They said no, they would be a riot if they accepted me.
Helge: As a woman.
Darani: As a woman, yes.
And so I got a job making fashion jewellery, casting in tin and lead. I was very fortunate, because I met a wonderful woman called Nina Ratsip, who was a master jeweller from Estonia. She was a partner in a shop...workshop in Rowe Street, making the only contemporary jewellery in Sydney. She agreed to take me on as a trainee.
At the end of that year, I had an exhibition at DJs, David Jones' gallery on the top floor, and I'm sure that my mother must have organised that. My father did the display in cardboard. It was a fairly primitive affair, I suppose, looking back on it. But it was the first and I got a lot of good responses, but perhaps I didn't sell very much.
I decided that I would try my luck in Britain. In those days, it was accepted that young people should go to the mother country and seek their fame and fortune. I went over with my portfolio of my work, and arrived in London.
I got a job at Paris House in South Molton Street, next to Bond Street. It was very exciting. They made fashion jewellery for Madame Tussaud's museum and for film stars and celebrities. I was an assistant there.
Then some months later, my father came to Denmark, sorry, my father came to England, and he said that he had been in Denmark and he'd seen the most exciting contemporary jewellery, and I had to go there to see it.
I took his advice, and I took a train to Copenhagen and with a Danish friend, we walked the streets of Copenhagen. Came across silform and I had never seen such unique and original jewellery before displayed in the window. I walked in and I asked Helge and his partner if they would take me on as a trainee and as he just said, they agreed that I would be there on a trial basis for two weeks, and I stayed nine months.
Peter: Did you agree with your father then that Danish design was in the forefront of the international scene?
Darani: I certainly did. When I arrived in Copenhagen, it was like Utopia, particularly compared with Australia, which was very conservative and parochial in those days. I was very interested in the architecture, which was experiencing a renaissance in Denmark and all the little craft based workshops which were producing limited runs in furniture, glass, textiles, jewellery, silverware.
They were exporting these beautiful things to the rest of the world through a cooperative, called the Den Permanenta. There was a belief that Danish design...good Danish design should be available to everyone, and that ethos underpinned a very progressive government and a welfare state.
Helge: And of course, I grew up virtually in the middle of that fantastic movement, of the contemporary furniture, jewellery, glass, and so on. I'm sure that that's why I didn't really mind forgetting about being a painter or a sculptor and becoming a jeweller, because it was regarded so highly in Denmark, at that stage. Actually, I never regretted it that I never became a painter.
Peter: So in this gallery and display and workshop, you were working alongside Helge.
Darani: That's correct.
Peter: What was that experience like?
Darani: Well, I think it was probably the most wonderful opportunity I have ever had, becauseI lived in this wonderful country, which seemed so, as I said, so idyllic. I was working in a workshop where I could learn to make jewellery. I could develop the skills to be able to do everyth...anything, everything. I could even make drawings of neck rings and arm rings, and Helge and his partner would actually forge them up on an anvil. That was an incredible privilege.
Peter: And the work was selling?
Helge: Well, after the first year, it started to sell. The second year, we got two jewellers to work for us upstairs, and an apprentice. So that when Darani arrived, then actually a whole little workshop of four or five people working together, and it was really exciting. Actually our workshop and shop was right in the middle of Copenhagen, only half a kilometre from the main street with Georg Jensen and Hans Hansen.
So also we got, of course, in the late '50s, we got many American tourists, and they liked to find a little shop like ours, rather than the big, expensive Jensen shop, so it went quite well. Yes, I don't know what we can sold more, 'cause em...There's a lot to say about the whole modernism in Denmark, but it's too long thing to get into this here, now, but it was a very exciting period.
Peter: So, you were commercially successful. You were doing design work that you were very happy with. What made you decide to leave Denmark and come to Australia?
Helge: I think I better start that, because after Darani had been in our workshop for about six...six months, my partner and his wife suddenly told me that they couldn't cope living in Copenhagen any longer. They wanted to go back to the provinces. They said, "Oh, you can take over the whole thing."
I said, "No thank you." There's no way I would both look after a shop and a workshop because, at that stage, I had had an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts. For the first exhibition I attended in Copenhagen, I had working in Copenhagen. So I said, "No," and by that time I got to know Darani very well. I had a Vespa, and after work I gave her a lift home one day on the pillow seat, and that helped our relationship.
Helge: At some stage, we went to London. At that stage, we felt, "Why not? Could we work together at some stage, even in Copenhagen?" But Darani said "No," that she couldn't do that.
Darani: I couldn't cope with the language, that was the problem, that's why.
Helge: So we went to London and actually looked at various possibilities, and it looked as if we could stay there and start something. On the other hand...
Darani: If I might interrupt you?
Darani: My mother wrote to us and said, "Why don't you come back to Australia? There are lots of opportunities here. You should give it a go, and if it doesn't work out, you can always return to Britain." We took her advice and went to Australia. Or, I went to Australia. Because you stayed here, then Helge took it on.
Helge: And I applied and became an immigrant, and I remember that Australian, Consul General gave me the Visa and said, "Have a good time in Australia. But please, my advice, take off your beard. The Australians do not like beards." I got a bit scared then, but I put it on after a year or two when I arrived here. I did arrive in Australia in 1961.
Peter: How did you establish your practice and life back in Australia, in the early '60s?
Darani: Well, as Helge said, he arrived here as a Ten Pound migrant, and he brought his tools and his furniture with him. We were fortunate enough to find a room in 81 George Street North, which we converted into a studio. At that time, The Rocks were considered to be -- they were -- a slum and, of course, rents were very cheap. My mother was our greatest supporter and she introduced us to Macquarie Galleries, and they agreed to have an exhibition of our work in August.
Helge: Just to add a little bit to this, of course, George Street North today, for all the tourists, is a wonderful place. But I can assure you that when I saw this old convicts' built sandstone building...I felt...coming from Copenhagen, virtually one street from the main Copenhagen street, I thought, "This is impossible. We can't live here."
But it was all right. I got used to it. We worked very hard. We had some work we had done in Copenhagen together and we worked very hard for about five or six months. Then that exhibition Darani was talking about then came. And that in a sense...I think...I told Darani, "If that is not going well, at least I'll go back to Denmark. And afterwards, if it goes well, we'll marry, and formally." Of course, we weren't married at that stage.
Darani: This is a good story.
Peter: And it was significant that that first exhibition was in what was one of Sydney's absolutely leading art galleries. And that, in a sense, set the mould for the rest of your career. Most of your work has been exhibited through first-rank dealers' galleries, rather than in shops and galleries that specialised in craft.
Helge: Maybe I should, because I thought, when we started our workshop here, I could do work for other jewellers, for other people, but the jewellery fraternity and the shops in Sydney, they did not like our work. I think one even said it was quite ugly.
There was no other way we could survive. That's why when that exhibition went well, we decided from now on, we're only going to make unique work, one of a piece, and show in galleries. We have done that now, for fifty-two years. How many galleries? I don't know how many, but about sixty exhibitions we have had.
Darani: Peter, if I might just say that that first year was very formative, of course, because we were married and we'd established our partnership, and we worked within the modern Danish tradition of jewellery for...in those yearly years. But I think, and Helge could perhaps expand on this, that Helge was very interested in the Australian bush, because it was so different from the cultivated Danish environment, and he was particularly fascinated, weren't you, with the seeds, and the pods, and these rather grisly and aggressive outgrowths.
We translated those feelings into the work, and the work became more textured and pitted, and we started to break down the large components that we had originally made into small segments and linked and hinged them together. We realised that at that stage there was a great potential to explore movement in the jewellery, and that was really the start of a whole phase in our practice, which I think was very important.
Peter: So the Australian landscape influenced your form. Were there other jewellers and artists who influenced your work?
Helge: I have to say no. It's quite strange, because most people in the arts have some person they admire or whose work they admire, but because we were virtually...for the first eight or ten years we were alone in Sydney. There were no other people working with contemporary jewellery. There were the art noveau and the art deco, and, of course, the arts and crafts movement, but I didn't like it at all.
So we had to develop our own work, and, of course, as I, after a year or two, had decided I'm going to stay here, and we started taking trips in nature and even just walking in a North Head and South Head to see these rock formations, I remember as we were coming home and starting doing sketches and photographs and photographing of it, all right. In that sense the Australian environment became quite a strong force, at least for me, in these early years. And I think Darani at that stage she worked in quite a different way.
Darani: Yes, but I think that if you are married to someone from a different culture, you have benefit of being able to see both from the outside and the inside, and so Helge noticed things about Australia which I had never noticed, and because we worked so closely together, of course, the work reflected our combined interests.
Peter: Can you remember a specific instance of Helge pointing something that you hadn't appreciated the significance of?
Darani: He was very fascinated with the banksia, and, in fact, we've got a series of jewelry and one of those relates to the banksia, not directly, of course. But, in fact, there are several pieces where we've used a precious stone and then combined it with a sort of a very aggressive sort of setting. That particularly piece was actually bought by the National Gallery of Victoria so that was very exciting, because it was the first purchase that had ever been made of our work by this very august institution.
Helge: Exactly. If I could just add to that, it is a geometry in the Australian...what do you call it, the...
Darani: The structure of...
Helge: ...structure, which fascinated me, and, of course, later on when I started teaching, and that's something I have to add because after it became very important to me. I always liked these Australian fruit to show them for the students to draw and then arrive at various interesting results.
But after about two or three years we realised we could not survive making jewellery because although the exhibitions were quite successful we had not enough to live from and pay rent and we had at that stage moved here to Seaforth.
So I said, "What do we do? Do we go back to Europe?" Or Darani said, "Well, why don't we teach? Why don't you teach?" And so I applied and got a job at the design school, or visual arts school...no, no, the Design School of University of New South Wales, and I started teaching there for...and was there for 12 years. It was a good introduction both into the work and meeting Australian students and also we could survive and our workshop.
Peter: What was the nature of your collaboration? Was Darani's contribution different to Helge's and in what way?
Helge: I think that...well, I always say that we have actually quite different personalities. Our interests certainly come together, but they're also quite separate. I think that has been an advantage in our work, because we sit in two different parts in our workshop and come together for discussion vistually every day when we are working and discuss the pieces.
Darani will start a piece and continue with it, and then we'll discuss it halfway. I'll start a piece and then, of course, we will discuss that piece and make some corrections. This is the way it is working. We have our own ideas but come together in the final piece. I mean have you...?
Darani: No, I think that's right. I think we build on each other's ideas, and we add and subtract until we decide, yes, this is the right resolution. We also, believe it or not, we work on the same piece. Not at the same time, I must say. And I like to think...I don't know that Helge totally agrees with this -- but I like to think that although we are very different people, as he says, that bringing our strengths and weakness to the partnership we're actually able to complement each other, and that we make better work as a couple than we do individually.
Peter: When you talk about your relative strengths, would you feel that you have a particular interest and strength in design and Helge has a brilliance in handling materials?
Helge: I can say something here. I am the one who is trained as a silversmith so whenever we make large-scale work we both talk about the ideas and the concepts, but then the actual smithing, I'm doing that. We have worked for many years with colours, too. And I'm quite happy to let Darani do all the decisions about colour in our work, because I was told once that I was a little bit colour-blind and Darani did not agree with my choice so I'm quite happy that she's done all the work in colour.
We have two quite separate areas when we work, especially the early years with precious stones. I'm also the stone setter but that is still some minor things, because it's all shared.
Peter: You've undertaken a number of commissions. Have you found the process of responding to commissions has inspired you, pushed you, to work you might not otherwise have done?
Darani: Well, as Helge said, he is the silversmith. I don't have any smithing skills, but we're both involved in the design. So I think that, Helge, you should perhaps talk about that.
Helge: Well it was quite exciting to get the first commission, because that was for the Wentworth Memorial Church, not that the architects for that church, it was a very interesting new church, had seen our silversmithing, but he had seen our jewelry.
We started talking about and through this conversation did we then ask to do a very exciting and very large commission of the wall cross, challis, all sorts of things for the church. And working also with textile artist...
Darani: Mona Hessing.
Helge: Mona Hessing was there, too, so that was good. It was a difficult one because we had to re-equip our workshop. We were only set up for jewellery in the early years and also some might say...in the larger scale objects like silversmithing and commissions, you think, at least I feel my feeling is different from when I make jewellery.
In jewellery I'm in total control of the little piece I'm sitting with. In silversmithing you have very specific skills to employ and also how does it fit into...and you're making something for a congregation in a church or other people, while when I'm making jewellery I only make it for myself and Darani.
Darani: I think we've been very fortunate to have received so many commissions over the years, because it isn't really a strong tradition in Australia. We have for the larger scale work we have collaborated with industry and other practitioners, and, of course, I find it particularly challenging to work with a client and sometimes with a ready-made audience.
So, with the liturgical work we are given the freedom to be able to reinvent the symbolism in a contemporary context and similarly with the maces we made for the new universities created in the early 90's, the mace for the University of Technology where Helge and I worked on it, and, of course, Helge did the smithing.
Helge: That was a very exciting one, because we were at that stage the DNA pattern had just been found or discovered, and the double helix, and it was so fantastic to design a piece for the University of Technology and using these very scientific symbols, and the double helix is a wonderful thing.
I was just told a little bit about it. It's one of the most difficult silversmithing jobs I've ever done in very heavy silver, and when the two helixes were sitting on the rod, and they moved through each other, I think it was a fantastic moment to see that and to sort of prove that DNA theory really worked all right [laughs] .
Darani: The client was very happy, I must say.
Helge: But I must also add that it took...I had hoped that after that first church commission we could do more, but it took another 25 years before we got the next commission for a church.
Darani: You're talking now about the Wentworth Memorial Church.
Helge: Yes, but it took another 20 years before the next one.
Darani: Yes, that's true.
Helge: And that was a bit sad, because there were many churches being built at that stage, new exciting architecture, but the congregation was too conservative. Our work was too modern.
Darani: I think the church was pretty conservative, too.
Helge: Well, some of the churches were well designed.
Darani: Yes, yes. But we also worked in aluminium. We made a series of anodised aluminium bowls, which we thought we might put into production, but we never did. We made body pieces out of aluminium. We made stainless steel sculptures for gardens and people's private homes. And we made an award, the Myer Performing Arts Award.
Helge: That was something very exciting that the Myer Foundation asked us to design the performing arts award, which was given for three artists every year. But both Darani and I we had seen some of the most horrible examples examples of awards and sport prizes. They are the most dreadful things, in Australia in particular.
We had a whole new idea, and the Myer Foundation gave us the freedom to design virtually a small piece of sculpture reflecting the theater and the art coming into that, and that's now been handed out for the next 25 years which is a wonderful thing. And that was in stainless steel and...
Darani: Powder-coated rods.
Helge: Powder-coated rods, yes.
Peter: In 1972 you were granted the Moya Dyring at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. What impact did that experience have on your practice?
Darani: I would say that living for nine months at the Cité had the most tremendous impact, both on our work and our lives. We had perhaps foolishly agreed to have an exhibition at the Kunstindustri Museum in Copenhagen at the end of the year. And, fortunately, the children were able to go to school during the week, and that meant that we could prepare for this exhibition in the studio on a daily basis. On the weekends we would take our children and visit the monuments and the many parks in Paris to escape the close confines the workshop.
But I think that we were very privileged, because we lived on the third floor of the Cité. We could look down on the Seine and across to Ile St.-Louis and over the river to the Left Bank. I think that in hindsight really that this big change in our life and our way of working inhibited us from taking risks and experimenting at that time, that instead we took up a body of work we had been working on in the previous year and then extended it.
So it wasn't until we came back to Australia, and it was a very propitious time because the Whitlam government was in power that introduced all these marvellous reforms and support for the arts. And so it was in that atmosphere that we started to look at the Paris experience.
Helge: Well, I want to add, because for me, Paris -- and France to a certain degree also, but France became very important for me. I might tell a little story that I had to take the children to school...every morning, and from the Cité des Arts to the Ecole Active Bilinque near the Eiffel Tower.
And I remember driving every morning along the Seine River on the Left Bank, delivering the children and then taking a long route home every week, trying a different route to find new streets in Paris. So crossing the Seine and going into between Petit Palais or Grand Palais and then on to the Champs-Elysees and along the Concorde. I mean all of these for months driving there and getting to know Paris was a wonderful experience and it came straight into our work, too.
If you could see some of our work from these years the patterns of streets and of the river in France which we interpreted in many ways, and there is one particular ring we made about all the little...what was the area that we lived in the...
Darani: In the Marais quarter.
Helge: the Marais quarter and virtually every street and every little house you see on that ring on the finger and all through house in which we stayed, and these sorts of things became for me very important, and I've still been back to Paris many times since.
Darani: I think, Peter, that Helge mentioned all the French monuments, and, of course, they were very much part of our environment as he said. That was one of the things that we examined when we came back to Australia. We combined the French and Australian monuments in our jewellery.
And we had to find a new visual language so we abandoned our intuitive approach to designing jewellery, and we started to use a figurative image. That was a major change in our practice, and it has been with us ever since.
The exhibition we had in 1974 at Bonython Galleries was a collection based on the Paris and the Australian experience. We compared the two together. The kookaburra, the kangaroo, the Harbour Bridge, and the Opera House, they also were the icons, the monuments.
Peter: With the period in Paris, were there opportunities to meet anyone else who was a practising jeweller there, or did you see things in the museums that were influential on you, or was it mainly just the built environment?
Helge: The built environment certainly was a major influence on our work, but of course, living in a building, Cité des Arts, with about 200 artists from many countries, we met many of them. We went to concerts down below with the friends who were living next door.
And em...but...contemporary jewellery hardly existed in France. It's very interesting. In Germany and Denmark and England it was really lively, but a few people...I met some of them, but they had no influence on our work.
Of course, every Thursday, I think, we decided, Darani and I, when the children were at school, we took a gallery tour, and sometimes the gallery on the Left Bank, others on the Right Bank and other times to the Louvre Museum, so it was a constant influence of work from other artists, but not just the painting and the sculpture in the Louvre, but also the collections from the Roman and Greek times. That was actually...we seemed drawn much more to this sort of work from ancient times than the contemporary one.
Peter: So perhaps the period in Paris was one of consolidation for your work, and then back in Australia you really broke out.
Darani: That's right. And I think that that's sometimes part of the process, that you assimilate a whole lot of influences but it isn't actually until you return to your natural habitat that you suddenly see things with fresh eyes and you can rejuvenate yourself.
Helge: It's important, too, that we started then virtually on a whole new process of having exhibitions in other countries. We really hadn't had that before then. Travel has become -- at least for me, but I think for Darani, too -- a very major thing in our work. We traveled. Darani's making sketches, and I'm photographing. All of that work will go onto the wall, and that...hopefully, that will be an inspiration for our work for the next two years.
I really love traveling, and maybe that's why coming back to my childhood when after five years of occupation we couldn't travel. Nobody could travel, and I said to myself, "If I...when I grow up, I'll be able to travel," and that's why it became part of our work, and it's very part of our work here in the workshop in Australia, too.
Peter: Helge, you've played an important role in facilitating international exchanges and initiatives. Can you tell us about how those initiatives have come about, and what the result has been?
Helge: Yep, because actually it started in Paris. We worked there and met some people, but although not in our field as I said before. But in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen we met some Austrian artists, and they said, "Why don't you come down and visit us in Vienna?"
We did, and they introduced us to what I would call the elite of contemporary jewelry, Peter Skubic and Josef Symon, whatever they were called. They in turn introduced us to other people, and we really enjoyed that and also met the Gallery of Graben director of a wonderful gallery...
Darani: In Vienna.
Helge: In Vienna. We had to a couple of exhibitions with her. And that sort of lead to... and then after only a year or two years later I was then invited to become visiting professor at the Sommer Akademie in Salzburg. I don't know if you know this school. It was started by Kokoschka, and he called in Schule des Sehens, The School of Seeing, and I was really fascinated by the whole philosophy of that school.
I was teaching there for six to eight weeks in three different languages. I might add here that in all our travels at that stage I spoke four or five languages reasonably well, and that was important, because when you talk to artists you can talk about shopping and a meal, but the moment you start talking about your art and your ideas, they want to speak their own language.
I think that's a problem for some Australian younger people I met when they go overseas. They only speak English, and in Germany and in Austria and in Hungary it is difficult for people so I've always said, "Learn some languages," because you're able to communicate also in the arts so much better.
Darani: You should say that you invited to the Steel Symposium. That was an international steel symposium, and also you went to the Tin Symposium in Austria.
Helge: And of course, even if...when you go to such events you meet, like this stainless steel symposium, there was invited 20 of the leading jewellers in the world, and your meet them, and, of course, then suddenly you get involved with the real movement in the contemporary jewellery, which I must say the first 10, 12 years in Australia I had no idea about. I really wanted to stay in Australia and develop our work here and had really very little idea about what went on around the world.
Darani: But you should also say that these initial contacts that Helge made were very important in your development of those international cultural exchanges.
Helge: Yes. Yes, it was, and that was when the idea came to me that now we're receiving so much work from Europe and some from America, too, an exhibition and ideas. I said why can't we show our work, because we are now up in the '80s, which actually it was a very wonderful time for contemporary jewellery in Australia and all the arts, by the way.
I felt we should have exhibitions. So I got the idea of having an exhibition to be shown of Australian contemporary jewellery. I think one of the first ones ever. That was shown in Japan and traveling with an Australian show of jewellery I couldn't speak Japanese, but wonderful to meet Yasuki Hiramatsu and all of the other jewellers in Japan.
They were influenced by our work, and we were influenced by their work. It was really an exciting time. That two years later led to an exhibition, a similar work of Australian jewellery going to Europe, and where I traveled around with that and gave lectures in German and demonstrations for our Australian work.
I just want to say a little thing about how little Australia was known in those years. At one of the museums I was talking I was introduced by the director, and he said, "Hier ist...Helge Larsen, auf Australian, aber er ist eine geborene Dana." That means, "Here is Mr. Larsen from Australia, but he's really Danish."
Helge: Just to make sure that the audience was not...because they had no idea what Australia looked like, and that I experienced many times when I traveled in Europe in the early years.
Darani: Also the last exhibition, which I think was very important, which you curated was the Cross Currents?
Helge: Yes, at that stage, possibly late '80s, and a whole new atmosphere in the contemporary jewellery had grown up, so to speak, and that was that low costs in material could be used and actually abandon of the precious metals like gold and stone superior. I felt that was a very important period and it should be documented.
So again, I selected work, and at this stage I felt we should show our work together with the Germans, the Dutch, and the British. And so I got organised. There were the four of us were selectors and got together in Amsterdam and had that one, and that exhibition then came together and was shown in Australia and is now in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.
I think it's a very good document for that whole period, which actually to a certain extent is still surviving in areas here in Australia, don't you think?
Darani: Yes. I think that one of the important things about these initiatives was that also that the Crafts Board of the Australia Council -- I hasten to say I had retired at this stage -- was responsible for supporting these initiatives and working with other institutions as well so we were able to draw, or I should say that Helge was able to draw on many resources in order to undertake these initiatives.
Peter: Well, these were invaluable initiatives for having Australian jewellery seen overseas, but did you look into possibilities of conducting solo exhibitions of your work in Europe?
Helge: I think that idea since Paris never left us and I don't know how we started, but coming back to again both our wish to travel and to gain experience and new ideas from our travel, and so we organised an exhibition. It was a major one.
Darani: At the embassy, the Paris embassy.
Helge: Paris embassy, yes.
Darani: And in Estonia, and in Finland.
Helge: And Latvia.
Helge: And cause...if I may say, you know, that we have an exhibition in one town, and then we are there. We always go to the exhibition and travel with the exhibition, and then while we are up we then travel to the next country, and we ask the gallery there or the museum, "Would you be interested in having a show?" and show them our catalog.
Often they said, "Yes," so two years, three years later we then have an exhibition in that town. And that happened especially in Tallinn, in Latvia, and Finland. No, it's been...
Darani: I think it's been very stimulating and very exciting to be in another environment and to be on the inside not just as a tourist looking from the outside.
Helge: Also to show our work sometimes in 14th century old buildings. In Tallinn it was an old warehouse from the 16th century and in Koldinghus in Denmark that was also a castle from the...
Darani: 12th century.
Helge: 12th century castle. And to see our work in such different surroundings has been very...
Darani: Very interesting.
Helge: ...interesting and enriching for us and changing our ideas, too.
Peter: You both played important roles in the public sphere. Darani as head of the Craft Board, Helge as the Head of Jewelry at the Sydney College of the Arts. Have you found those roles interesting?
Darani: I found my three years as chair of the Crafts Board exceedingly rewarding. First of all, it was a wonderful opportunity and a privilege to be able to gain an understanding of the diversity of the crafts throughout Australia and as a member of council to develop an understanding of the arts as a whole.
Then at the board level that we were able to have a say in the distribution of subsidy and to work with the staff to develop programs to meet the needs in the field.
Well, I mean, when I look back at this time I can't believe it was even possible. I also think that personally it had a great impact on me, that from being a private person working in the relative isolation in a studio, I became a public person and I hope a professional person with the aide of the staff I have to say, and the other members of the board.
And then, finally I acquired a number of intellectual skills. It was like going back to university in middle age, and those schools have remained with me ever since, and I would say that this experience was exhilarating, but also terrifying.
Peter: And did you find your position at the Sydney College of the Arts exhilarating or terrifying?
Helge: Actually, I did, and we can go back. I've always liked schools and universities. I spend eight years training myself in a sense, you know, so...and I visited during the '70's and '80's schools in Europe, and I felt it's time we have what I would call a proper jewelry school in Sydney, too.
They had...one had started, RMIT in Melbourne, but what I found out, Melbourne in those years was very far from Sydney. We had hardly any contact with jewellers down there in the early years.
So I was part of an established Sydney College of the Arts, and when I started, yes, I became the head of the jewellery, and it was wonderful idea, too, and it was wonderful...experience, to see that department grow, because eventually I got more involved, and we became a university in 1979, 1980.
Helge: 1990. After that I then became seriously involved and no more traveling with the teaching, and I then became associate professor and then later on, head of the arts school. So I was taken away from jewellery, but I always followed the work of the jewellery school, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Peter: One of your recent interests has been combining valuable materials such as silver with apparently worthless objects, bits of debris, found objects. How did that work come about?
Darani: Well, maybe if I just started and then Helge can continue.
In one sense the found object has always been an element of our work, but it wasn't until the early '80s that we realised its full potential, and I think that we...it came about because I had retired from the Crafts Board, and I'd returned to jewellery full time.
And a series of circumstances happened to coalesce at this time like there was an international crisis. The price of gold and silver had soared. Together with a group of people, we started to question the relevance of working in precious materials and stones. Why not try ephemeral materials such as silver...such as thin plastic sheet, or paper, or other ephemeral materials?
And...at that time also, the Women in Arts festival had been launched and I was appointed to a committee and I coordinated a series of workshops and exhibitions in which I encouraged the use of the found object.
There were a couple of exhibitions which had a very big impact on me and on our practice. The first one was called the Worn Issues exhibition. Together with a small group of jewellers, we made a series of work using low cost alternate materials to make political and social statements. We toured this exhibition.
The second exhibition, which was very important, was called the Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape. And three of us filled an installation made out of staples or connected I should say by staples and blue tack and tape.
The structure of this exhibition was a walkway, which wound its way around a series of suspended canvases, in which we had placed at strategic places The Worn Issues.
You could say, sorry not the Worn Issues, but found object. You could say that the found object was really the essence of this exhibition, and certainly was very influential in terms of our subsequent work.
Helge: The found objects specifically has become very much part of our life the last 5 or 10 years. But as I said before, we have done it before, and maybe you really can't call photographs and postcards and toys and puzzles from our children that we used that in the jewellery too, they are not necessarily found objects, but we've always been interested in combining the precious metal with other materials.
Also I think we were some of the first to start using acrylic when it came out in the '60s. Because none of us were very good enamellers, and acrylic could give us the colours we wanted to. And, so...I think Darani, she has the patience, I'm more impatient in working. She has the patience to sieving on the beach, for an hour or two, finding these objects, and also...
Darani: Also when we went to Central Australia, we collected pebbles, and semi-fossilised twigs, and...
Helge: What's fascinating, we were living for a week or two in Oodnadatta, and driving out in the desert, finding places where the old Ghan railway had been flooded and disappeared. But we could find the houses from where the British workers...railway workers had stayed, and they're just left one day we could see, and some pottery pieces and leather pieces were around...
Darani: Just left on the foundations.
Helge: That was fascinating. At the same time we could also find remnants of aboriginal stone...flints. All of these sort of things, we have used them. I think both of us are interested in having the social...social history a part of our work that speaks, and that often speaks so well from the found object.
Darani: The found object is the message bearer.
Peter: Would you feel that although you are using found objects, and perhaps even using the work to comment on social dimensions, that you've never entirely thrown away aspects of that Danish good design that was the foundation of your work, all those years earlier?
Darani: I think that we have still retained a certain number of givens -- that the jewellery should only be complete when it's worn. Don't you agree?
Darani: It's like a hat or a dress, and that the jewellery should be comfortable when it's worn, not too heavy, not too awkward. It's very important when designing the jewellery that every element contributes to the overall design. I think that those givens have guided our work ever since.
But of course there have been other influences since then, just like the zeitgeist of the time. Of course that interacts with your personal life and changes your work.
Or living here, on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, it's the prism through which we see everything, and of course has influenced our work. As Helge just said, the travel that's been a very big influence, hasn't it?
Peter: This land falls down steeply to Middle Harbour. It overlooks the water, it looks out at clouds, sky, it's a world of silver and white and grey out there. It's a view of changing movement, of reflections. It's as if this was the perfect place for silversmiths and jewellers to live.
Helge: In one way, it is. You'll find if you went through our work for the last 50 years, you'll find pieces of jewellery which is actually the view out of the kitchen window, or the tree stump down near the water, or some of the rocks which I believe one day aboriginal people have been sitting under, too. Maybe I imagine these sort of things, but certainly there are carvings a bit further down the coast here. No, I think it's been very good.
Darani: But you haven't liked the weather.
Helge: No. that's only in the winter. But yeah, because in the summer, I can come out in the nature. But in the winter, I don't get about and also. But of course, maybe it's part of my Danish background. In the winter, you just worked because it was too cold to do any other things.
But the inspiration from the sunny days where you can really explore the bush around, we take walks every Saturday and Sunday to explore the bush even now, because it's still exciting. How it comes out in the work, I really can't explain, it's just part of a natural process.
Peter: Finally, looking back over your career as jewellers, what would you say has been your particular contribution to the field?
Helge: Well, this is a very difficult one, isn't it? Because it's always other people who are writing or discussing your work and giving you the thumbs up or down. I find it difficult personally to feel it.
I can say that yes, in the establishment of contemporary jewellery in Sydney, you can do other people, I certainly played a role there and I'm very pleased to have done that.
Also, that Darani and I in '60, we started having exhibitions in a gallery and continued with that for the next 50 years with our jewellery, I think, has been very important for Australia and for Australian jewellers, too.
I didn't even mention that, in our very first exhibition, a reviewer wrote that he compared our work with people like Arp and what was the other one? It was some very famous sculptors.
I felt this is impossible, that I couldn't understand how our work at that early stage could have such resonance among the serious critics in Sydney. But of course, found out that they were...they had no way of assessing contemporary jewellery, they only saw the sculpture and that's why the things came back like that.
It's hard to explain. I don't know how.
Darani: Well, I would agree with Helge that it's the 51 years and the consistency of our practice and its diversity, which I think's been important...by example, that this was an important practice in its own right, which offered enormous potential. I think that probably, in the end, that's our greatest contribution.
Peter: Darani Lewers, Helge Larsen, thank you.
Interviewer: Prof. Peter Pinson
Camera, lighting & sound: Cameron Glendinning
Video editing: Dr. Bob Jansen
Technical & assembly: Dr. Bob Jansen