MOTHER visits artist and BESPOKE jeweller Slim Barrett's London studio to talk about family, storytelling and subversive creativity.
Slim grew up in the West coast of Ireland taking inspiration from nature, community and rebellion. He studied Fine Art in Galway where he honed his skills as an artist and sculptor before moving to London and opening an art gallery in Camden hosting works by the Neo-Naturist's of the early 90's. He currently creates bespoke jewellery for Slim Barrett, founded 30 years ago. The brand's legacy includes pieces created for iconic female figures such as Princess Diana and Beyonce, Vivienne Westwood's orb design, works gracing theatre stages, film sets and the pages of both heritage and vanguard fashion publications such as The Face, Vogue, I:D and LOVE, earning both a cult and commercial following.
Interview by Melanie Khorshidian
Hello Slim. What have you been working on recently?
The last big project I did was working with the photographer Miles Aldridge, making a piece for the production of Richard III at The Almeida in Islington I made a body brace for Ralph Fiennes, that was quite fun. I've been getting a lot of ring commissions at the moment, from different people, by coincidence. The last two months have been absolutely crazy because my partner has been off due to an accident, so I've been running her side of the business; all the press and marketing, I'm trying to organise myself so everything has been up in the air.
So Slim Barrett is family run?
Yes, Jules my partner is always a part of me, in business and everything. Jules is the type of person who likes to stay in the background, she is an essential part of the studio and business.
There is a lot of variety in your work, projects ranging from film, theatre, fashion editorial etc. Do you enjoy the variety? Do you thrive in it?
Absolutely, I like the experimental aspect of it. I love mixing new materials with found or kept objects, I still use materials which I bought back in the beginning of the 1980's. They're still relevant to what I do and for me if you're making a piece of work it should be something that's here for a long time once you've made it, once it leaves your being and becomes an object, whether it's a piece of sculpture or a piece of jewellery. I have a thing about it being environmentally correct, so the idea for me of mass producing one pair of earrings, and you only sell 50% of what you've produced, is wasteful. I've never liked apporuching my work in that way.
There is definitely a presence in your pieces, when they're held, similar to the feel of vintage pieces.
It's essentially because of my background, growing up in the 60's and the early 70's in Ireland. There was no TV in my house until Apollo landed on the moon. Prior to that everything was outside activities; playing in fields, we had a river at the end of the garden and there was a castle and an old Abbey and lots of ruins in our town. It was a farming market town, so once a month we would get taken over by animals. It was a real outdoor upbringing. It's something which is sadly lost in a lot of Western countries, that aspect of childhood is going and its a real pity. In your mind, how you're developing your memories and your cognitive expressions of how you're going to be when your an adult, that's really important. Its a way of developing the experimental part of your character, rather than just received information you're having to actually go out and find things.
Testing your imagination?
Pushing boundaries. Health and safety would freak at a lot of things we used to get up to! It was as if the town was your home, everyone knew everybody else and doors were open. Our family house when I was growing up was like Waterloo station at rush hour, there was a constant flow of people coming through the house, it was good.
There was a lot of trust within the community?
Totally, it builds up things in your character that stay with you. You make friendships and help people, if someone is in trouble you may have a different attitude towards it than in London.
Does Celtic culture and mythology influence you?
Of course, at night we would be told spooky stories about giants, wild dogs and magical beasts. When you're a kid those are powerful. We didn't have outside media influences coming in so that was our only perspective of what was going on in life and we took it almost as truth. Fairies and goblins existing in your head is definitely influential. there is a thing with the landscape in Ireland, it is very feminine because of the way that the land lies, it's curves, it's attractiveness and wildness. Also the music, poetry and literature all interconnects. Its not just a Celtic thing, because there's been so many invasions there is a mish mash of everything. There's debate going on at the moment where I'm told we shouldn't take influences from other cultures, because it's almost like appropriating it. I know in Ireland's history the ancient Egyptians traded with the Irish so there is most probably an Egyptian influence in Ireland and how do I know my ancestry and / or cultural heritage isn't partly Egyptian? So why can't I incorporate it into my work?
I think appropriation, as unfair as it might sounds, might be an awkward thing for some cultures to engage in but the rule doesn't apply to all. Celtic culture has the ability to maintain it's own identity and mix with others without necessarily poaching or stealing. I think this is linked to it's history, what do you think?
Yeah you could say that, the nature of the island and travelling is probably why that is, it's always had a history of people leaving it and travelling the globe. Also it's important to note what we are trying to do with other cultures, it's more to do with having respect for it and the culture that it's come from and knowing what it is, and being aware in your brain and your heart what you intend to do with it, is it being used for something constructive? For both the culture it originated and for your own endeavours; mutual beneficence. Everything is globalised now, you cannot help but be influenced by other cultures. Questions such as do you love it and respect it and will you take care of it are more important.
Have you experienced controversy surrounding your work?
Sure, I make heavy metal bangles which I called slave bangles, and depending which context you're in there are descendants of those who suffered slavery who find this offensive. Although I often remind people that the Irish suffered slavery also so I am expressing my own heritage. I don't agree with people telling each other they cannot do something within the Arts. Is it better to sweep things under the carpet? It stops the conversation about the whole thing, it shuts it down. It can then be used as an abrasive thing to stir up resentment among communities and cultures which I think is wrong. I think it's counterproductive, not a way of developing humanity.
In which ways has London shaped you?
I've been to other cities around the world but this one, London, there's something about it's character, the way in which things interact with each other. There is an experimental openness about it, which is being pressurised at the moment to say the least. In some ways I look back to the 1980's and notice a similar dynamic going at the moment so this happens, changes go up and down over time. I've been here so long and been involved in different aspects of English culture and society I don't join in with the current panic. It's change, you just keep going.
Yeah, the worry and fear connected to politics in the UK is something fresh for the youth encountering it, perhaps it's necessary for creativity to flourish?
The whole thing is cyclical, it goes round in a circle. There'll be something in about five years time, a statement made about whats happening today, and in ten years time something else will have cropped up. So it's like circles within circles going on and on and on.
Rather than linear. We love using the words progression and direction, although it makes culture's cyclical nature seem chaotic and unexpected.
In a way if you're doing something creative you have to step back and look at it. You cant get bogged down by the moment or draw too much into what's going on, it can make you very blinkered. It's important that you have an openness in the way you think about things, your perspective. If you're a visual artist or any type of artist, your view should be coming out in the work because essentially that's what you're trying to do, communicate.
PC culture is obsessed with achieving safety, it often doesn't allow for a broader perspective.
It doesn't make us safe, it stops us from experiencing things and when those things come along they become dangerous because we haven't developed ways in which to deal with them. When you're living in a cosmopolitan city there's so many things going on around you everyday. When you step outside your front door and go about your day there's so many things which hit you. You can either let it drive you crazy or go "wow" Awe is the best way to receive it.
Lets talk about 'Cascade' your diamond chain-mail necklace that won the De Beers Diamonds International Award in 2000. I think its a very beautiful and interesting design. Was working with diamonds challenging at the time?
I had a fear of it at the time, it was going into the unknown in terms of material. When people ask me what's my favourite material to work with I say metal. Metal for me is almost like writing, it's going from my brain to my hands with ease, I feel really comfortable using it. Doing that necklace for De Beers was moving up majorly with regards to the value of the work, that in itself was interesting whilst doing it. Literally you have something in the palm of your hand that at the time, going back fifteen years, was worth 1.5 million pounds.
It was a strange transition, coming from a fine art training, where the mindset doesn't place any great importance on the value of what you're using to make the art, then moving over into something that is all about the value of the material. The jewellery industry is all about that and the value of the raw material can be vast. I thought the material wasn't important, the end result was important and I created the piece without betraying that work ethos. Usually when you're working on a stone set the stones are the priority and everything else happens around the stones. I come in from a totally different point of view, where the stones are there to do a job. That can be a bit abrasive at times because its not a traditional approach. Its good to challenge traditions, if you're creative and trying to make a step forward.
Your body of work has continuous themes and an autonomous style, yet each piece holds an individuality unique to itself, they feel personal. How do you incorporate that feeling?
The way that I was doing my work in the beginning was story telling, I was building up collections of objects and jewellery based on the stories. The story might take the form of a poem and then I would take elements from the poem to make a motif or create a feel of something, it may be a motif or a type of material I'd then use to make something and that would, by taking the elements out it, take the poem away from the written form and strip it down to something visual. If you just saw one motif by itself it wouldn't make much sense, if you saw every single element all together you saw a map out in front of you and get a sense of where the whole idea is coming from.
I suppose with bespoke work the story telling aspect becomes more of a conversation between yourself, the creator, and the owner. In a way it's unclear who starts the conversation, them or you.
I curtailed my wholesale stuff in the fashion business as far as the jewellery is concerned in the late 1990's. I changed the way I worked so I was predominantly doing private commission work, so that was the point where the actual way of approaching it changed. If you're dealing with fashion, department stores, shops, there's somebody in between you and the final person who's buying it, where as when you're doing commission work you're directly speaking with the consumer. The whole way of thinking behind what you're doing changes, its more personal. I prefer working like this. There's lots of personal stories that come into it, you get thrown challenges in a different way, everybody wants as much of their life incorporated into something which will fit on their finger – the challenge for me is getting as much of their character for me to work with and then to hone it into an expression and turn it into an object.
Do you enjoy meeting people in that way? I'm sure you've met some interesting characters.
Yeah, theres lots of variation, it's really right across the board.
Your high profile clients include many iconic female figures, most strikingly Princess Diana, also Beyonce and Victoria Beckham, spanning from genuine royalty to pop culture royalty. Do you ever find you get an unknown personal commission that is a greater challenge than someone whose status will provide a large audience?
It is different, I don't know if I would say challenging. In principle how it works with the bespoke clients is we meet and chat about what they want me to make, I go away and design, figure it all out and then show them what I intend to do. Then, usually they ask to change things, so I go away and I will actually make those changes. Then I come back with the original and the changed one and I'd say 99.9% of the time they go for the original. I think it's important to go through the process because you're having a conversation with that person, so I'm showing them why I think it's a better way of doing it a certain way, its a gentle way of approaching it.
D.I.Y and deconstruction in your earlier sculpture work is interesting. Do you identify as an artist first and foremost?
Yes. Absolutely. The craft aspect of it is an element to what I do, it's there to do something, but its the end image as an artist that I'm thinking of. approaching things in a D.I.Y way you have to actually teach yourself, you have to be a student all the time, willing to grab something and risk it and see what happens. I do things and I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm challenging myself to make myself know what to do and in a way that's similar to someone in a lab experimenting, things might blow up or might not blow up you don't know until you find out. If it works you've achieved something. Then the tricky thing often is remembering exactly how you did it!
What was it like owning your own art gallery in Camden?
How I was thinking about doing it at the time was similar to a Parisian salon from the 19th century, a more relaxed approach. We had about thirty to forty artists in the gallery and apart from doing personal shows once a month we had a body of work with loads of different people collaborating.
There were a lot of well known artists in the area at the time who where involved, right?
Yeah, it was just by chance it happened at a certain period where we had the Neo-Naturists: Grayson Perry, Duggie fields etc around the area in Camden and they were doing collaborative stuff, the gallery became a hub of activity for them. It was their neighbourhood so it happened organically. I was working in a basement setting for 5 years and I had a reaction towards the lack of natural light so I moved from that space into a 2500 sqr ft studio in Islington – looking back I think I could have moved what I was doing in Camden into the West End into a bigger space and built the same type of setting, expanded it. I look at it as I do many things; as a project, somewhat experimental, which has a cycle which by a certain point has done what it's set out to do. At the time the NYB artists were coming up so I probably would have been swept up into all of that.
I see a connection between anarchy and majesty in your work. Anarchy is undeniably present and sometimes seems at odds with some imagery connoting majesty or royalty. These are two apposing forces which don't seem to have tension in your pieces. Perhaps the symbols which can be read as royal are stemming from something else?
Majesty is more appropriate than royalty, majesty is often associated with pomp and ceremony which I do like elements of. I like the effort that's put into it, the aesthetic is decorative and beautiful, although I don't like the gaudiness. If I wasn't using those elements my work would be far more abstract, maybe too abstract and minimal. The abstract elements of my work allow me to be political or sexual in ways which aren't immediately noticed, they make their way in subconsciously. I like to think of the creative process as a river which flows along, things happen and are there, that's part of the majesty of it. I'm not just referencing the human majesty of pomp and ceremony, there is the majesty of nature and of the landscape, all the things which occur around me as I create a new object are woven in.
At the moment my head is full of thoughts of going back to revisit Ireland so nature at the moment is at the forefront of my head and looking at things around the studio which I've made recently I can see that influence, burnishing metal gives it the colours seen in a forest, beautiful greens and browns.
You were part of the scenes which are being 'revisited' now in fashion, what do you think about this kind of nostalgia, going back to the 80's and 90's? Why are artists not looking at what they're doing now? Or are they not doing anything now?
Re-working something from the past is much easier to control, if you're somebody doing something of that nature now, if it's in anyway subversive, it is not generally given room to happen because of the problems it causes. Society is far more controlling about what you're allowed to express and how. Even though the subversive work back in the day was shocking in a way which it seems less so today, contemporary forms of subversion are shocking in a different way so perhaps artists are attempting to express that spirit of rebellion in a society which is against it and ready to stop it in it's tracks, society wasn't ready for it in the past.
The parallels between politics and art in England and America now are interesting, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have had a huge impact on youth, although the likelihood of socialists gaining political power seems slim.
Because the welfare state doesn't exist in America and is being removed in the UK there is a much bigger risk for would be radicals. Losing one's jobs and having no safety net beneath you pre-emptively restrains subversive behaviour. The tactic of divide and conquer is being used, dividing the poor from LGBTQ from religious groups etc, to prevent solidarity.
Anxiety seems to impede the creative process nowadays also, would you agree?
I allow my negative emotions into my creative process, I think you have to. We mustn't be afraid to feel anxious whilst we work, it may enter our mental space during a project working with fantastical and beautiful subject matter where it may seem out of place or feels destabilising. Let it be there and work with it, don't stop or try to exclude it. Pieces can hold both beauty and tumultuous emotion and be appreciated for both.