I just returned from a week long metalsmithing retreat in
which corresponds with the annual
Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. From dinosaur bones to diamonds it’s a rock
lover’s dream on steroids. Tucson
In addition to taking classes it gives me a chance to connect with fellow jewelry makers. It seems there are several types of people who attend these classes and I’ll mention three that I observed and had conversations with. The first is the person who treats this time as a creative get-away, wants to make a piece of jewelry or two and go back home and show everyone what they made. They don’t sell their work and make jewelry just for fun. Then there’s the person who takes the class to learn new techniques. Every instructor has a slightly different way of doing things and the littlest trick of the trade can make your life so much easier during the fabrication process. Then there’s the person who takes the class because they intend to duplicate the instructors project, make some minor modifications and claim it as their own design.
There were many strong opinions, disagreements and a few arguments about this. Some say there’s nothing new under the sun and we are all inspired and influenced by what we see around us. There are only so many ways that metal can be forged, folded and attached. After a while all silver chains look alike and a rivet is just a rivet. Plus if an instructor teaches you to make a ring or writes a tutorial about it shouldn't they expect that you'll make that ring? Others say that may be true but isn’t being creative more than taking someone else’s design and making a few tweaks here and there and calling it your own? When you do that you are making derivative art, and by definition derivative art is art derived from other art work. Technically (and some say legally-I'm not a lawyer so I definitely don't know the answer to this) the only person who can create new art from existing art is the person who holds the copyright of the original work. If we take a class with Jane Doe and make her ring design and put poke a dots on it, are we simply wearing Jane Doe’s ring with poke a dots?
I understand how difficult it is to be creative. I work at it every time I enter my studio. I'd like to think that I use materials and the techniques I've learned from the instructors I've taken class with and combine them into something that is unique to me. However there are some styles we all prefer more than others and sometimes styles have a similar look. For instance, there's a lot of jewelry that's nature inspired. This is not to say that if you like making butterfly pins and there's another jeweler who makes butterfly pins that you can't also. It's how you put the butterfly together that counts. Maybe it’s okay to start with someone else’s finished product as the basis for your work and make a few alterations. While process, concept, style and technique can't be copyrighted once the idea is in concrete form it belongs to someone else. At the end of the day we each have to decide what it means to be a designer. Is it to use our skills to make something that reflects our own aesthetic and creative vision or is it to copy and alter someone’s else’s design? It's complicated, and like I said, we each have to make that choice for ourselves and even that requires some soul searching and maybe giving credit where credit is due. What does being a designer mean to you?