When I see the work of Danielle Hughes, who was my guest on this week’s episode of Art on the Air, there is no question that I’m looking at something very modern.
But it also feels like I’m viewing an alternate timeline where Art Deco never went out of fashion, flying cars are a reality, and Star Trek-style communicators are just around the corner: Her metal jewelry seems a natural progression from the futurism that pervaded the first two decades of the 20th century.
Hughes’ creations harken back to the craftsmen who had the kinds of ideas that are made much more simply in today’s world with computers and 3D printers, but which then required total mastery over the materials at their fingertips in order to execute.
After talking with the artist, I realized that my instincts about her work weren’t that far off.
"I think maybe around middle school I really started looking at deco architecture," she recalled, "and some of the cars that were coming out of even a little bit broader time period, the twenties through the fifties. And I always was just really drawn to those metal elements."
Hughes was especially attracted to "the real linear parts of the grill" of those aforementioned automobiles, she told me, noting that she owns "ten, twelve hood ornaments." And the handmade nature of her work, common to the artisans of the era she’s referencing, is also apparent in the techniques that she utilizes.
"I like having some things really polished and kind of highlighted around areas that then have a matte finish," Hughes explained. "And I know over the years I have started doing a scratchy texture on the surface of some pieces, which I end up oxidizing so you can reveal all of those scratchy pieces. I feel like I’m sort of sketching on top of the metal."
Adding an element that harkens back to drawing makes a lot of sense given the meticulous process that Hughes initially undertook before beginning a new project.
"When I was originally doing work I wanted everything to be very kind of machine-like. I would spend sometimes days on getting an exact drawing of something from several angles down to the hundredth of a millimeter," she laughed, "and it would have math equations on the pages and very technical specifications for everything."
As she advanced in her craft, however, the artist realized that such an investment of time was not only untenable, but it didn’t necessarily make for the best possible work. So Hughes consented to giving herself more freedom in her designs, allowing pieces "to be a little more organic."
"Over the years I’ve tried to kind of push myself in various ways to kind of let some of the process just not be so planned," she said.
Ultimately, Hughes is a modern jeweler with an old school sensibility. Her dad is a potter and a painter, and she recounted that her mother had a "huge loom" in the basement that she was always crafting on. Although her work is as highly crafted as something you might see in an expensive jewelry shop, she’s inherited her parent’s workman-like approach to her creative method.
"I really enjoy the process of having a torch in my hand," she said. "I really enjoy the process of hammering and sawing. I like looking down at my hands and having that feel that you’ve really worked hard on something and connected with the materials. And it’s still I think amazing to me in a lot of ways that you can take this piece of metal, whether it’s a sheet of metal or whatever it comes to you as, and move it and bend it and make it this whole completely different thing."
"I feel like my process is more something that people would have been working this way eighty years ago, a hundred years ago."
Danielle Hughes’ jewelry is currently on-view as part of Hospice Savannah’s Summer Nights Party and Auction. Learn more about her work by following @d3metal_jewelry on Instagram. You can listen to our entire conversation embedded here.
Next week I’ll be speaking with multidisciplinary artists Karen Abato and Corey Houlihan.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.