NEON ZINN: A CONVERSATION WITH SETH DAMM
Architectures of Wildness
When looking at artist and designer Seth Damm's work, we can see the integration of his large-scale sculptural background and the meditative quality of constructing individual pieces of jewelry as wearable art. It reminds me of wild animals; an elk against a backdrop of trees, defiant in a way, separate and individual yet easily able to blend back in.
NEON ZINN is hand-dyed 100% cotton rope necklaces to be worn, held and admired. Seth Damm is currently based out of New Orleans.
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*this interview has been edited and condensed by kyla krug-meadows
It is a pleasure meeting you Seth! To begin, how did you come across this unique process of sculptural jewelry?
I had found a beautiful length of thick hemp rope at an industrial supply store in south Seattle. I loved the fact that I could see individual strands made from natural material and that together they made such a beefy, strong, flexible object with so many uses. I was coiling rope and spray painting words on the surface around the time I was asked to participate in a jewelry show in Marfa, TX.
Then, as I began to fully transition from my previous practice of large scale installations and performances into this new handmade wearable territory, it felt more and more like a natural progression. The sculptural quality and scale of the necklaces were a direct way to bridge the concerns I was having around accessibility of art.
Now instead of engaging with audiences in the built spaces of my art installations, I was able to put my work directly on someone, on their terms, in the personal way that jewelry and adornment provide.
"Embodiment is defined as 'a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling,' and wearable art has the power to transmit a feeling very quickly without words."
It is interesting to think about your jewelry as a way of engaging with your audience. What is your first memory of noticing a piece of jewelry that caught your eye?
I remember being a very young child and playing with the wedding ring on my mother’s finger. It had a stone sphere placed in a setting that allowed it to turn. I remember sitting next to her and turning that sphere round and round and round. The movement of the stone was entrancing and meditative. That is a very deep seated memory.
It seems like a lot of your work must be somewhat similar to the turning of the sphere round and round, somewhat meditative. Tell me about your process and where you create your work.
Many of my necklaces originate from a combination of this technical focus and soulful happenstance.
Currently, my work space is on a wooden table facing a window next to the kitchen. My dye buckets are out on the screened in porch. My bedroom has necklaces hanging on the wall, and boxes scattered on the floor ready to be mailed. It is all very basic and unromantic other than the fact that it is in the beautiful soulful city of New Orleans. A studio is a wonderful thing, but give me a floor and I’ll kneel down and create these necklaces.
About how long does it take to make an individual piece?
Each necklace starts as a pile of uncut white cotton rope. If I am starting from scratch, with no idea of shape, I’ll usually start by “drawing” with the rope on a table surface. Once I’ve figured out the general shape and scale of the piece I will tie off sections of the raw rope and cut all the lengths that will make up the finished piece.
Some necklaces are one long piece of rope that I mark with a string where I am going to want color transitions in the dyeing cycle. Other necklaces are made of multiple lengths of rope where I not only have to mark off the color transitions but also remember how each piece fits into the finished design. This part of the process, especially if I am coming up with a new design, can take days to figure out.
Next, I soak the rope in clean water and prep the dye baths. The actual dyeing is a very intuitive process. Sometimes I’ll be moving one length of rope between 4-5 different dye baths in order to get the intensity and color blending that will serve the overall affect of the final piece. Once the rope is rinsed and dried, I’ll lay out all the pieces and start the intricate, work intensive process of binding the necklaces together. I’ve developed my own techniques over time and there is very little knot tying like people assume when they think of rope. The techniques were developed early on in my first studio in Seattle after I had made my first collection and started to develop necklaces that went beyond the oval/circle shape. I experimented to the point where I could make huge torso pieces that would hold their shape while being worn.
The ultimate test of any piece is if it looks the same being worn as it does when it is lying flat on a table. These days each piece can take anywhere from 4 or 5 hours up to 24 and beyond depending on the complexity.
Since I haven't had the chance to actually experience your work, I wonder when the rope is dry, is it hardened or does it still carry the feel of rope and twine?
The 100% cotton rope stays very soft even after multiple cycles of dyeing. A common observation I hear is how light the necklaces are when worn. People assume they are heavy because of their size relative to most jewelry on the market.
Yes, I assumed they would be tremendously heavy. Now knowing that they are actually quite light, perhaps like clothing, it makes them even more interesting because each piece walks a line between fashion, art and jewelry.
On another note, I want to talk a little about your influences especially regarding Howard Zinn, whom you mention in your bio on your website.
Howard Zinn was speaking from a deep sense of purpose as a civil rights and anti-war activist. His version of optimism was the observation that even in the midst of horrible atrocities, the present moment holds the promise for positive change. Not without risk and sacrifice, of course, but each person holds that potential. I don’t even presume to be operating on his level. He is inspiring in how he put himself at the battlefront where he could make his own observations while participating in the historical shift of an era. When I was just getting started with NEON ZINN, his words helped me make up my own mind about moving forward into unknown territory.
How to plant myself directly in the path of the unknown, perhaps dealing with sadness, depression, uncertainty, or fear and still taking steps to create beauty and positivity. Part of the challenge of being an artist is finding a way to be engaged directly with people, with the world, while also requiring a fair amount of time, isolation and head space in order to produce work with a level of integrity that is worth pursuing. As an artist, making art is how I become a more sensitive intuitive person and that sensitivity is one thing that I hope transmits in my work to other people.
It does seem hard to strike a balance as a creative person. Is NEON ZINN a way to process the world for you?
This has been one of the biggest shifts in the way I work. Whereas before I would spend my time trying to figure out ways of turning an idea into a physical object, now there is less conceptualizing and more time spent in the process of dyeing, and stitching, and binding.
Each necklace requires a certain amount of repetition to complete and the repetition gives me a hand hold to continue climbing. The meditative quality of the work is directly related to the repetitive nature of the craft. The work feels more elemental and connected to the movement of my fingers and I hope it makes me more sensitive to the subtleties of each necklace and the people I make them for.
In one piece, you mention that one doesn't wear these necklaces, one embodies them. Will you explain how you see this difference?
I would say that in a literal, physical sense, a person wears these pieces as a style accessory. But I also think that the necklaces can embody a risk-taking, a bold, fearless, loving side of a person and that by wearing it, a person projects those aspects of themselves into the world.
Embodiment is defined as “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling," and wearable art has the power to transmit a feeling very quickly without words. When you wrote about “an architecture out of wildness” it touched on this tension between an individual and the group.
Growing up in a born again Christian house gave me firsthand experience with these kind of dynamics. As I grew up and defined myself more as an artist, I gradually began to pull away from the church. But still, there is a deep seated struggle in me to be separate, uncontrolled, and yet also find ways to contribute. NEON ZINN is about the beautiful raw complexity of a lifetime. And at this point in my career I’m putting all of my energy into making these adornments.
Thank you for your time and honesty, we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future Seth!
* See Seth Damm's work in Issue 4: Adornment
© Armoire Magazine 2015