A sculptor by choice and jeweller by chance, Freya Douglas Ferguson’s nature-inspired jewellery is a product of cross-disciplinary art. Finding herself drawn to the metal workshop whilst studying stone carving, the artist quickly found herself experimenting with small-scale sculptures fitted onto the human body. We talk to Douglas Ferguson about her two enticing collections, titled Sap and Sweat, in which she playfully uses metal and glass, her inspirations and future work.
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You stumbled into jewellery making in 2020, after being forced to leave your stone carving degree due to the pandemic. In what ways does your sculpting and carving background impact your approach to jewellery making?
What carving taught me is much more about confidence than perhaps form or style. As a reductive mode of making – meaning you are taking away material to create your sculpture rather than adding it like clay or modelling wax – each action can feel irretrievable or daunting at the start. Growing comfortable with that feeling, I felt like I could approach sculpting more intuitively and bravely. Hacking away at stone to find your sculpture is a very liberating feeling, in the same way, that glass can shatter at any given moment when you’re blowing it. It’s good for creativity to not be too precious.
On a more pragmatic level, during my time studying stone carving, I occupied the metal workshop a lot… maybe more than the stone workshop. I just sort of gravitated towards it. That’s where I got my first taste for casting metal, which is now one of the main processes used in my jewellery practice. So, carving indirectly lead me to jewellery.
Your first collection titled Sap offers a range of jewellery which resemble growing branches and dripping honeydew. Where does your fascination with nature stem from?
The fascination stems from two things. Firstly, the more emotional, inherent connection comes from being brought up in rural England. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, so I have a deep connection to nature as a form of escape, comfort, childish fantasy and nostalgia. Secondly, I’ve always found the relationship between the organic and the artificial an interesting departure point for my work. I’m interested in their oppositional traits and the tensions that arise when placed together, but also in their increasing commonality, where technology mimics nature.
Sap draws on this meeting point between the organic and inorganic, exploring the process of metamorphosis by using the idea of transformation as a means of blurring the boundaries between the two. Inspired by insects’ chrysalis, Boston Dynamics and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, I was looking at ways of breathing life into an inanimate material like metal.
My second collection, Sweat, is a continuation of this. In Sweat, I’ve added more aerodynamic shapes and coloured the metal in ultra-reflective putrid green and candied pink to shift further away from the ‘natural.’
Where else do you draw your inspiration from?
A real mix of places. Anything from other artists and exhibitions to happening upon something random or a specific treasured object… I revisit my own work a lot too. When looking at other art, I’m most excited by the use of materials and processes. Some of the artists that have inspired me for that reason are Guan Xiao, Knwls, Hannah Levy, Ottolinger, Donna Huanca, Maria Martins, Hussein Chalayan and Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois’ capacity to take on almost any medium has always been a great source of inspiration; her carvings were what first inspired me to carve (specifically her stone carvings of the multi-breasted masses, and Nature Study in particular).
To go a little more low-brow, I get hooked on any craft-related Instagram videos that the algorithm spews up. I’m no stranger to falling down a ‘woodturning tutorial’ hole. I find any form of learning an incredible source of inspiration- I try to keep learning wherever possible. Most recently, I picked up blacksmithing from my friend in his forge and took gemstone-setting evening classes last winter.
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Your designs are very avant-garde and have an innovative nature which I find fascinating. Do you ever struggle to balance artistic value and wearability?
Thank you. I’d like to keep innovation, or a kind of material intrigue, at the heart of my work. And as my jewellery has evolved over the last two years since starting, striking the right balance between form and wearability has been something I’ve been increasingly conscious of. My interest in biomorphism – art as an abstraction of nature or bodily forms – has taught me that the two are not necessarily oppositional. Coming from a sculptural background has also helped with designing in the round and considering the body as a dimensional thing. Before getting into jewellery, I used to do a lot of casting from the body, which has definitely informed the way that I design.
As you have mentioned, you use a combination of metal and glass for your creations. Why do you choose to work with these materials? How do these two differ from one another?
I’m a bit of a process hoarder so if I could add more to the repertoire, I would!
Some years ago, I started hanging out at my friend’s metal forge. It was a cavernous space full of piles of rusted metal, beautiful old mid-century tools and (the only source of warmth in the winter) the forge. I loved it there. I sought out glass more consciously because I didn’t really know anyone in that world that hadn’t been exposed to it. I took some classes and then finally bought a small torch to do glasswork independently. In both cases, what first drew me to them was their materiality. Although the physiognomy of glass and metal seem different, and at odds with one another, they share a similar elemental quality. Even working them feels elemental too, you’re applying intense heat to shape them and working both materials in their molten form to calcify into their final sculptural resting point. The process exists as its own form of metamorphosis or fossilisation. The most notable difference between the two mediums is fragility; metal is robust, and glass is delicate and brittle. I enjoy either really leaning into those material traits or trying to distort them.
With Sap and Sweat, I wanted to create forms that feel totally at odds with their original material properties, where metal can look weightless and fluid. I’m working on some new pieces which do the opposite.
Are there any other materials you would like to work with in the future?
I’m always looking to use new materials in my work although it isn’t always easy to do. The usual limitations of time and money can be a challenge. I’ve been preoccupied with researching coloured metal and am thrilled to finally be showing some of that work in Sweat. Everything and anything from woodworking, ceramic glazes, silicone, Computer-Aided Design and 3D printing, you name it!
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Having collaborated with Knwls for their Fall/Winter 2021 collection and Gareth Wrighton for Fall/Winter 2020 and Spring/Summer 2020, your jewellery is no stranger to the runway. What were those collaborative experiences like?
I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with designers that I’ve admired long before getting into design myself. Charlotte and Alex (of Knwls) and Gareth have been incredibly generous not only with the collaborations themselves but with their advice and support afterwards. The real takeaway for me was how much care and work goes into creating their distinctive worlds for the garments to exist in. They were also incredible first windows into the fashion world as someone very much coming from an art background.
What other designer or artist would you like to collaborate with?
There are endless artists and designers I’d like to work with, too many to count, but Acne Studios is one of my absolute dream brands to work with. The last few collections have been so so good. Incidentally, I hugely admire a lot of their collaborators too such as Jessi Reaves and Harley Weir. Collaborating is such an important part of my work; it’s been a valuable way of keeping my practice from getting too comfortable. I’m working on a few exciting collaborations as we speak, which I can’t wait to see out in the world soon.
Who do you design for? Do you have a customer in mind while creating your pieces?
I don’t think I have a specific person in mind, no. In many ways, jewellery has more freedom than garments: it isn’t seasonal, many pieces can come in a standard size like earrings or easily adjustable like necklaces and bracelets, and it isn’t as starkly gendered nowadays. So there’s much more flexibility within that, both for me as a maker and the customer.
Having said that, when I work on a commission, that becomes much more specific with an exact person in mind, their tastes, their body and the more collaborative nature of the process. I also recently made a surprise piece for my Grandma on her 94th birthday which felt very personal. I thought of her throughout the making process. She loves anything centred around tactility, the feel of a fabric, the shape of objects and the way it feels to hold them. We share that fondness, and it's inescapable when sculpting.
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Is creating genderless jewellery something you try and stay conscious of or does it happen naturally?
At first, it just happened naturally but now it’s something I’m more aware of. Not just gender but more generally; creating a brand that can be enjoyed by a diverse body of people is important to me.
Apart from jewellery making, you also make bigger sculptural pieces, which also take inspiration from nature such as your Prosthetic Memory (2020) or Swamp (2021). How different is your process of sculpting from jewellery making? Do you have a favourite?
My different practices are definitely intertwined and I like when there isn’t a clear distinction between the two, so I don’t necessarily have a favourite. Most of my jewellery is created through the method of lost-wax casting which involves sculpting into wax before casting it into the metal. This part has the most affinity to the traditional sense of sculpting; some of my jewellery, for example, contains residual fingerprints imprinted on the surface of the metal as traces of the hands-on process. However, both my practices also converge with more industrial aesthetics and processes, such as powder coating and plating that altogether remove the hand of the artist.
At times, my sculptural work can be more conceptually grounded, whereas the jewellery, although from the same world, can draw more simply on visual cues and aesthetic judgements. But perhaps the main difference is scale. Typically, my sculpture requires more space, larger tools and usually results in a lot more mess (a bit more than what my current studio in North London can take). Because of this, my art-making is somewhat nomadic; working outdoors in the summer, visiting friends’ workshops or attending residencies. Last summer, I drove with my welder, plasma cutter and glass-blowing equipment to Amsterdam, where I was taking part in a residency at Door Foundation.
Although nature, your primary inspiration, is extremely vibrant and colourful, your art often employs muted and neutral tones through your use of glass and plaster. How do you explain this stark contrast?
Colour can make something feel either full of life or lifeless, organic or sterile and by draining it of colour or rendering it in a particular hue I’m trying to play with those ideas. Another recurring theme that comes up in my work is temporality – I enjoy using certain aesthetics to allude to different times, an uncanny sense of oldness or newness. Metal’s surface is a great place to explore this. There’s a tangible sense of time etched on the surface of metal; from age-worn rust or patina to the newness of highly polished mirror finish, they all carry different timeframes. Having said that, I’ve been working on some more vibrant pieces in the new collections. It’s been a really fun new direction; they still follow those same themes.
What are some of your goals, as a sculptor or jewellery maker, for the future?
Starting up a business has been such a learning curve and something I’m still learning about. As with so many creatives, my goal is simply to keep making what I believe in and be self-sufficient when doing so. Beyond that, keep learning.
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