Drawing influences from around the globe, Sally Bass travels the world gathering materials and inspiration for her unique jewelry designs. At home in her Arizona design studio, Bass sifts through the treasures collected on her journeys to create wearable works of art that weave together a diverse range of materials.
In celebration of Asian art treasures in The Met collection, Sally has created an exclusive collection of cinnabar-inspired jewelry for The Met Store. We speak with her today to hear about her design process and her ideas behind these one-of-a-kind works of art.
Sally’s designs are available in-store only, please call 212-570-3894 for more information.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself as an artist?
My jewelry informs my life and guides me to the next adventure. My job is to allow the pieces to tell their unique story. I’m a steward of sorts and can’t think of a better job. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I am so blessed.
I have lived on four continents and absorbed the colors, textures, patterns, rhythms, and aesthetics of each. I’ve developed relationships all over the world; other cultures, varied nationalities. I’ve come to value the rich histories and beauties particular to ethnic fashions.
The materials I find speak to me – they are my muse, my inspiration; they give me a story I can tell through the design of each piece. When I travel, nothing comes home in my suitcase that I don’t absolutely love. I allow each piece to speak to me on the road as well as back home in the studio. There are times I find an absolutely fascinating object which simply doesn’t go with anything. Years later, by seeming random chance, the perfect complement arrives to complete something totally unique and rich with character.
In the solitary peace of my workspace, I’m really never alone: the components themselves guide me in the creation of each finished piece of jewelry. My work has been my best teacher. I’ve learned to never take a reaction personally. I don’t create to fill a predictable niche in the world.
I am not a purist – I love mixing different eras, different cultures, and seemingly disparate materials to create unified pieces – pieces that become beautiful artifacts in their own right.
How did you decide to become an artist?
The decision to make jewelry came long before it sustained me financially. I put some pliers in my backpack as I traveled the world, and my fascination with the expression of beauty in all mediums was channeled into every piece of jewelry I designed.
I built a new life coming to the United States, starting with nothing in 1990, starting from scratch. In much the same way, I try to give cast-off and recycled materials new life. I believe that nothing is ever truly lost, just transformed. An antique broken pipe, a vintage Bakelite coat button, and chunks of excess surfboard resin in vibrant, glittering colors have all given heart to fabulous pieces.
The creation of jewelry is very much a spiritual and therapeutic process with me. The materials share their spirit with me and I invest some of my own into each piece. I wanted to travel, find cool things, make them into beautiful pieces, and sell them so I could travel more–a perpetual cycle. I dreamed that into reality. I have supported myself and then some–for the past 15 years.
Can you please describe your creative process? I’m interested in learning how your pieces come together from the brainstorming stage to completion.
When creating a necklace for The Met, I began with only the idea of cinnabar. Cinnabar has a history of rich colors, intricate and fine carving, and a certain feel and sound. I wanted a necklace of charms that would highlight the carving, showcase the colors and provide an exuberant, happy sound as it moved. With a solid image in my mind, I began laying out the pieces.
Color is paramount with me, I have drawers and boxes in my studio showcasing hundreds of hues and textures. Laying a red bead next to a red charm, I can immediately see it’s the wrong red or the right one. Complementing, contrasting, surprising—all have their place.
Next is where engineering comes in: how to make the charms lay right, how to make the necklace comfortable but still grab attention. Too much weight or too little. Too dangly or too rigid. It has to look good, but it has to feel good, too.
When the design is complete, and the engineering solved, I still have one more important step. I need to wear it and I need to feel the energy, the excitement in the piece.
I’m especially interested in the concept of storytelling in your work. Can you tell us the stories of the pieces you’ve designed for The Met Store?
Designing with modern cinnabar is about much more than just color and texture. It’s the history of the original material, its legends and tragedies, its rich ethnic flavor that I find meaningful.
Cinnabar has been used since antiquity, including as a cosmetic in the Olmec culture, and in China since the Song dynasty coloring lacquerware. It has a bright red color that has caused people to use it as a pigment and carve it into jewelry for thousands of years.
Its carving properties allowed the finest and most intricate work, but cinnabar was once called the Death Stone, for good reason: original cinnabar is an ore of mercury–a toxic mercury sulfide–that would slowly poison its owners. The Romans considered a sentence to the Spanish cinnabar mines of Almaden as a death sentence!
Modern cinnabar is a safe resin cast in molds taken directly off antique pieces, preserving the incredible workmanship and vibrant colors. Artisans the world over created an ethnically centered shape language unique to this material, and that language is preserved in the modern casts.
This history of cinnabar adds a depth to the materials, a weight to it. In a sense, these charms in modern cinnabar celebrate art that has survived over centuries.
The monkey symbol of cleverness; celestial dragon; butterfly of youthful love; and the bird and coin representing happiness and fortune—these abundant charms draw the eye and the ear, and begin a conversation before a word has been spoken.