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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Artist Profile - Bryan Petersen

Bryan Petersen’s metalwork combines iconography with powerful truths, twisting the images of pop culture and vintage tin into statements dripping with irony, poking at the weak links of our society with a rusty nail.

His studio, set up in the basement of his northside home, is a treasure trove of bits and pieces of Americana: a collection of tins, a plastic bin of enameled steel, perforated metal, cut up slips of license plates sorted for text, texture and color, as well as a box of flattened tin that Petersen flips through like pages in a book.

“I start with an image, then I think about what I can construct with it, and how I can make sense of the narrative,” Petersen says, picking up a negative silhouette of George Washington he’d cut from a vintage tin of cut plug tobacco.

The piece that came from this is the necklace, “TOB,” which uses steel baling wire (hypo-allergenic) to center the image of our most prominent Founding Father, the “best” and first president, used by R.J. Reynolds to sell their brand of pipe tobacco. (The TOB is the first three letters of the word tobacco and it also poses Hamlet’s big question: To Be …)

“It brings into question what it means to be an American, to justify contemporary politics,” Petersen says. “And I was thinking of George Washington, the owner of slaves, and the kind of slaves we still have today with our immigration laws and the migrant workers. How affluent are we, as a nation, and where did all that come from?”

Just having this conversation scratches the surface of my own self-perception.

He holds a few cut pieces of tin taken from Christmas items: a scene from a yuletide Oreo ad with the faces of children glowing from so much fun in front of a fire. Petersen has exchanged the adult’s head with an ancient Athenian marble head and one of the kids sports an Elmer’s bull head on his shoulders, turning the whole thing into a pagan ritual.

“Christmas tins, I can’t stand them,” he says, moving a few of the pieces around. “There’s a lot of social commentary to be made from them.”

Um, yeah.

For a metalsmith like Petersen scale is a primary challenge. Especially when thinking about a piece that can be worn – although not all of Petersen’s pieces are meant to be worn – but in order to make a living he needs to think of the practical side of the work.

“I think about what happens to jewelry when it isn’t worn,” he says, pulling out a piece he’s working on. “How can I make it more available so it’s not sitting in a box?”

His conclusion is to mix it up. “I like to do the big exhibition work but I have to be able to supplement my art habit,” he says.

In a couple of pieces Petersen does both – making wall pieces that include a detachable brooch. In “Chris McCandless,” the piece that detaches is the bus McCandless used for a hunting shelter. All of Petersen’s work entails symbolic imagery and backstory. For this piece Petersen uses the Hero Myth as a basis for telling the story of Chris McCandless, as someone who tried to do something noble but paid the ultimate price for his endeavors.

Interestingly, Petersen’s work incorporates what is called, “cold connections.” He doesn’t use a solder or any kind of chemical concoction to connect one piece to another. Instead he uses bezels and rivets and tabs.

“The techniques I teach are pretty toxic,” he says of his position as an adjunct metalsmith professor at Montana State University. “That’s probably why, in my own studio, it’s important not to be exposed to those things.”

It’s also what makes him think about jewelry as sustainable art. With almost all of his pieces recycled from other things, it’s not that question keeping him up at night. There are plenty of other questions to do that.

“I have a colleague who always asks, ‘Are you working like a scientist to solve problems in the world?’ so I end up with a lot of my work addressing the big topics like the environment, social equality and gender issues. I also end up with a lot of things in progress.”

One piece in particular, “Riverheaven,” addresses the Three Gorges (hydroelectric) Dam in China on the Yangtze River. Petersen uses an image of an ancient water-house in the center medallion with a hinged piece that when opened shows a native person and when closed is the shape of the dam covering up the land.

But if Petersen had to narrow his focus with jewelry he’d concentrate on belt buckles because they’re easy for both men and women to wear.

“Jewelry is a female-dominated market so I like to make things that are unisex,” he says. “I’ve done a belt buckle for the kayak competition on the Clark Fork River in Missoula—"The Best of the West" on Brennan's Wave—and the kayakers wear the buckles all year around. They’re really proud of them and it says a lot about who they are and what they do.”

Another question that haunts Petersen is how does to get his work recognized in the art jewelry world and what are curators looking for.

“One of the new ideas on the minds of curators is the technology edge,” he says of the pieces that are made with machines. “The human hand never touches it.”

Obviously, that’s not the road Petersen has chosen, as he finishes off a squared piece of steel with tiny-toothed band saw. “For me it’s more about the narrative, imagery, and how advertising affects society.”  -TBM

Author's Note: Bryan Petersen’s work can be seen at Oh Susanna’s Jewelry and gallery located in the Emerson Center for Culture and Arts.

Published regionally and nationally, Michele Corriel has received a number of awards for her non-fiction as well as her poetry. Her second book, Weird Rocks, will be published in 2013.

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