Tamika Knutson stands among some of her jewellery hanging at Arts Underground in Whitehorse on Aug. 2. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Dawson City artist pushes boundaries of jewellery with new show

‘This is definitely what I want to do so I’m going to keep doing it’

Her hands know what she’s doing before her brain does — that’s what Tamika Knutson says of the jewellery she makes.

It took a while for the Dawson City artist to look at the work she made while attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and realize she’d crafted a collection of lichen-enamelled copper necklaces and earrings that looked like they’d been gathered from the forest.

Her latest body of work, Skin, focuses on pieces made from birch bark: Sculptural necklaces made of steamed and dried strips of bark. Scalloped pieces stitched together with sinew and offset by moosehide and copper components.

The look like they’re living, and they look, in a way, like they’re armour.

“Your skin protects and houses the most vital parts of your body, it is your shelter and home,” reads the artist’s statement for Knutson’s show, which is opening at Arts Underground on Aug. 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“I am inspired by how birchbark, the skin of a tree, is used as a material by First Nations and how crucial it has been to their livelihood. My aim with these jewellery pieces is to explore and retrace my indigenous identity as a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen while also bringing First Nation craft into a more contemporary space.”

That’s important to Knutson, 26.

“First Nations craft is always going to be beading and hide and stuff like that, porcupine quills, and that’s great,” she said while hanging her show on Aug. 2. “But (it’s) also seeing that it’s not just stuck in the past. It’s something that is constantly moving and changing.”

So is the definition of jewellery when you look at Knutson’s work. Her pieces aren’t simple gold chains, or subtle earrings. That’s a product of her time at NSCAD, where she went after a foundation year at the Yukon School of Visual Art in Dawson. She graduated in April 2017.

“At NSCAD it’s not really small production jewellery, small stuff you would wear every day. It’s like really big, kind of more conceptual work,” she said. “And I just found that really interesting. You’re mixing adornment, the body and art all together and I feel you really find some interesting stuff in there, especially, you know, historically, how First Nations have used adornment with porcupine quills. Everything they do has a purpose but it’s also really beautiful.”

Knutson says she’s also interested in the idea of how craft and art are defined. It’s not a discussion she finds herself having much in the Yukon, but it’s something that came up a lot at NSCAD. Knutson considers her work to be both craft and art. Jewellery, like fashion (something else she’s interested in exploring) can be just as powerful and conceptual as a painting or a sculpture, she says. Maybe even moreso, because it can interact and engage outside of a gallery setting.

There, it can challenge ideas of what constitutes jewellery, she said. She like to play with that perception — to make jewellery, something people consider precious or valuable because it’s usually made from gold or silver and passed down through generations, but to make it from make it from less commercially valuable materials.

“I like holding those two (concepts) against each other,” she says.

While most of Knutson’s work up to this point has foucssed on northern foliage and nature, this August, she is travelling to Colorado to complete a residency for artists whose work is inspired by the wilderness. She’s excited to see the mountains there, and to have a week to work on a piece inspired by a new landscape.

After that, she’s moving to Whitehorse where she’ll continue to work as an artist. Once she has her equipment set up, she may get back into enamelling, or test out working with fabric, something that appeals to her because it allows for such big pieces.

She said working in art feels right for her. Though she said she was creative growing up, it was never a field that was suggested to her as an option. She was pushed toward math or business.

“I feel like those are guaranteed. Like those are consistent money. Art was never really sold to me as that so I was a little hesitant to do it,” she said. “I feel like … people see it as ‘Oh, starving artist, whatever, you’re broke and struggling.’ And part of that is true a little bit…. This is definitely what I want to do so I’m going to keep doing it.”

Skin opened at Arts Underground on Aug. 3 and shows until Aug. 25. It runs alongside The Dreamt Forest, a series of photos of the natural world from Christian Bucher.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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