The Worlds Of Jane Dodd, Dunedin's Grande Dame Of Jewellery

By Kim Knight
Jane Dodd at home in Dunedin. Photo / Guy Frederick

Start this story with an atlas. A big book of maps and the roast lamb-legged outline of Mexico. Add a soundtrack. Neil Young singing Cortez the Killer across the water with galleons and guns.

“As a family, we always looked at maps,” says Jane Dodd. “We had a beautiful old Rand McNally atlas and, for some reason, I would just look at the map of Mexico. I don’t really know what that was about.”

Neil Young sent a young Jane to the library to read more about the 16th-century Spanish conquistador. At 17, her parents gave her a book on Mexican art. Once, for a high school art project, she designed and illustrated a children’s book based on an Aztec myth. When she was 28, with a musical resume that included playing bass for The Chills and The Verlaines and the Able Tasmans, she got on a plane to Mexico. It changed her life.

Wild Domain: The Natural History of Jane Dodd Jewellery has opened at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt. It's a major survey show featuring more than 120 pieces from a three-decade career. It's part of the museum's 50th-anniversary celebrations. And, by any measure of contemporary jewellery-making in this country, it is a big deal.

Early January, and Jane is in her kitchen in Opoho, Dunedin. Seven weeks out from opening night and the washing machine is on, the radio is off and she has made peppermint tea in a second-hand china cup a birthday present from Martin Bergmans, her partner of 28 years.

You can see Jane Dodd's works, including this brooch, at the 'Wild Domain: The Natural History of Jane Dodd Jewellery' exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum. Photo / Supplied
You can see Jane Dodd's works, including this brooch, at the 'Wild Domain: The Natural History of Jane Dodd Jewellery' exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum. Photo / Supplied

“They have to be bigger than a normal china cup and they’re very hard to find,” she says. “I have noticed it’s got a crack. I’m realising it’s just going to go, one day quite soon.”

Jane is a noticer. An observer. A musician who became a librarian who became a jeweller because, in Mexico, she saw that almost everything had been touched by an individual.

“Something was embroidered, or a wall was painted, or the ceramics were very rustic and homemade. It was just sort of impressed on me how clinical New Zealand was in the late 1980s. So I came back and applied to go to craft school.”

She went to Auckland’s Carrington Polytechnic (now Unitec) to study ceramics (“but the department was kind of imploding”), considered working in glass (discounted because of its financial and technical requirements) and discovered she loved making jewellery. Jane was the 30-year-old graduate in a class full of 18-year-olds.

“That was quite weird but also quite good, because they were all sniffing around each other and having dramas and stuff and I was just sort of head down, working, taking every opportunity I could to get the most out of that education … probably all the other kids hated me because I was so nerdy!”

This is funny because, at a seminal moment in New Zealand music history, she had been one of the coolest women in the room: Jane Dodd, rock goddess.

The goddess snorts: “It was never like that! I was the right person in the right spot at the right time. I grew up with [Dunedin musicians] Martin Phillipps and Graeme Downes. They were both really great friends of mine at school. The culture I found myself in was this lovely, creative, fun musical scene. Some of the most important people are completely unfamous in terms of the popular mythology of what went on ... I just wanted to be involved in it.”

Jane played guitar but Phillips had a vacancy for a bass. So she learned a new instrument and, at 17, joined The Same, which became The Chills. Too young to play pubs, they’d perform short sets in hired halls alongside the likes of The Clean, Bored Games and Sneaky Feelings.

Jane Dodd, 'Modern Artist' brooch, 2016. Photo / Supplied
Jane Dodd, 'Modern Artist' brooch, 2016. Photo / Supplied

“It was always slightly terrifying, because there was always a threat of violence going on outside the hall. We were young punks and we raised the ire of other sectors of society. A lot of people got beaten up outside and probably seven times out of 10, things got closed down by the police or noise control. It was chaotic, but ... I think about how lucky I was to be there during that time and how amazing it was as a teenager not even thinking about what the ‘Dunedin sound’ was to become to popular culture having that kind of sub-culture going on around you.”

She says every week somebody would come to the practice room with another new, great song.

“It was blossoming and blossoming and blossoming. It was very, very exciting and that’s all I think about it really. In terms of trying to make sense of it as a cultural phenomenon and how it affected New Zealand or even the rest of the world, I don’t really think about that too much. I’m just so pleased to have had such a great time.”

But if New Zealand fell in love with the idea of the “Dunedin sound”, for the musicians who became famous on the Flying Nun record label it’s a descriptor rooted in hindsight. The romanticism of a collective success ignores individual horrors. When the Double Happys’ Wayne Elsey was killed leaning out of an overnight train, “that shook the core of my social group. We were incredibly f***ed up by that,” says Jane.

“Dunedin was in a bit of a dark spot,” she says, partly explaining her eventual post-Otago University move to Auckland. “We had a few deaths among my community. There was some quite heavy drinking and drug-taking going on and part of me just wanted to get away from that.”

The magic, she says, is playing the same song at the same time as everyone else on that stage. But she very rarely tried to write the songs (“maybe when I’m 70?”) and playing bass never really fed her creatively. “I got a zing but it was not a creative zing.” When she started making jewellery “there was a creative process that was really satisfying, completely engaging and I wanted to do it all the time. The problem-solving, the germ of an idea and then the actual process of actually bringing a piece to life ... I can’t help but do it.”

Jane, 58, is the youngest child and only daughter of Jean and Jack. Her brothers are John, a music teacher and musician, Nick, who works in finance and Tim, a musician and producer at Radio NZ Concert. Her Coventry-born mum was a social worker and teacher who met Jack when he travelled to Birmingham to do a PhD in physics.

Jane at work in her studio.  Photo / Guy Frederick
Jane at work in her studio. Photo / Guy Frederick

“It was a very broad education in terms of what we were presented with at home,” says Jane. Reading, music, art, family holidays in W?naka and, three times, an overseas sabbatical with her dad. She started primary school in Colorado; studied anthropology, history, philosophy, te reo and phenomenology of religion at university.

“As a child, I was probably spoilt, especially by my dad. But then, as I got into a teenage relationship with him, we just locked horns all the time. We’re very similar in temperament but I started to play rock ’n’ roll and wear miniskirts and too much eyeliner ...

“He was a very liberal man but he liked to play the devil’s advocate in all arguments. As my sense of social justice and my environmental concerns were developing, he would challenge everything. He would really go after me, in terms of making me express my argument, which, of course, I realise now, was a really valuable thing to do.”

Jack, the physicist and Otago University professor, the loud and gregarious storyteller, died in 2005. Life lessons: “What you had to do, as a thinker, was learn to debate and to be able to robustly defend your arguments.”

A handmade career is not for the faint of heart. For years, Jane’s income was subsidised by her job at the University of Auckland’s Elam Fine Arts Library. She became part of Auckland’s Workshop 6 collective and, in 2017, was invited to show at Germany’s Schmuck, a prestigious and important event on contemporary jewellery’s world stage. Her work is held in public collections here and overseas but it can take up to 30 hours to complete a single piece that will almost certainly never produce the pay-day of its mass-produced, mainstream counterparts.

What even is contemporary jewellery? Last year, when Covid-19 put New Zealand in lockdown and we all learned to video chat, Viva interviewed Jane about the idea of adornment.

Back then, she emailed: “It can be anything you want and I hope people feel free to play with the form. It can be a precious heirloom, or a funny joke. It can be pretty or ugly, safe or rude. It can be something you have been thinking about or something you’ve never thought about. A question or a statement. It doesn’t have to ‘fit’ or ‘go’. It’s just something stuck somewhere on the body that hopefully makes someone say, ‘What the f*** is she wearing?!!’”

Now, Jane says 2020 was an interesting year for artists. “People really started to value the handmade. We re-evaluated the way society works and we also perhaps wanted as many people to have an income as possible. We wanted to support people, and people recognised that there was something special about something that had been made by a person in your community. Kind of treasuring the slow, I guess. Because we all had to go slow.”

'Fuchsprellen' by Jane Dodd. Photo / Supplied
'Fuchsprellen' by Jane Dodd. Photo / Supplied

Jewellery is art made personal; we stick it on ourselves, not the wall. Ask Jane, for example, what she is wearing and she talks about two of her own rings and a fine gold staple necklace by Justine Pollock. She describes them not as jewellery but “these three things that live on my body”. (It can be alarming, she says, to see a piece worn the wrong way around but, more pragmatically, “I don’t actually see my work being worn that much, because even though I’ve made s***loads, the critical mass has not ... overtaken me!”)

The Dowse show and an accompanying book have forced Jane to think about career progression the what and whys of her art that began with small landscape and geographical pieces and moved into a fascination with fairy tales and macabre Europe (think plaited Rapunzel rings, storybook charms and wild creatures holding severed human body parts in their mouths).

Most recently, she’s focused on taxonomies and scientific classifications. New work looks explicitly at the impact of humans on the natural world.

“I want to look at issues of extinction and infestation, cruelty and conflict: issues that arise at every branch of our Family Tree, affecting coral, ants, magpies, elephants,” she writes in a statement for The Dowse.

“I want to challenge our ideas of animal intelligence, and exalt different sensory strengths and acumen. I want to berate us for thinking we are above or distinct from the natural world. I want us to feel that we are being watched and that stock is being taken. I want us not to get away with it.”

In art, as in life. Jane is a master of the devastating blow. Broadcaster and Able Tasmans' bandmate Graeme Humphreys (aka Hill) says, “I love our disagreements she entertains them and makes them fun but has a sublime attitude and timing.”

In fact: “Jane is one of my favourite people, alive, dead, plain or famous. Despite meeting her for the first time only 37 years ago it feels like she’s now part of my DNA. Aural or visual, there’s a private intensity to her work. Jane likes things to mean something. She’s thoughtful and forgiving. Very forgiving, as I’ve found out, the morning after downing two bottles of Selleys No-More-Friends, but the most treasured memories I think are laughter. Helpless, belly-sore, tear-streaming laughter.”

Karl Chitham, Hutt City Museums’ director and curator of the Natural History show, says Jane’s work “has a key message about humans’ impact on the environment a topic that is incredibly urgent globally” but he also recognises the “great humour” of the exhibition.

So, yes, that is a seal wearing a false beard and an ape’s finger giving the finger. Of the former (called In Hiding and one of Jane’s recent personal favourites) she says “it’s just a funny idea that came to me, that people might disguise who they are, they might go incognito into situations ... so I thought about that with regard to a seal trying to avoid a seal hunt, trying to disguise himself perhaps as one of the sealers, instead of as prey”.

The animal work showcases one of the biggest shifts in Jane’s career. Cast silver jewellery made her famous (and, in the early days, paid the mortgage landscape brooches and staircase earrings, in particular) but now she carves natural materials: a scorpion’s tail from ebony, a jellyfish from kauri gum, a proboscis monkey from mother of pearl.

Left: 'Pant Hoot' by Jane Dodd; Right: 'Sir Rococo' by Jane Dodd. Photo / Supplied
Left: 'Pant Hoot' by Jane Dodd; Right: 'Sir Rococo' by Jane Dodd. Photo / Supplied

A bear’s face and a crab’s claw are remade in beef bone; a flatworm from lignum vitae the simplest three-cell layered animal in the world, made almost liquid to look at in the heaviest and hardest wood.

And if all of this sounds a million miles away from a Pandora charm or a Michael Hill watch, then that’s the whole point.

“Jewellers such as Jane, through their practice give us markers of our unique position in the world,” says Chitham. “They use materials and cover topics that resonate with all New Zealanders and offer us keepsakes that remind us of important people, places and moments in our lives.”

Three brand-new works have just been finished for The Dowse. Secret Agents are carved, draped shrouds with little bits of animals poking out. There were supposed to be four, but, says the artist, “one of them is going into my follow-up show, Dodd’s Duds.” That’s at least 20 hours’ work, she estimates, that will be pulled apart or reconfigured because “so often a piece can get dis-made after it’s been made”.

Carving is an exhilarating process: “I almost feel like I’m hunting the animal. I’ve got this blank wood or bone or whatever and I’ve got to find the animal within. I might think I’m carving a bear but then it starts looking like a cat and then, oh no, I’ve taken that bit off and now it looks like a dog. You’re sort of skirting along the evolutionary tree.”

She likes to err on the side of ugly, concerned her work might be construed as “cute”. In her Dunedin workshop (she moved home a few years back to be closer to family) she maps ideas in a workbook and makes art on a small, kitset work bench created by a furniture-maker friend. In this room, interesting is more important than beautiful.

“You have to slightly undermine things or f*** things up in some way ... most things I do tend to have a slight sort of ugliness about them. They have to have an intrigue.”

– Originally published in Viva Magazine  Volume Three

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