Interview with Janis Kerman

By: Marie-Eve G. Castonguay
Published: 2017/04/21

Next week will be the opening of Janis Kerman’s retrospective exhibition Reminiscence at The Guild, in Montreal. I had the chance to chat with this fascinating and generous woman, who certainly will have many more years of creating ahead of her!

Oxidized sterling silver, 18kt yellow gold, citrine, sapphire, garnet, carnelian 2016

Janis Kerman head shot.jpg

What first inspired you to choose jewellery as a medium?

I was at summer camp and I was having issues with my knees. I already knew that by Christmas I would have to have surgery. Things progressed to a point where I couldn’t do any of the activities so the camp put me in arts and crafts, where I first encountered jewellery. I came home and had my knees operated on, and then continued my studies at the Saidye Bronfman Center and the rest is history, it just continued! How I got there was kind of fortuitous, but I also feel that if it hadn’t happened this way, it would have happened another way. I would have most certainly found making jewellery somehow.

You started your career with collections of jewellery for everyday wear and eventually narrowed down to one of a kind, high end contemporary jewellery for the past twenty years. What led you to take this route?

At the beginning, my work was all about experimentation with different techniques and different materials. My focus was primarily making fashion accessory jewellery. I had not gone through a university program yet – up until then I was taking various workshops, which focused on specific techniques or approaches. I just allowed myself to play and create things that I wanted to create, which eventually would become a line that would change six months later. Things evolved without much planning.

So what you wanted to do from the beginning was really what you are doing now?

I did enjoy doing the production work. I liked the challenge of working with the same materials and the same shapes all the time. I liked to maintain and attract my clientele through consistency, while offering them something different enough that they were willing to purchase something new. That was a challenge in itself. How do you reinvent yourself every six months? And how do you do it in a cohesive way? And how do you do it in a way that you are happy with what you are doing and you are not just throwing work together? Those are all concerns that I still deal with. When my daughter was born, almost thirty years ago, I decided that it was time for a change and started to focus on more one of a kind work. I still do limited series groupings because I see it as a way to work out an idea. “What if I do it this way? Or what if I add that stone?” Each piece expands into something else every time.

Asymmetry seems to be one of the key elements that characterize your work. Is there a specific reasoning behind this aesthetic choice?

I think it has to do with the fact that doing something symmetrical or identical is simple. You only work out one problem. When you have to work out something that has to be balanced, that is a pair, but not identical, that is for me more challenging and much more fun. I don’t believe that it was ever really a conscious thing, but I guess that in my own personal preferences, those things are much more interesting. In the seventies and the eighties, all the Japanese clothing that was coming out was asymmetrical, with strong lines. That was an aesthetic I really liked and it inspired a lot of my work. Making jewellery that was very Chanel just wasn’t a route for me.

How does your design process unfold? Do your designs respond to the stones you are using or is it the opposite?

Sometimes a stone is just going to tell me exactly what it wants to be when it grows up! Other times, I will be staring at all my stones and will start to play. I will reach for things that really should not go together and I will challenge myself to come up with something. It all comes back to finding a balance in what I am making. I get to a point where I think “OK that’s it, don’t add anymore and don’t take anything away”. I just feel the perfect equilibrium that has to go in a piece. I still look at older pieces and I am still happy with where I stopped, I am happy that I didn’t add one more thing just for the sake of it. But there are times where I know I could have done something differently. When I feel like something is missing on one of my previous works, I end up taking it apart and recycling the parts. I change them in order to create something new. If a piece never attracted somebody to purchase it, I might as well play with it now and turn it into something new. And then inevitably it sells. It has to do with revisiting an imbalance in the design.

Sterling silver, 18kt yellow gold, beryl, drusy crystal, jade, emerald, peridot, jade, aventurine, serpentine

Oxidized sterling silver, cultured seed pearls  

For the past few years, you have also been collaborating with your daughter on Bande des Quatres. Do you feel like this collaboration has influenced your own personal practice in some way?

I don’t believe that it has influenced my practice as much as my practice has influenced Bande des Quatres. This thing keeps happening: every once in a while I will make a piece and my daughter will say “This looks very BDQ” and I will say “No, I think it looks very JKD!” There are some very clear cut things about Bande des Quatres. If you look back at some of my very first pieces, that aesthetic was always there. My daughter grew up with it, internalized it in her own way and now comes out with the things that, as a younger person, she is interested in. She has a clear vision of how she wants the pieces to look like. There is a lot of overlap: the aesthetic comes initially from me via her, since she has been around it all her life. She is not a jeweller, she just knows what she likes.

She designs and you are the maker?

It is her concept. We come up with visual cues: she finds initial inspiration from books and the internet, and then we both are involved in the drawing phase. There is a lot of back and forth between the two of us until she feels like we understand each other. The studio simply makes the things that she envisions. We make prototypes and she either approves them or brainstorms with me in order to make the ideas better. In the end, she is not the only designer; the two of us collaborate on the design. It is her concept and it has been from the beginning, but the concept and what she is influenced by are things that have been part of my own influence for so long, but in a different way.

As jewellers we are so used to work on things on our own, sometimes even alone in our studio. Did you have to adapt yourselves to be able to work together?

I have had people working with me for such a long time; I am used to that dynamic. The difference here is that it is my daughter. When talking to each other, it is hard to constantly remind ourselves that we are business partners! Sometimes we just need to have a little dialogue in order to realize who we are talking to. “If I am the person that you want to make with, maybe you have to say things in a different way!” It surely is an interesting dynamic. If we were working in the same space all the time, I am not sure how it would work. I don’t know if it would work better or if it would work worse. This is a second job, a second interest for her. For me, it has become a second line produced with an additional person. It has become much more than her saying to me “Mommy, let’s make some rings!” I never thought we would have five collections! I am very proud of what we have done and think it looks different from things that are out there. Her job, after the concept and the collaborating, is to market it. All you see visually on the website is all her. I have nothing to do with that. She has a young approach and a young view on how to make it attractive in a different way. That is all part of what her vision is.

Brooch group
Sterling silver, 18kt yellow gold, assorted gemstones

Back to you now! You have big things coming up in the next month: you will have a retrospective exhibition at The Guild in Montreal. Can you tell us a little bit about what is going to be shown there?

My very first one person show was at The Guild, in 1978. To have this opportunity 40 years later, at this point in my life, is very important for me. When I was approached about it, I thought it made so much sense. It just brings everything nice and neat into a little closed circle. It will be a true retrospective, in the sense that there will be older pieces, and everything from one of a kind work to limited series and production work. All my others shows have been focused on very large one of a kind pieces where I didn’t consider how expensive things were going to be. I was taking advantage of the fact that it was a show to go a little bit crazy! This time, I decided that I really wanted to make my pieces while being very conscious on price, and to show a variety of limited series rather than just pure one-of-a-kind pieces. I have cast elements that I use in my work, and my idea was to take these elements and to make pure production pieces out of them. Then, I was going to take that same element and use it for limited series pieces, where it was going to be the next jump up, and then use the same elements again and create pure one-of-a-kind pieces. I really want to show the progression of how it is possible to use the same element and to treat it three different ways in order to create three completely different things. I thought that was an interesting approach to visually explain my process, and at the same time to keep things affordable. This is really where I am going with the show. It will be a good balance between retrospective work and current work.

On top of all this we have been working on a book. The book was not something that I thought about myself. My husband is the one who suggested doing such a thing to commemorate the fact that I am turning sixty and also having the 45 year Retrospective exhibition. I had done catalogues for my one person shows, but this was different and I was not comfortable doing the book myself. This was going to document my whole career. I approached Noel Guyomarc’h and asked him if he would participate and he was immediately on board. Once I knew it was going to be in his hands and I was going to be removed, I felt better about it. The book will be launched at the Guild on April 27th and it is remarkable. I let Noel pick all the images, I needed him to decide and curate what he thought were the most important aspects of the things that I did. I think it is very representative of my career and it is interesting to read his words about me and my work, because I never thought of myself in the way that he has expressed his text.. It is very humbling. Throughout my career I was not really thinking about the greater picture or what my influence was going to be on other people, so it is interesting to read how others perceive it.

Many people remember your retrospective exhibition at Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, in 2007. How would you say your work has evolved since then?

There is still a recognizable Janis Kerman style, and I think that having this consistency is important, without getting into the boredom of it. I have not had a lot of time to play over the years, because I constantly have to keep up with the machine of keeping the studio busy and the galleries stocked. I can`t even remember how it was to have time for experimentation, like when I was doing workshops and going to school! When we do new things through Bande des Quatres, I get to play a lot. But I would say that my own work now looks simpler. Not that my work has ever looked very complex or overdone, but I am now stripping everything down to the essential elements, I am bringing it back to the basics.

ccg invitation back.png

You are one of the most established and recognized contemporary fine jewellers in the country. What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary jewellery in Canada?

When I look back at the things that I have done over the years, I feel like the 80s and the 90s were the heyday. There was money flowing and Toronto alone must have had six or seven galleries. People were buying and there was lots going on. You couldn’t make the work fast enough! We have always been in a very niche market, but now even more so. I think contemporary jewellers today just have to find their own clientele, and you have to make yourself stand out in order to attract who your client is going to be.

So many things have to happen for a sale, unless somebody comes to you specifically for a commission, which is an aspect of my practice that I love. I have always done the three things: I have supplied the galleries with limited series, done wholesale production work, and made commission work, which involves a lot of recycling. I love doing this, but a lot of artists don’t! For me, it has always been a challenge. Somebody comes to you with a bag, drops it in front of you and says they want a pair of earrings. I pull out books, we look through everything and narrow their options down to what they like and by the time they leave I have weeded through the bag and seen things that could be used. They get all excited and that is fun! I have to think fast and I have to read whom I am sitting across from and what it is that they want and respect their budget… That is one thing that I think young jewellers can do, but there are so many people out there trying to do the same thing that I honestly don’t even know what the future is. I am more and more appreciative of every gallery that is carrying my work. How are they even getting people through the door? Galleries have to build a clientele that is loyal to them and who will come in and support them because they like the owner of the gallery and they like the selection of artists they are showing. These relationships are really important. I think that as a young artist, what is important to do is to make sure that you find a number of galleries or stores that can carry your work and with whom you develop a relationship. They need you as much as you need them.

Do you think there is an appreciation for this type of work?

There is an appreciation and people do recognize something that is different. But not everybody has the confidence to wear something that is going to make them stand out. Years ago, in Toronto, there were a lot of places that were showing very interesting jewellery and people were wearing that. And then Toronto became “Little America”, and unless you are wearing Bvlgari or Royal de Versailles, or anything that people can automatically recognize. I believe that the general public doesn’t have enough confidence to have someone come up to them and say “What is that?” When that conversation is initiated, you have to defend yourself and what you are wearing. The people who willingly walk into a contemporary jewellery gallery already know what they are coming in to see. They know that the high karat gold and stones or any other material will be treated in a different way. They are consciously looking for something that is different. It is really just a matter of finding your clientele and to make your way in this field. But now is definitely not an easy time.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

The thing that has always been super important to me and that should be important to anybody who is making something handcrafted – whether it is jewellery or something else – is that everything you make has to be well made. Just for the respect of the profession. If my assistant hands me something that we are just about to finish and I look at it and see that it is not straight, I can’t let it go. It is too important to me and it will always bother me. I will always look at it and see only that, my eye will immediately go right there. It will simply make me nuts! If something is going to bother me, it will for sure bother the person that ends up with it, even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong. I once had a new gallery who received the work and the owner called me to thank me, and asked if I was really making my work by hand, because it was so precisely made that the pieces looked like they were machine made. That was a very high compliment and I feel like that is the level that I want to maintain. I believe that there is a market out there and I think you simply have to find it. You now have to be much more creative than you had to be in the earlier days. There were a lot less artists and we were offering something that was different from what people were used to seeing. There is a bombardment of images and there is too much information for the one client who is looking for something, which makes it almost impossible for them to decide on something. You really have to make yourself stand out in such a way that your work speaks to an individual to a point that it clears everything else out of the way. Above all else, always make the best work you possibly can!