Mixed Media Jewelry: Jen Cushman and the Secrets of Her Artistic Style
Most makers enjoy more than one creative technique–me too! In addition to jewelry making, I also do paper crafts like card making and collage, plus knitting, crochet, and more. So when I’m in my studio ready to make jewelry, it’s hard to ignore fibers from knitting or inks and stamps from paper crafts. Thankfully, my friend mixed media jewelry is all inclusive and has no rules. And my friend Jen Cushman helps me remember how fun it is to be free with her mixed media jewelry and other art.
Meet Jen Cushman, Queen of Mixed Media Jewelry and More
Tammy: Tell us about your beginning as an artist. How old were you? What or who got you started? Did you take a class or teach yourself?
Jen: I’ve always been creative. I’m the youngest of three kids, but the baby by 15 years. My brother moved out of the house when I was a year old and my sister by the time I was 5. My father worked nights and slept days, so I learned to be a quiet kid, as it was always just me and my mom together. Because of this, I did a lot of reading and drawing, writing and illustrating my own books, deconstructing the pieces in my mom’s costume jewelry box and putting them back together in new ways.
“I grab from all mediums and materials to make whatever is rattling about in my brain.”
My mother had polio as a child and was handicapped. As a child, I did not spend much time outdoors playing with other kids. I was always in my own head, making up stories, playing with imaginary friends, and entertaining myself. I never knew what it meant to be bored, and I still don’t know that word. Always too much to think about, to invent, to make!
Living creatively has just always been what I do and who I am. I found mixed media art (then called “altered art”) when I was 31; that led me on a learning/teaching/creating path that’s been a huge part of my creative life for 19 years. Technically I’m self taught, but I say I’ve learned at the feet of masters. In my beginning days of mixed media, I devoured every book, workshop, lecture, etc. that I could on art and tried every new technique I learned. I went to a few art retreats and those changed my life. Then I started combining techniques and materials and, even today, I grab from all mediums and materials to make whatever is rattling about in my brain. I built my skills slowly over time. Now I just live the artist’s life by thinking, doing, and living creatively.
We all have an art supply collection–that supply (or more than one) that we can’t resist buying, even though we have more than we could ever use! What is it for you?
Jen: Found objects! It is both the thrill of the hunt and the exciting idea that I can re-imagine common objects into works of art. I have a large collection of found objects–keys, locks, numbers, ephemera, metal bits and bobs, buttons, tins, tatted lace, rhinestone brooches, small advertising trinkets, Cracker Jax surprises. etc. These are stored in my studio until I get an idea or inspiration for them. Then they get repurposed into one-of-a-kind mixed media jewelry or assemblage.
My artistic roots are in collage, so I have an all-out love affair with old papers of every kind. I can’t seem to ever get enough ephemera. It’s truly an addiction.
What tool or supply do you use most often in the studio that isn’t actually intended for art? How do you use it?
Jen: My hand rotary drill. I have a flex shaft, but honesty I can’t live artistically without my heavy-duty Dremel 4000. I have three of them (I had to buy extras for my workshops).
Tip: As I’ve pulled back my teaching schedule, I still have all three of my drills set up in my studio with bits. One has a 1/16th bit, one a 1/8th bit, and the other a small polishing cone. Makes my work go quicker when I don’t have to change out bits all the time.
“I never knew what it meant to be bored, and I still don’t know that word.”
If you were a tree (or fruit), which would you be and why?
Jen: An avocado. Curvy on the bottom, small on the top, full of heart-healthy fat. Hopefully making life yummier and smoother and the world a better place.
What do you like to listen to when you’re creating art?
Jen: Podcasts like Ted Talks, Hay House authors who talk about spirituality and the Law of Attraction and energy, and various books on tape. Sometimes I listen to music on Spotify, but I tend to choose either indie coffee house music or instrumental, like low drumming, so it’s background noise that still lets my mind be free to think creatively.
Are you a messy studio girl or a neat studio girl?
Jen: Messy girl for sure. Because I use so many elements in my work, I tend to pull from all my cabinets. I find it easier to leave everything out until it gets to the point where I just can’t stand the mess any longer. Then I take a day to put it back together. My studio was featured in the October 2017 issue of Cloth, Paper, Scissors, and it was spotless for that photo shoot. Ha! That didn’t last long.
However, I did work with a professional organizer a few times a little over two years ago, and I maintain all of my organizing principles. I know exactly where everything is and can access anything in a minute. I’m getting ready to move back to my home in the woods. Come September, I’ll be packing everything up and downsizing into a 350-square-foot guest house on our property. I can’t wait!
In addition to being an amazing mom, wife, friend, and artist, what super power would you like to have?
Jen: I do have a superpower that I love. I have great listening skills. I’m also very social, so even though I’m an introvert, I love to talk to people individually or in small groups and learn about their stories and their lives. I take time to stop and really try to be present in the moment. I spend a lot of time reading and listening to new ideas. This means that I can navigate conversations and social situations pretty well. I know this isn’t the same as a fictional superpower, but I do consider these attributes my personal superpower.
If I had to pick a fictional superpower, it would have to be instant teleportation. I’d love to hang out in Paris for an afternoon or jet off to Istanbul without having to pack a bag or go through the long TSA lines–or cramming my body into a coach seat. I would love to close my eyes and wish myself somewhere.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as an artist?
Jen: To always stay true to myself. As you begin making work, it can get easy to get caught up in comparison. As you learn and are inspired from the people whose work you most admire, your own pieces may walk the fine line between imitation and inspiration. It’s very easy to cross the line into imitation and not realize it at the time. Hopefully you’ll self-correct your course as you build confidence and improve your technical skills. Finding your own unique voice, particularly in a field like jewelry making that’s so prolific with talent, can be challenging. The most ethical and personally satisfying part of making art is to fully learn the techniques, which comes from practice, and then quickly find a way to make your work uniquely yours. I love that I can now look at a table full of work and always pick out mine from others’ work.
What tip or tips do you find yourself sharing with students most often?
Jen: I find myself reassuring my students that they can do it. They can create what they see in their mind’s eye. They can build a creative life for themselves, and they have the resources and tools available to them to achieve their goals and dreams. Yes, everyone has challenges of time and money and circumstances that are less than favorable. For me, living a creative life means tackling those challenges head on and really looking at them. Are the stories you’re telling yourself real, or are they conditioning from those around you or from limiting childhood beliefs?
Being an artist means to live in a place of inner excavation, to constantly challenge one’s thoughts and actions and beliefs. To give voice to the issues you’re passionate about through your skills in manipulating raw materials into a physical visual manifestation of your ideas. Being an artist is about harnessing your unique energy imprint in this world and being brave enough to share it with others. More than anything, I try to share with my students a sense of camaraderie that we’re in this bubbling creative pot together and that the personal journey–even the hard and painful parts–is so worth it.
When you’re feeling sad, stressed, or frustrated and just want to go in your studio and make art, what’s your go-to supply or technique for “comfort art” play time?
Jen: I don’t have one particular art comfort. I find that when I’m in the doldrums of life, the hardest part for me on anything seems to be getting started. When I feel sad or frustrated, I do my best to just start something. I go to my messy table and start cleaning up, and pretty soon I find myself inspired by all the little random bits of things I made but discarded in my high-vibe building frenzy.
One of my favorite things to is take all these little random doo-dads, bits of chain, little lengths of ribbon and start assembling them because, truthfully, it’s easier to make a piece of mixed media jewelry than put all the tiny bits away. One of my most successful workshops came from just this. It’s a quadruple gypsy wrap bracelet mixed with metal stamping, beads, ribbon, chain, etc. The bracelet was so much fun visually that I was invited to the PBS show Make it Artsy to show folks how to make their own.
“Making art is always the antidote.”
If my studio is a complete disaster and I don’t feel like cleaning it or don’t feel like working on jewelry, I’ll often pop in, grab a canvas board, brushes, and acrylic paints, and take them outside to my patio just so I can get my creative juices revved up. One of my favorite lines from an entrepreneurial business coach I follow is “Progress, Not Perfection.” This is how I deal with the low-energy. low-vibe times in my life. Making art is always the antidote.
Do you have a life motto?
Jen: To Thine Own Self Be True. I also really like the saying “Be a Good Human.”
What do you do with “failures” or mistakes in the studio? Toss, save, revise, or…?
Jen: Ohhhh this is a good one and something I often teach my students. When you make a mistake and you’re kicking yourself for it, highlight that mistake. Now, admittedly, this is much easier to do in something loose and free like mixed media, painting or drawing than in something like silversmithing.
When I first started doing collage, I was in my studio being overly messy with paint and glue and ephemera. I spilled a giant splotch of black India ink on a collage that I was about to declare perfectly finished. I loved that piece! Then the splotch! Yikes. I wiped it up as best as I could, but it was seriously awful. I grabbed a scrap of paper and tried to glue over it, but the ink showed through. Trying to cover up the blank ink spot, I kept applying more paper. But I hated it. I ripped off the pieces of paper and started getting some fun texture. In the end, I grabbed the tip of a feather, dipped it into the ink, and painted big messy circles around the ripped paper. It still looked dreadful, but not quite as horrible as the spill.
My instinct was to throw it away and stomp out of the room. Instead, I tacked it to my wall with a thumbtack. I left it there as a reminder that sometimes art is a big, fat failure. I left that collage up for over a year. Each time I looked at it, I started to feel better and better about my failure. I learned to accept ugly. In the end, the experience taught me something very important about myself and my desires to become an artist.
You’ve done mixed media jewelry, resin, metalwork, painting, books and videos, teaching and retreats—what’s next for you?
Jen: I still do it all. I simply can’t bring myself to choose between mixed media jewelry, collage, and assemblage. All of the techniques go to together in my mind.
I’m building a new workshop space on our property in the woods to start hosting small, intimate art workshops next summer. I’ve also partnered with an amazing artist and dear friend of mine, Patti Euler. Together, we’re working on an artsy clothing line for curvy women sizes 1X to 3X. Since we’re still in the early stages, there’s little I can say. But our new business venture is why I’ve cut way back on my teaching schedule and even studio time. There is a ton of behind-the-scenes designing and business set-up work going on.
Things are quiet now, but not for long. If anyone wants the inside scoop on any of these future projects, please sign up for my newsletter on my website. My insider peeps will always be the first to know what’s happening. I can’t wait for 2019 and the reveal of all this fun, creative work!
Jen always inspires me, and seeing her work encourages me to add found objects, ephemera, vintage bits, and anything else I love to my jewelry. I used to be a metal purist, only wanting sterling silver in my designs. Thankfully, Jen got me over that hurdle, which limited me and caused me stress when I was trying to combine found objects with silver jewelry. Her book, Making Metal Jewelry, is one of my favorite jewelry books of all time, because it combines the mixed media and found objects that I love with my passion for making metal jewelry.
Now, I’m free to mix and match and marry all the weird, beautiful things I love into weird, beautiful jewelry! You can set your jewelry free, too, with Jen’s mixed media jewelry and art tutorials. Discover tricks to making collage and assemblage; learn to create molds from precious found objects so they can be featured in designs again and again; and more. All from a wonderful, masterful teacher!