Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

Julia Manheim

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Inflationary Spiral

The growth of Julia Manheim's new work. For Crafts Magazine, 

image of Julia's work
Inflationary Spiral

When a jeweller begins to make containers out of paper, questions are bound to be asked. Primarily, the question is: has Julia Manheim stopped making jewellery? Although the answer to that is no, a more interesting question has to be: why has she taken such a strong change of direction?

When an artist or designer has established a reputation in one medium or style, a change of output is often a puzzle. After the excitement of seeing work so different in appearance and intention, it becomes clear that in this case the development was gradual.

In 1983, Sunderland Arts Centre and the Crafts Council toured a solo exhibition of Julia Manheim's work, Wire Wear, which included large figures and busts made in outline from plastic covered wire. These expressed ideas about form and movement while expanding and emphasising the linear qualities of the jewellery that she was producing at the same time: "I was very excited by the idea of making free-standing objects which didn't have to be worn."

In the same year, she was appointed Artist-in-Residence at Pelton Roseberry School in County Durham where she worked with children making jewellery from papier-mache: "I felt then that it was something I could take much further but wasn't sure what form it would take." She found working with paper gave her freedom and she enjoyed the unexpected results that appeared during the drying process, such as strange bulges appearing on smooth surfaces. It was a contrast to her precise skills as a jeweller to exert less control over the appearance of the finished piece and to exploit the quirks that resulted.

The change in scale has also been a liberation from the comparatively restricted concerns of jewellery. The new work is no longer constrained by the need to consider the exigencies of being worn on the human body.

An equally important development has been the treatment of the surface which is painted and then applied with pastel crayon or charcoal. The colour is always rich and vibrant and is the main element that demands your attention before the form and the medium also come into play.

The richness of colour and texture and the shapes that echo ceramics are in direct contrast to the cheap (and rarely cheerful) material which Julia Manheim uses. Newspaper is transient; read and then discarded: "I am interested in making something beautiful from a material which is effectively worthless the day after it is produced." She uses newspaper in layers and finds it "a wonderful surface to work on," to express shapes and to carry the strong surface decoration. She writes, "when paint is applied a magical transformation takes place. The object suddenly takes on a powerful personality of its own."

At first, the papier-mache pieces were "containers:" vases, jars or dishes in shape although not in function. Recent work is increasingly larger in size and is becoming more organic in shape and colour. The ideas in the earlier works seemed often to refer to other works of art, especially ceramics and textiles. Other pieces reflect elements of everyday life, domestic objects and images from childhood. In the most recent work, the titles draw on political phrases such as Inflationary Spiral and Downward Curve. Sizing up, the title of the exhibition, is also a play on words and the artist recognises another "element of humour in using, literally, the drama of everyday reportage to make objects."

Julia Manheim has recalled a variety of influences that have informed the texture, colour and form of some pieces. These include "the exotic moths and cocoons from a Butterfly Farm in the New Forest; jewel-like painted houses in Portugal; scenes of urban decay, mouldering buildings and layer upon layer of torn posters on walls; finding fossils on a beach in Dorset; bunches of locust beans dangling from a tree in the South of France; the industrial landscape of the North East of England ...

All Julia Manheim's work is decisive, strong and never merely decorative. It continues to confirm her view that "whatever I am making, I am always concerned that the end result should be unusual and intriguing."

Sizing Up was organised by Gill Hedley for Southampton City Art Gallery where it was first seen in September. A selection of the work is on show at Contemporary Applied Arts, London until 14 November. The catalogue, from which the above, edited, essay is reproduced, is available from Southampton City Art Gallery and Contemporary Applied Arts.

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