city art

Gilding the City by Sayraphim Lothian

Sayraphim Lothian is a craft and visual artist interested in exploring playful and participatory experiences. She co-runs Pop Up Playground, an urban games collective; recently participated in a playful residency at the National Gallery of Victoria and some of her work can be found in the archives of the NGV, the collection at MOMA and now, on streets around the world.

When I was young one of my favourite books in the world was Pippi Longstocking. Pippi, the strongest little girl in all the world, had a number of interesting hobbies but the one which appealed most to me was her game of Turnup Stuffing in which she would walk around outside and keep an eye on the ground for ‘Stuffs’ that ‘turned up’. Anything she found she would happily take home. Although as a child I thought the things she found were a bit rubbish (from memory they were a rusty cake tin and an empty spool of thread), I decided I would become a Turnup Stuffer too and find much more interesting things and lots of them. From that day, whenever I was outside, I would spend most of my walking time carefully scanning the ground for anything I might find.

Over the years I’ve found and brought home a myriad of interesting, useful and (I have to be honest) not so useful things. You tend to see a lot of leaves and rubbish, bits of broken glass, cigarette butts and chewing gum but in between all the trash you’d be surprised how often you find other things. If you’re not already a Turnup Stuffer, try it next time you’re out and about and see what you discover for yourself.

A few years ago I noticed that I was regularly finding bits of broken jewellery; pendants that had snapped in half, twisted rings that didn’t fit anymore, stray beads that had made brave leaps off bracelets and necklaces and fake jewels that had come loose from their moorings along with random items that I couldn’t really place but had clearly come off something somewhere. I couldn’t just let all these things get swept away into the trash, it felt like such a waste! These were beautiful, if twisted and broken, and I reasoned that the world hardly needed more rubbish lining its streets. So, I collected up all these tiny, shiny, interestin’ bits and took them all home.

For years I didn’t know what to do with them. They all sat in a big clear glass jar slowly filling their way to the top. I was a bit worried that I was collecting all this stuff for no purpose at all but I couldn’t throw them out. The collection sat on my bookcase and quietly continued to grow as I went about my daily life.

Then one day I saw an interview with Daniel Lynch, the Melbourne street artist behind Junky Projects. “Junkys” are charming little figures created from flattened cans and beer bottle lids which are nailed up around Melbourne. In his interview, Daniel mentioned that he doesn’t introduce anything more to the streets when he makes his pieces; he only uses what he finds and rearranges it into these little creatures.

And then a light went off in my head.

I love Melbourne and I wanted to show my love for Melbourne by making it jewellery to wear and, since Melbourne is a city, jewellery created from broken bits found in the streets seemed the perfect type of jewellery to give. I think the city is beautiful so adding jewellery to it was almost like gilding the lily. So I called the project Gilding the City and I got down to work.

The first ‘Gild’ I created was the Victorian Mourning Brooch, inspired by an ivory coloured resin rose which I found in Dandenong (a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne). I added black glass beads found in South Melbourne and a crystal bead found outside the Melbourne Theatre Company and finished it off with a pearl drop earring at the bottom. I should clarify that, though I remember where I found most of these items, I’m not obsessive about the collection of broken bits. Instead everything that went into this piece, bar the earring, were found only recently which is why I still remember where they came from. Looking over the photos of the other pieces I couldn’t tell you where most of the other bits came from!

I’ve never worked in the medium of jewellery before and I’ve found the process both interesting and inspiring. Every Gild is created around a central piece that dictates the piece’s theme. For instance, ‘The Garden’ started with the silver spiral bead at the bottom which made me think of a snail shell and I went into my collection and found green beads and other interesting, garden type items to match it. ‘The Night Sky’ was created around the broken semi-circular silver earring, which to me was absolutely a moon, that I then wired to a cubic zirconia still in it’s setting to create a star hanging from the top of the moon.

It’s really important to me that I am not introducing anything new into the environment in the creation of these pieces. I don’t want to create more litter; what I want to do is refashion the things already on the streets into beautiful and interesting works of art.

I see the Gilds as secular versions of the ritual items hung off trees and thrown down wells in earlier societies; little trinkets that hold wishes and hopes, prayers to gods big and small. They also echo the natural debris and rubbish that gets caught in low hanging river trees after a flood. At the same time, they’re little decorations hung on the streets; surprises for those who see them, tiny magical moments bubbling through the city.

This project was released on the streets of Melbourne on January 2 and it’s already evolving. With the help of members of the Agency of Coney, a UK based company whose three principals of adventure, loveliness and curiosity helped inspire this project, Gilding pieces will start appearing on the streets of England and America in the next few weeks which is a thrilling development.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go out and Turnup more Stuff. Gilding the City has just become Gilding the World and that’s going to need heaps more discarded and broken bits to create enough pieces!

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