From dainty earrings to bold statuettes, artist Holly Ryan's sculpture and jewellery forms cross between disciplines. She draws from sources as diverse as the coarse, natural beauty of the Sunshine Coast, the mystical feminine, and rituals of wabi sabi, a Japanese philosophy of transience and imperfection across both creative pursuits.
Ryan started her now international jewellery line, HJR, after her accessories garnered more attention than her clothing in a final year showcase exhibition for her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Queensland University of Technology. Her pieces are structural, and there is a solid focus on sustainability: all the materials are sterling silver or solid gold, and the stones are ethically sourced. “I’m just really passionate about not making more things that go into landfill,” Ryan said.
Ryan is best known for her bold jewels that adorn the necks of starlets and young trendsetters— the Picasso necklace, finished with an old-world medallion and a dangling freshwater pearl, was particularly ubiquitous on Instagram. However, Ryan has recently taken on the art world, too. For her, sculpture, like her decision to go into jewellery, involved an element of chance. She originally carved wooden female forms to display her jewellery on for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia and was soon after contacted for representation by Darlinghurst gallery, Jericho Contemporary.
Ryan’s subsequent exhibition, Exhale, featured a series of hand-carved sculptures of stone and wood and ran from February 13 to March 9 this year. There is a sense of reflection and unhurried movement in the female figures gazing out from the found and recycled materials. Hints of Brancusi shine through in the carvings, as does a distinct admiration for the female body in motion as found in the work of Ryan’s contemporary and friend, Christiane Spangsberg.
But it’s not just about the aesthetics in a commercially-minded world. Finding the balance between wanting to make art for the beauty of it and considering the tastes of her audience has been a constant battle for Ryan. Of her jewellery, she said that there have “been so many times I want to do something crazy… but you have to be so honest with yourself. It’s not going to sell or go into production.”
But sculpture has given her a release. “I have freedom which I’ve never had before, because I can finally create art for its own sake”. The creative process involved in both forms inform each other: “I was quite technical and by the book before”, Ryan said, of her jewellery. “[Sculpture] made me fall in love with jewellery in a way I wasn’t before.”
While there is certainly love in the process, there is also a good deal of commercial savvy. Ryan is attuned to the world in which she lives which is, for better or worse, shaped by social media’s influence on how people consume both art and fashion. Gone are the days when artists were fed and clothed by patrons, so they could devote themselves solely to the creation of glorious masterpieces. Artists like Ryan are becoming their own patrons, and Instagram is helping.
“My experience as a business woman came into play,” she said, when she was sculpting. She knew she wanted to make huge, statement sculptures, but also knew that many of her friends lived in small, inner-city apartments. So she included a series of small, moveable wall-hangings in her collection. “I wanted it to feel inclusive,” she says. Inclusion comes in different forms, too. The audience is involved in a different, parallel way through social media, included not just by purchasing or possessing art, but also by glimpsing the making of it. Using Instagram’s Stories function and the ever-popular BTS post, Ryan’s creative process is exposed to the outside world. Followers and potential collaborators see her in action in her studio, threading pearls, carving and wandering outside in nature. In those glimpses is the making of a brand.
Ryan’s projects, catering as they might to different appetites, still come from the same ethos. Sustainability is at the forefront of Ryan’s creation, be it jewellery or art. Customers who find that a piece they bought is not serving them anymore can return it to be melted down and turned into something new, or just given a polish and restored. “I’m approaching each project with the same values,” she says. “There’s only becoming a closer and stronger bond between those two art forms.”
Of course, it helps that her audience also value sustainability. Environmental consciousness and “slow-fashion” are ubiquitous in conversations around fashion. But that’s just a bonus. Ryan, unlike those artists of byegone eras, has no patron to answer to. She may be making her own way in the world, but it brings freedom to cross forms and take on creative challenges. For her, bold shapes and organic longevity are key: no matter whether the object of adornment is a fine wrist or a whole gallery wall.