Fragile Beauty: Veronica Grassi

“As a child I always thought of acorns as fairy cups” explains Veronica Grassi of the delicately lined acorn and silver bracelet she is wearing when we meet earlier this year on an otherwise uninspiring winter afternoon. The timing was fortuitous as Grassi’s work is precisely the sort that has the power to make grey days a little brighter. Perhaps ironically for a jeweller, this does not come about directly through materials; in fact it could be said that precisely the opposite is true. Driven by a desire to capture the “essence of loss and decay” in her work Grassi searches for even more illusive qualities than material brilliance, qualities that thrive on the possibility of finding beauty where others may have overlooked it, especially on the greyest of days.

Grassi’s exploration of materials beyond the conventional repertoire of a jeweller occurred early in her design education on her BA (Hons) in Silversmithing, Jewellery and Applied Crafts at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design. “Metal” she explains, often just felt “too solid.” Instead she chose to work with “those materials that already have a history.” This comment has not, in fact, burdened or limited Grassi’s practice. Clever bracelets made from the trimmed tips of washing up gloves (virtually impossible to trace back to their former occupation) fall as comfortably into Grassi’s definition of materials with history as acorns, delicate thread and reclaimed polystyrene do. Her choice of materials was borne out of an increasing discomfort with the associations that gold and silver hold to wealth and exclusivity, as well as concern that by working with these materials she was in some ways contributing to the ecological damage caused by the mining of gold and silver. Now she works with the most modest of materials, imbuing each with a sense of value and care most would only see fit to bestow on a precious metal or stone.

The graceful shapes Grassi explores in her jewellery teeter between a sense of seductive beauty and precarious fragility. There is also a recurring and inescapable suggestion that beauty may possibly also be a danger. As an example, she explains of a later thread version of her acorn design (created with layers of stitch and heat set to create the curled shapes and cleverly attached to each other by concealed Velcro) that the structure of the work suggests that each of us is both part of a larger family or group, but also vulnerable enough to be pulled away at a moments notice. Further readings into the manner in which Grassi connects her work are also evident. For instance she readily suggests that the snaps of the Roseate necklace look like nipples and the gentle pink colour she has selected for her thread and snaps resemble skin. Needless to say, the project came about during the time she was watching two friends struggle with breast cancer, a time when she became increasingly aware of the vulnerability of our physical bodies. But these suggestions never veer into the kitsch. In the case of Roseate, the snaps remain twisted on their sides, referring to only the most private reference of the body.

Smaller works are machine embroidered onto soluble fabric and later heat set. Each piece is made of layers of stitches that rely on the chance that enough stitches appear in enough areas to hold things together. Early works such as Bittersweet tend to order colour, in this case orange thread tracing the outline of each acorn-inspired module. But Grassi has turned away from this approach to work even more intuitively with colour by blending layers of thread colour as she works. The much larger and more theatrical neckpieces explore stitch and reclaimed polystyrene; a material she found reflected her interest in the vulnerability and fragility of the human body. “Polystyrene is used widely to protect fragile objects,” Grassi explains of the material that is now so central to her practice “however, pick one particle away, and it slowly crumbles and falls apart.” In these works stitches form a net that holds some of the polystyrene in place, but again chance plays a key hand in it all as the material can break (and often does) into tiny particles.

While this work may look to be the result of paring away at existing layers, it is neither a clearly additive nor clearly subtractive process. Scrutiny reveals the variety in these surfaces: some look as though each thread quite accidentally has captured the breaking nodes of polystyrene within each stitch while other areas feel quite solid and firm. Along with the body, Irish literature is an ingoing source of inspiration, but as Grassi explains, it is “more about an essence and atmosphere” than a desire for her work to take on a narrative role of its own. The cracks of white wash buildings or the smell of peat bogs burning are what fills her mind. She also explains that the colours found in the paintings of the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico inspire her unique palette, one that focuses predominantly on a spectrum between orange and subdued greys. Evident in these works is the delicacy of nature and the inevitable and eventual decay of the textile. By simulating a crumbling, precarious textile surface the viewer is left with the distinct fear that a single touch may turn these creations to dust. Thankfully this is not the case, but the possibility leaves one feeling this is work that deserves to be treasured and protected.

Embroidery magazine (July/August 2006: 22-24)