I have been fascinated by automata since childhood visits to the Science Museum in London. I remember turning the handle on the Archimedes screw exhibit and seeing the little man turn his own handle in time with me. As the water came up through this cause and effect, I was totally fascinated by how that worked. When I first saw Kim Nogueira’s metal clay automata I was blown away by the ingenuity of the technical aspects but also by the stories and themes behind the pieces.
Kim was born and raised in the small New England town of Northampton, MA and now lives in St John, in the US Virgin Islands. “For the past 25 years, this little island has been my home, where I raised my wonderful son,” she explained. “Two thirds of the island is protected by the National Park, and the hiking and snorkeling is fabulous here. It is a very tiny island however, measuring about nine miles by 12 miles. Elevation reaches from sea level to 1200 feet, which if you ever run or walk our annual famous 8 Tuff Mile Race, which runs through the center of the island from one end to the other, you will get to experience most of that elevation change. I have only done this once, and that was enough!”
Kim went on to explain more about her home and family. “I live on a quiet and beautiful part of the island called Fish Bay and am married to a surfer who can fix anything, has a very unique and hilarious sense of humor, and built our house using mostly reclaimed wood and scavenged materials.” He sounds like a wonderful man! Kim also told me a little secret about herself. “I used to surf! It was an adventure just to get out to my favorite surf spot. You had to hike 40 minutes down the beach and then it took about 10 minutes to paddle out. I loved the feeling of speed on the water like that, but I’ve since given my board away and now I have a stand up paddle board that I enjoy being out on the water with–it’s my favorite form of transportation!” she laughed.
She went on. “My handsome and level-headed business-savvy son, who was born on the island, will be graduating from Babson College this spring.”
“We live in a wooded area (code for no water view!), and enjoy frequent visits from hermit crabs, iguanas, deer and every now and then a huge land crab or tortoise. Native orchids dot the shrubs and bushes and trees here, as well as orchids that we’ve added to the landscape. There is a National Park beach approximately one minute away by car, which I visit nearly every day. I bring a small backpack with me so that I can pick up every piece of trash that washes up.” I asked Kim what the strangest piece of trash she’d ever found was. “An intact old fashioned light bulb!” she laughed.
Sounds like an idyllic life so I asked her if she makes her living from her jewellery work or if she has another job. “I sell my work on my website, at several local galleries and usually at the venues where my work is exhibited. I also maintain a small outside form of employment unrelated to my studio work. It’s not quite the teenage summer job it sounds like but it sort of almost is,” she explained. “I clean several pools and hot tubs in the area. So consequently, yes, a bathing suit is my office attire and I own eight of them, one of which I will usually always be wearing, including if I am in my studio.” I wonder what dress-down Fridays are like in Kim’s house!
I asked Kim what she considers to be her profession. “I just checked, and the artist resume on my website says that I am an ‘art jeweller/automaton maker’, so there you go,” she laughed. “If I am talking to someone though, rather than say what I am, I say what I do, as in ‘I make studio jewelry’ or ‘I make art jewelry, jewelry that tells a story with details on the back, and often moves when you turn a tiny crank’.”
Kim told me a bit about her upbringing. “I attended Smith College which is one of the few remaining women’s colleges in the country. I have fond memories of girl scouts, antique stores, art film houses, used book stores, bike riding and flea markets. And the four seasons in New England, each of which I loved.”
I’m always interested to find out when people first experienced creativity. “I remember creating tiny worlds in the sand and dirt at the roadside in front of my house when I was in kindergarten or so,” Kim explained. “Twigs, leaves and water were there for my hands to mold into fabulous realms while the warm sun shone down in the spring thaw. I spent hours there, just by the roadside. And of course arts and crafts were my favorite subject/class in grammar school.”
I asked Kim to tell me about her first experience with metal clay. “In 2010 I saved up for a year to buy enameling supplies and a kiln. I snuck in a starter kit of metal clay and some relevant books too, because I had seen such beautiful work made with the material in Lapidary Journal Magazine that I used to read on my lunch hour at my job working in a gold smithing shop. My first piece, a bird ring, has long since been scrapped, but my awe of this unique material remains. Like many others, my first thought was ‘where have you been all of my life?!’ and then ‘whoever invented this, thank you so, so much!’” I can relate!
As Kim works from home to create her jewellery, I asked her about her creative space. “My studio takes up half of the living room or ‘great room’ as it is called here,” she explained. “This is simply an open floor plan that includes the kitchen and living room as one open space. My studio hides, sort of, behind a small bookcase and mahogany storage cabinet. It is a tight squeeze, room for only one person, but there are four work areas – one for enameling and metal clay, one for the kiln, a bench with my torch for fabrication and one long stretch of table for putting ideas together.” Sounds very well organised.
Kim went on. “This is in theory however; the reality is much more of a mess, and whatever I need to do gets done wherever there is space or the tools to do it, at the moment I need to do it. For example, I am finishing up work for a local exhibition and every available space is covered with layers of something. When I pulled out the metal clay, I only had a tiny space at the long work bench, on top of something else, so I used that area because enamels were taking up the place where I normally work with metal clay. I can locate things too, which is always surprising to me. But using the term ‘organized chaos’ would be overstating it–it’s just chaos!” She added, “I am in my studio every day doing something, what a blessing!” Indeed.
As much of Kim’s work is very technical and involves moving parts, I asked her about her creative process. “If I am making a mechanical piece, then there can end up to be pages of notes in a notebook and on scraps of paper,” she explained. “I think the most was about 20 pages for one piece. I was curious so I actually counted. The drawings are more meticulous for mechanical work, fewer words, more diagrams and how-would-I-do-this explanations. I also make three dimensional models with manila folder paper to get my dimensions and work out mechanics.”
She went on, “Otherwise I use a notebook as a guide of sorts to bring me to the final ethos of what it is I am trying to make if the work is not mechanical; lots of words, rather than drawings of the pieces themselves. Any drawings at this point look like a two year old did them, and I am not exaggerating. I am trying to capture a feeling, and the act of exploring the materials and the making itself will take care of the details of construction.”
“Also as I make, there is much of trial-and-error, because I am usually trying something new. I learn very quickly this way, but sadly I do forget sometimes and have to learn it over again. Let’s just say that three times is a charm! I live far away from being able to take classes so I decided to get used to making lots of mistakes as I tried new techniques gleaned from books and the internet.”
I asked Kim what her main influences are. “Old things are my main influence,” she began. “And I collect some old things that have influenced me hugely, especially in the toy realm – tiny antique and vintage toys, tiny antique compass charms, Victorian and Edwardian fobs and mechanical vending machine charms. I don’t collect these, but I do pour over images of turn-of-the-century antiques, especially vending machines and automata, toy theatres and vintage and antique wind-up toys.”
“I collect words and public domain images and I love using them in my work. Quotes, old texts, old illustrations are in my computer, and it’s not as much fun as having them all right in front of me at the same time.”
“A good example of these influences in my work is ‘Prayerbox for Mother Earth’. When you turn the crank, a tiny golden heart appears in the box and then disappears from the box. This was very difficult to engineer and make; my first and hopefully not last, magician. There is a little flap, just like in a gumball machine, that you can lift up at the bottom to find a hand that will hold a tiny lion and a tiny lamb together. The piece comes with a prayer book too, saying ‘I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you’.”
I think Kim’s work has a unique quality but I asked her to describe what she believes is her style. “When I make a piece, I want it to be like a three dimensional poem or song, so that words can run through the viewer’s mind, and images can conjure up memories or associations. The act of turning a crank, if it is a mechanical piece, adds another dimension that I hope is akin to childhood wonder, and can foster a sense of connection to the beautiful world around us. I would describe this as an ornate folk art style. But I am working on some pieces right now where I am using as few elements as possible to tell a story, so it looks like I am in a transitional phase right now.”
“A good example of the ornate folk art style in my work is ‘Memento Mori for Mother Earth’. When you turn the crank, the skeleton and angel play their stringed instruments.”
With so many wonderful pieces in her portfolio, I wondered if Kim had a favourite piece, something that had a special meaning for her. “’We are all Wanderers on this Earth’ is the peace (intentional spelling typo) that means the most to me, because of the powerful emotions it still holds, so that I don’t have to,” she explained. “This is my favorite piece, made as a vessel to hold the whirlwind of conflicting emotion that was building up around my son leaving the island and going to college thousands of miles away. Love, joy, amazement, fear, wonder, curiosity, regret, worries and much more, here they are.”
“When you turn the little clown knob in the lower left corner, the ringmaster welcomes you to the circus–the magical, mysterious, extraordinary, precious circus that is the gift of life. The lion and elephant symbolize my son’s courage and knowledge, and my eyes are watering looking at that golden ticket box clasp, ‘this ticket – CIRCUS – admit one’. One. The reverse brings tears to my eyes too. Tiny figures, a mother and child, looking up at the sign ‘when the CIRCUS came to town’. I am looking into the strange foggy window that is the loss and creation of memory.”
“This is some of the most complicated work I have done–unscrew the back panel and there is the inner entire circus scene section which unscrews as well. The movement mechanism is attached to this removable section. It is named for this gypsy saying: ‘Our hearts are filled with wonder and our souls are filled with dreams’”
Kim obviously has a busy life so I asked her what she does to relax. “I try to include relaxation on a regular basis into my day – a walk up the hill behind my house, a walk on the beach, reading before bed, an awesome and inspiring Instagram feed. I often will take a moment to go out and lay on the cement patio out back, look up at the sky, feel the wind and sun shadows on my body, and listen to the birds and insects. That way I never really need to ‘relax’, and I can allow every moment to be beautiful.”
She went on, “Also, just driving here is relaxing to me because of the extraordinary topography and the view, so running errands becomes a beautiful adventure. We drive on the other side of the road from where I grew up, so it can be sort of Mad Max-ish driving with the narrow roads and huge water trucks, so to say it can be relaxing is paradoxical, but after 25 years of this, I am used to the cowboy driving and still utterly in awe of the views. It is truly the topography of my dreams.” And then she told me another little surprising thing about herself. “I also have a minister’s license and can marry people here, and have performed several ceremonies over the years.” Wow, I did not see that coming!
So let’s get back to Kim’s amazing work. I asked her about the other techniques she uses alongside working with metal clay to produce her pieces. “I use lots of other techniques with the metal clay. It’s such a useful material for combining with metalsmithing techniques like keum boo, fabrication, roll printing, cold connections, tap and die, enameling, etching, using found objects. The narrative possibilities are endless, which I love. Some of my work for a local gallery is fabricated with sheet and wire, and has a stone set in it, and the metal clay element is just a tiny part of it. But the metal clay element is the narrative part – words or a figure – and is the part that sparks the emotion for me, and brings the piece to life.”
I asked Kim what she is working on at the moment. “I am making a series of brooch/pendants using antique tintype photographs. The series is called ‘The Archetype of Happiness’ and a pair of earrings and two pin/pendants have been completed. The frames are copper and silver and I’m using metal clay elements and quotes on the back to create the narrative.”
Finally I asked Kim what she would like to achieve in the future. “I see my metal clay work in the coming years as a way to delve deeper into myself on a spiritual level and record the journey,” she began. “I just turned 50 and am astounded at the person I am getting to know again as myself. Who is this person and what does she stand for? And I am continually surprised by the ability of a simple narrative metal clay element in a piece, or combination thereof, to open up a well spring of emotion inside of myself and others. So I will keep going with that.”
“I think it is very important for the health of the planet and humanity for each of us to make our daily decisions from a place of non-judgement of self and others, from a place of love. I saw that I was not doing this and I took an honest look into the motivations behind my behavior (and lack thereof) and found quite a bit of fear, a revolving circle of self and society-induced fear. My making of late reflects the after-effects of a yearlong exploration into the deep recesses of myself, to bring the many layers and levels of this fear to light. This horrifying spectrum runs the gamut from shame, guilt and anger to jealousy, self-deprecation, self-loathing and fear of the ‘other’. You name it and it came up, and still perhaps is.”
“I knew for me it would not be right to outwardly share a visual narrative of this painful process in my studio work, so I waited. What came about in a recent ongoing series of pin/pendants astounded me. It was hope, tiny silver symbols of hope, made with metal clay, and attached to antique tintype photographs. This introspective journeying is often not an attractive process, but being able to put it into perspective through my work with metal clay in what I think of as a strange and beautiful way, is very helpful.”
“The next few years will be more of this as I integrate more of what I learn about myself, and consequently, the world around me, as we are all extraordinarily and astoundingly interconnected in ways that science is only just beginning to understand, but spiritual traditions have known for much, much longer.”
I would like to thank Kim for being so generous in giving us such personal insight into her journey as an artist and a person. I really enjoyed learning more about this remarkable woman and look forward to seeing the work she creates in the future. You can see more of Kim’s work here…
Instagram accounts: https://www.instagram.com/oceanandstardust/
Julia Rai is an award winning artist, teacher and writer well known in the international metal clay community. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications and she writes regularly for print magazines and online. She teaches in her home studio in Cornwall and travels to teach by invitation.