Millie Behrens – Ornaments, geometry and pebbles

«Jewellery is an important storyteller in my life»

Millie Behrens

“My first solo exhibition was in 1992. At the time I was inspired by New York City, the buildings and everything happening there”, begins Millie Behrens.

From 1989 to 1991 this highly respected jewellery artist lived in New Jersey with her family and used a bedroom for a workshop. The house was in a quiet neighbourhood just a short ride from Manhattan. While in New Jersey she regularly visited the legendary jewellery gallery of Helen Drutt – a pioneering collector of art jewellery as well as curator and gallerist. Behrens remembers it as a good period in her life:

“The gallery Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo had invited me to do a solo exhibition, so I had a specific project to work on. We moved to New Jersey in August and within a month I set up an operative workshop. I brought my workbench with me from Norway”, she recalls.

Behrens had participated in many group exhibitions since graduating in 1983 from the National College of Art and Design (SHKS) in Oslo. She had also helped found the artist group Trikk along with fellow-students Liv Blåvarp, Kyrre Anderssen, Tove Becken, Leif Stangebye Nielsen and Morten Kleppan. But she had never held a solo show. Now in 1992 – nine years after graduation and four years after leaving Trikk – Kunstnerforbundet was the first to want to focus exclusively on her art.

«We found our materials in garbage dumps and felt it was important to break down traditional barriers in the field of jewellery»

Millie Behrens

Conflicts over art
Trikk has been described as postmodernist by the art historian Fredrik Christian Wildhagen. It consisted of a cohesive group of artist who studied together from 1978 to 1983 – a relatively turbulent period of political struggle that came in the aftermath of the Kunstnerakssjon in 1974. This was when artists agitated for legal and political rights, and when artists who worked with crafts broke away from the ‘functional art’ movement. The struggle was sometimes acrimonious and involved clashes over the definition of art and its status. Artists also made demands that sprang from their financial situation: they wanted proper pay for their work and to have the right to apply for government work grants and commissions for producing public art.

“Politics was very intense at that time”, she says, and continues: “You couldn’t be a live human being without being politically involved, and each and every action was political”, says Behrens. She remembers how the well-known poet Stein Mehren and the young ceramist Nina Malterud met at the school and publically discussed whether art should be put on a pedestal or on the level of normal people. They discussed whether an ornament on a vase was more important than the vase itself, she recalls.

Malterud fearlessly contradicted Mehren, who represented quite a conservative view of art. It was a new era with new gender roles and a new awareness of craft. A battle also began brewing over whether schools for art and craft should be more design oriented or fine-art oriented. Behrens remembers her school years as a strange period in her life. It was difficult to attend classes, and initially the teaching was quite poor.

«I liked silver-smiting and I was good at soldering. I think there’s always been a goldsmith inside me»

Millie Behrens
Floating Moon, Brooch, silver, gold, pebbles

Group work
In 1980 Behrens attended summer school at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, USA. Her teacher was the acclaimed enamellist and jewellery artist Jamie Bennett. He became a good friend and gave her the artistic feedback she had missed in Norway.

“There was a lot of interesting use of materials there. And a ‘liberation movement’ was underway, also in Europe, which involved the notion that jewellery could be so much more than goldsmithing. The school was visited by well-known makers such as Robert Ebendorf. He had a lot of influence when I was young”, Behrens recalls.

Two years later she participated in an exchange program at Nova Scotia School of Art and Design in Canada, studying one semester with the eminent goldsmithing professor Christian Gaudernack. He later came to Norway and, together with Konrad Mehus, helped improve the teaching situation at SHKS. One of Gaudernack’s initiatives was to hold plenum sessions every third week, with the students presenting their projects and receiving constructive criticism. This was both useful and unifying for the group who eventually established Trikk.

“We worked together at the school and functioned as tutors, supporters and mentors for each other”, Behrens recalls, emphasising the dynamics in the group and the many discussions they had. After graduation they set up a cooperative workshop. Trikk soon made a name for itself and was mounting exhibitions at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo, in Finland, at Galleri Albin Upp and elsewhere. During the Albin Up exhibition, the Museum of Decorative Art and Design in Oslo purchased one or more works by all the participants, thus encouraging the group and giving them a feeling of success.

«While in the US I started working with ornaments.I started studying things around me, for instance gutters, fences, rusty pieces of metal lying on the ground»

Millie Behrens

New jewellery
The artists involved in Trikk worked with unusual methods and materials:

“We found our materials in garbage dumps and felt it was important to break down traditional barriers in the field of jewellery. Maybe it’s strange to say this now, since I feel I’ve stymied somewhere along the line by continuing to make jewellery using silver as my main material, but all the Trikk artists made useable jewellery and we shared an interest in experimenting with different materials, forms, sizes and ideas. Plastic, iron, wood, textiles, etc.”

Here Behrens alludes to avant-garde jewellery artists who, since the 1980s, have diverged from the aspect of use and started creating works more akin to sculpture or conceptual art.

Before the Trikk artists graduated, jewellery had not been much appreciated at the annual Norwegian craft exhibitions (these had been held every year since 1975). But thanks to Gaudernack, who was a jury member in 1983, the exhibition devoted extensive attention to jewellery:

“A whole row of glass cases was devoted to our work at the annual exhibition, and that was the first time jewellery art was really noticeable there. I think Gaudernack understood the quality in these new pieces of jewellery and included every piece he possibly could.”

Behrens was making plastic jewellery at the time, using nylon fibre in combination with titanium and other non-conventional materials that were considered less valuable. Such combinations were radical back then, hence Trikk came to represent the new jewellery art in Norway in the 1980s.

«For every larger solo exhibition, you’re challenged to broaden your visual language»

Millie Behrens

New technique
When Behrens moved to the USA in 1989 and was compelled to work on her own, she started using more metal:

“I needed a change. I liked silver-smiting and I was good at soldering. It’s a wonderful craft. I think there’s always been a goldsmith inside me”, she smiles. I like the techniques and craftsmanship.”

“While in the US I started working with ornaments. I remember my mother said she liked skyscrapers (she’s American). I was surprised, but when I finally got to New York (my first trip was in 1980), they were of course amazing and beautiful. I noticed how the city’s architects would include small ornaments in large smooth surfaces, for instance door handles with a certain shape. I was struck, not only by the contrasts within a single building, but also by the high-tech architecture and the organic streams of people around them. I started studying things around me, for instance gutters, fences, rusty pieces of metal lying on the ground. My neighbour in New Jersey had an amazing postcard-holder with an ornament on top. So my brain started churning, I began drawing and things got underway”, she recalls.

These impressions led her to develop a novel technique which she still uses today:

“I made a planar composition and then soldered it together. I sawed lines, triangles and squares and then soldered them together using a kind of inlay technic, then turned the composition into a 3-D form. It was a big experience to make the first things using this technique.”

These were the works Behrens presented at Kunstnerforbundet in 1992. The exhibition was a success, generating much media attention and sales.

«The Cameo jewelry is a tribute to my mother»

Millie Behrens

After the exhibition she received a visit from the David-Andersen Company, who wanted her to design a jewellery collection. This marked the start of an instructive collaboration.

“I developed an enamel collection that was awarded the ‘Merke for god design’ in 1997. In 1998-2000 I made a gold collection for them as well. Unfortunately David-Andersen Co. closed their factory not long after.”

During her collaboration with David-Andersen, it is worth noting that Behrens, in 2000, also made a diadem for H.M. Queen Sonja. 

Ever since her school days, geometrical figures have been central to Behren’s jewellery practice. She often combines them in contrasting ways with organic forms. Modernism has also been a source of inspiration, as she continues to develop and experiment with new formats.

“For every larger solo exhibition, you’re challenged to broaden your visual language. For my second solo show at Kunstnerforbundet in 1998, I chose to let gold and silver be the dominant materials. I made a series of works using ready-made cameos. This was during the ‘ready-made’ period, when everyone was using old buttons and working with mixed media. I found the cameo could tell a story in combination with larger shapes or frames in gold and silver. There was always a short story, usually about a woman, in these jewellery pieces”, she recalls.

She received much attention for this exhibition, even though not everyone was satisfied:

“People thought it was either fantastic or gruesome”, she laughs. “There was something about these cameos…! Too feminine maybe?”

«The Pebble story is a tribute to life»

Millie Behrens
Pebble stories

Power Cuffs and Pebbles
After the exhibition she dropped the cameo theme and continued to work with the oval form.

“I’ve made many types of jewellery by combining the oval shape with other materials. This I did for instance in 2003, in a solo exhibition in at Kuntnerforbundet, and in 2009 in a solo exhibition in Akershus Kunstsenter. The main focus in these exhibitions was the arm pieces. I call them Power Cuffs.”

Since then Behrens has developed what most people today might consider her signature expression: jewellery made with pebbles she has found on beaches across the world. These works were included in her exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet in 2015, and they will surface again in the exhibition Structure – Norwegian Crafts and Design in April 2016.

“The pebbles were lying around the studio for several years before I decided to try to do something with them. Using pebbles was somehow too traditional, I thought. So how could I do something that felt different? The stones are used as they are found, polished and shaped by time. While working on the idea of constructing pebble rings, I discovered it was nice to mount the pebble inside the ring. This way the pebble is resting on the finger while the gold ring is enclosing both the finger and the stone. I was really happy about making this ring”, she laughs. “I call the series Pebble Stories, but the ring itself is called Embrace.”

The arm ring Double Touch and the neck pieces Prayer are also included in the exhibition Structure.

She concludes: 

“Jewellery is an important storyteller in my life.
The Cameo jewelry is a tribute to my mother.
The Power Cuff is a tribute to women.
The Pebble story is a tribute to life."