Scott Schubert, For the Miami Student

Gabriel Craig wheels his weathered and tattered, yet sturdy bench into public where he is likely to get the attention of passerbys.

He is about to sit in front of this bench in the cool, gentle breeze for hours — doing what he knows best: creating jewelry.

Craig situates his bench on the aesthetic brick walkway that is the hub of Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus. He aligns his tools in their proper positions and gets ready to start. People curiously begin to gather around, wondering what he is doing. And when the crowd is just big enough, he opens.

The fun begins as Craig produces his first ring of the day and gives it away to an engaged spectator.

Craig’s practice of publicly making one-of-a-kind, handmade jewelry and giving it away is part of an ongoing live performance he does known as the “Pro Bono Jeweler.” He has done live performances of the Pro Bono Jeweler in Richmond, Va. and his next stop is Miami University April 21 to 22. 

After the former Art Museum curator noticed the creativity in Craig’s work, Craig was asked to visit as a part of the art museum’s exhibition “Adornment and Excess: Jewelry in the 21st Century.” The exhibit is located in Gallery 2 and Craig’s work will be on display until June 10.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday he will give a presentation at the Miami Art Museum titled “Crafting Activism in an Age of Ambivalence,” where he will focus on the meaning and social history of handmade jewelry over the past 150 years.

He will do a live performance of the Pro Bono Jeweler and interact with the student body the following day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. outside the Shriver Center.

In the Pro Bono Jeweler, Craig aims to engage the public in discussion about the cultural implications of jewelry as opposed to the simplicity of its value as a profitable commercial entity. He wants to stress to them that something coming from the heart and hands contains an enticing allure and connective appeal to its owner that is not present in jewelry produced in large, industrial factories.

“I want the format of the (live) performances to reflect my educational and altruistic goals,” he wrote in an article for American Craft Magazine. “By giving away jewelry I am able to focus on its cultural value rather than its commercial value.”

Amy Weiks, Craig’s main collaborative partner, noted he has a great ability to interact with people on a personal level in his performances.

“He’ll sort of poke at people to make them think,” Weiks said, adding that he does it for the benefit of those observing. “He has a knack for getting people to consider things in different ways.”

Ironically, Kelly Wilson, Art Museum administrator, thinks getting people to talk to him might be the hardest part.

“One of the biggest challenges will be getting students to come out of their shells enough to come up and talk to him,” Wilson said.

Craig said a lot of commercial jewelry is produced in bulk. Often times a design is made, and from that design molds are created so that hundreds of the same piece of jewelry can be made at the same time.

“There’s far more jewelry being produced in that way than there is being produced by individuals,” Craig said. “The things you make are special, whereas something you buy might not be so special two weeks after you bought it. Something you made and love doesn’t really go out of style.”

Craig further pointed out industrial means of mining and producing jewelry can be harmful to the environment and the people who produce it. A 2010 Earthworks press release states 90 percent of all mined gold is intended to be used in jewelry, and production of just one gold ring produces 20 tons of mine waste. Most of this gold comes from large, open mines owned by multinational corporations, and a lot of the toxic waste that is produced is dumped into streams, rivers and coastal waters.   

Craig sees his jewelry as part of a larger purpose. He believes community, environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency are important virtues in life.

Green Oxford is sponsoring Craig’s visit in light of his commitment to local activism and the cause of environmental sustainability. For example, unlike in commercial methods of producing jewelry, Craig avoids using processes involving acids and harmful chemicals with adverse effects on the environment. He uses a lot of recycled materials and makes sure whatever he uses in his pieces are obtained by ethical means.

“I only use silver and gold and precious materials that are recycled,” Craig said. “And I stopped using gemstones unless I know where they came from.”

According to Ethicalmetalsmiths.org, it is estimated in recent years 3.7 million people have died as a result of the conflict diamond trade in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Diamonds in these areas are illegally traded and used to fund warlords, civil wars and human rights abuses. 

The organic values Craig incorporates into his work are things he believes are not typically found in commercial jewelry.

First-year Justin Ping is familiar with Craig’s work, having read about him after learning of his work with recycled metals earlier this school year. 

“I just think what he does in terms of sustainability and recycling is really cool,” Ping said. “As an architecture major with an emphasis on sustainable architecture, I can really appreciate the way he can take something that has been used and completely revive it into something redefined and functional. It has an originality that makes it special.”

One of the major motivators for Craig’s decision to start performing for live audiences was his realization that there were not enough people who were aware of the values of handmade art.

“I had this frustration with how small the audience was for handmade jewelry,” Craig said. Despite the natural appeal of something handcrafted, handmade jewelry comprises only a small segment of the market. Craig said the audience for this type of jewelry must be bigger, especially with the ongoing growth in “green” movements and lifestyles.

“I really started to wonder, you know, why am I just making jewelry in my studio and not really interacting with the public?” Craig said.

The impromptu performances Craig does in public are just one of the ways he tries to engage and educate people about the value of handcrafted art. He is also a writer and the creator of conceptualmetalsmithing.com, a blog that publishes material that promotes discussion of social reform and the relevance of crafts to society. In his presentation at 6 p.m. Friday, April 21 at the Art Museum he will speak on the long social history of crafts, helping him to put his own work into context — noting his idea of a self-sustaining lifestyle is not a new concept.

“In the 1880s, 1990s and into the 20th century, there were a lot of people and projects based in hand skills and self-sufficiency and I think in the 20th century craft became more about making objects and selling them rather than about self-sufficiency and social change,” Craig said.

By incorporating the values of sustainability and self-sufficiency into his work, he is actively trying to change that trend.

“(When you buy handmade jewelry) you feel like you’re getting a piece of another person,” said Mariana Weflen, a manager at Juniper. “And it lasts longer.”

To learn more about Craig and to purchase his jewelry, visit www.etsy.com/shop/weikscraighandmade.

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