It’s one of the first nice days in recent memory, and the sun is shining. In Beth Gage’s studio up the stairs of 333 Garry Street, it’s more than a few degrees warmer. “Yeah, it’s hot as hell,” she comments as we push open the old window looking out from her painted black desk.
Beth sits down to work the settings on a ring while I photograph her small, warm space. Roughly half of the room is given over to work: the desk she’s sitting at and an adjacent table where soldering equipment and a small gas tank wait. Pushed against the opposite wall are a worn-in couch and a rack of vintage leather and denim jackets Beth sells alongside her jewellery at pop-ups. The white stucco walls are dotted with small framed prints and a few 1960’s Shriner figurines. An old plastic doll, Miss Yvonne from Peewee’s playhouse, hangs high in one corner.
Scraping back her chair and sitting down at the soldering table, Beth turns the flame on a ring of precious metal, transforming it into a glowing orange circle. After working for a few minutes, she asks me if I’d like to try. She pulls a small piece of scrap metal from a drawer and begins to set things up for me. “The most important thing is that you feel safe,” she says as she strikes the flint. I reassure her that I do, and she’s bringing the broad flame down to a focused point, then handing it to me and gently instructing me as I bring the point toward the scrap. The small piece of metal suddenly loses its shape and becomes a molten bead. I exclaim, and Beth smiles. She puts each tool back in its place, and we sit down to talk more about her work.
FULL: You refer to what you do as alchemical goldsmithing, and I’m curious about alchemy, how that’s an integral part of your process.
Beth Gage: I’m very interested in human psychology, particularly from a spiritual perspective, which is what the alchemists of the olden days were about. They wrote about their work in both exoteric and esoteric ways, and some were literally trying to turn lead into gold. It’s a good idea, but I see it more as an effort to transform our automatic compulsive states into something higher. The art of goldsmithing mimics the exoteric demonstration of alchemy. You’re melting and transforming metal, you’re containing gems; there’s fire involved, it’s purifying.
My process attempts to take those facts and combine them with the inner work of whatever piece I’m dealing with. I mainly do custom work, so I’m actively dealing with the consciousness of the client I’m working with, and what they want the piece to represent. I’m attempting to meld the two.
FULL: When you talk about melding the piece with the consciousness of the client, what does that meant to you? What are the finer details of that process?
BG: It’s different for everybody. But for instance, a client just asked me to create something for her 45th birthday. This is someone I’ve worked with before, and she trusts me. I can ask her stranger, random questions that may or may not show up in the piece.
It’s a basic fact, it’s her 45th birthday. There’s your lead. Well what does that mean really? Why do you want a piece for that? And what do you want to take into your next year? I asked her to describe her past year in terms of the five physical senses. If you could simmer it down, how would you describe it? What did it look like in terms of smell? Was there a sound associated with it? a colour? a particular song? a taste? What was the tactile feeling? The client sits with this for awhile and gets back to me with some descriptions. Meanwhile inside my brain, something’s building. I’m getting images, they’re combining, and that’s the vision. The final work is to execute it into something new.
I use recycled metal pretty much exclusively. The gold mining industry is pretty fucked up. So again, there’s your lead, something discarded transformed into something brand new. It will contain all of what we discussed created into this new thought-form that can adorn her. The purpose is to remind her of what she wants to take into this new year. And that’s one example, but the process is different every time.
FULL: It’s fascinating to me to be so intentional with jewellery; for there to be such a story behind a piece. Do you find that the way you practice your work translates into the way you live your life?
BG: What do you mean exactly?
FULL: Are you mindful of consciousness and transformation in the way you go about your day-to-day life?
BG: Oh yes, this is where my effort is going on a day-to-day basis, as best I can.
A lot of it is about working with reactivity. We as humans are constantly exposed to so much, every single day. Our emotional bodies have been run ragged. There are so many unresolved childhood issues we’re not even aware of. Our interaction with the world affects us so deeply, and it’s easier not to notice how that’s happening. A lot of us choose not to notice or don’t know how to notice.
I’m trying to pay attention to what I know is true, which changes day to day. It’s devotional for sure; I’m just looking for a light. Paying attention to the shadow, but looking for the light.
FULL: In describing your practice, you also used the word ritualized. How does ritual play into your work?
BG: It’s funny to talk about this, but a lot of the ritual is happening in my mind. It’s happening in what Carl Jung and others refer to as the active imagination — the beta mind or a meditative state. It’s an inner landscape. And all I’m really doing is listening for what steps to take intentionally. Any art form can become very habitual, especially something mechanical like metal working. I’m listening in a deeper way for what steps to take within the confines of how mechanical or how step-by-step this can be.
FULL: You’re confined to a structure in the sense that there are certain steps you must take, but instead of just doing them and not thinking about it or letting it become habit, you try to remain present and active.
FULL: It can be interesting when you try and bring that way of operating into other parts of your life — mindfully cooking dinner, or washing the dishes. When you’re able to enter into that state, it becomes a kind of meditation or a healing. It’s a form of caring for yourself.
BG: Yes, very much, it’s heightened. And that doesn’t mean better than, but you’re on a different level when you’re actively participating with what you’re doing.
FULL: You’ve already mentioned that the mining industry is a messed up process. We’re extracting these things from deep in the ground that we’ve decided are valuable. Humans are so drawn to these things, precious metals and diamonds. I’m curious how you think about that.
BG: It’s explainable in the way that people like what they’re told to like. That’s a big part of it, and at the same time, when you see the way a diamond refracts light, it’s so fucking beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing available. If you want to, you can develop relationships with any form of energy, and I guess that’s what people are after, whether they know it or not.
FULL: What do you feel like your relationship is to these materials?
BG: I think that’s constantly evolving, and it’s amazing, because every diamond looks completely different when you really see it. It feels different if you’re able to feel it. And honestly, I just love the way it looks. Gold’s amazing. It’s just very special. I can’t pretend to know why, but I feel it.
FULL: It’s interesting too the idea of destroying the beauty of nature through mining in order to carry something beautiful around.
BG: Yeah, humans are strange. I read something interesting about jewellery the other day. That often farmers used to wear their wealth in jewellery, because it didn’t make sense to have their wealth in coins, and there’s something very cool about that. It’s not practical anymore, but we can pretend. I have a small collection of fairly costly gold and diamond antique rings. Sometimes I’ll wear all of them in one day, just to walk around feeling like a million dollars. It’s fun, nobody has to know.
FULL: And I think people do that in other forms. They display their wealth in their home, car or clothes.
BG: Absolutely. It’s very much about image at times.
FULL: In contrast to that, I like what you said about “Nobody has to know” with your antique rings.
BG: I think that’s what’s behind a lot of these very symbolic pieces I’ve created. They’re so loaded with personal meaning for the wearer that no one could possibly get a clear sense of that just by looking at it. There’s something deeper. Hence the name of my business really. Aesoterica is just what’s hidden. It describes a deeper meaning. You could read any book literally, or you could read it symbolically and it’s a much better story. The same with humans. Assumptions and surface readings are necessary for survival, but we’re not prehistoric.
FULL: How did you get into working with metal?
BG: I’m a trained seamstress and also skilled in pattern drafting. I was doing that for a good chunk of my life, and really thought that’s what I wanted to make a go of vocationally. But it just really killed all the joy to do it as a business. I have a lot of skills I’ve developed over the years. I started working really young, and although I was fairly successful academically, I just really disliked school. I kind of formulated this plan that if I could develop this arsenal of skills, I’d never have to get a real job or attend university. I started learning a lot of trades. I painted houses for about a decade and worked in tons of kitchens.
I have a background in construction — my mind really functions that way — and usually I can figure out how things are made on my own. But I’d look at this jewellery I owned going, “I have no idea how this is made.” I was able to find a fantastic woman to teach me in St. James, Karen Schmidt Humiski. I studied with her for about two and half years. She taught me the basics. I’ve been working with that and teaching myself some more skills in the last year and a half. It’s still very new to me. I love it, and I have no qualms about it being a business as well as an art form.
FULL: How do you feel it’s different from when you were doing pattern making or sewing?
BG: I don’t know why it feels different, it just does. There’s more of a variety, maybe that’s it. Everything’s very small, which is adorable. I guess it’s still disposable, but less disposable than clothing. Something about adornment has always fascinated me, and I believe jewellery to be the highest form of that. I just feel like it’s something I can learn about forever and always be getting better. Which can be true for every art form, but perhaps I just feel like I hit on -
FULL: something that resonated with you?
BG: Yeah. Goldsmithing is very old world. All the techniques I’m using can hardly be improved on. The lost-wax cast technique, which is something I use a lot, the ancient Egyptians figured that out, and you just can’t really improve on that particular process. I mean maybe someone will someday. I’m not going to silence that, but I love that about what I do.
FULL: For your own jewellery, is there a piece that’s particularly interesting or meaningful to you?
BG: This ring is a good one. I made it. That’s a piece of pyrite on top, commonly referred to as fool’s gold, which I love. This is a piece I created for the archetypal fool in me and in others, just as an energy. Construction-wise it was very challenging to make. It’s hollow, forged sheet metal, soldered together, filed, and cleaned up. The stone is awkward, so it had to be set in a very interesting way, which kind of ended up taking on a life of its own, like how it’s cut away here. I’m still fond of this piece. I try not to identify with what I make or get too attached. Just let it go, let it do its own thing. Let it die if it needs to. Let it be full of life for as long as it needs to be.