Q&A: Artist Jim Cotter on creating counterculture jewelry and inclusion in retrospective book
Jim Cotter, who has operated his jewelry shop J. Cotter Gallery since 1969 in Vail, has been included in a new art jewelry book, “In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture” by Susan Cummins. The book, intended as a chronicle of early American art jewelry in the 1960s and ‘70s, features chapters on some of the most influential artists in the scene at the time.
Cotter’s work at that time was influenced by art movements including dada, cubist painting and sculpture as well as literary beatniks and movies and music from the time. As a pioneer of the art jewelry movement in the United States, Cotter’s work often incorporated satire, irony and politics: for example, a ring with its central diamond mounted in cement (which he still makes) and a Goofy belt buckle with river stone and gold for Richard Nixon’s impeachment.
“In Flux” celebrates the nontraditional and the unconventional, ideals to which Cotter is still committed, more than 60 years later. The Vail Daily sat down with Cotter to discuss the book and his body of work. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Vail Daily: How did you get involved with Cummins’ book?
Jim Cotter: I was giving a lecture up in Seattle, and in the audience was a lady who’s a major collector of art jewelry and a big supporter of art jewelry. And after the lecture, she contacted me and asked me about some of my early work. One thing led to the other and then they contacted me in short it asked me questions after they looked at some of my real early work — which some of it was pretty off kilter, so to speak.
VD: Yes, like your Nixon piece.
JC: I was doing some other political kind of things and doing some, like I said, unusual pieces of jewelry. And that kind of snowballed into kind of how I got started doing art jewelry, and which kept me more interested in jewelry, as an alternative than mainstream jewelry. She (Cummins) wanted to highlight real early contemporary jewelry or art jewelry, which really hasn’t been written about in America. And I think she’s very aware of European type work, but there was a lot of Americans doing stuff that she thought needed to be recognized.
VD: Well, it must be really cool to be included in that group of people.
JC: I was very flattered that I was one of them. I’m not an academic, I’m kind of an outside artist. I don’t have an academic background. I also don’t have a very fine jewelry background. I’m more hands on, teach myself how to do it.
VD: Right. In many fine art circles, having an academic background is the standard. How does that perception of where you stand in the broader art jewelry world influence the pieces that you make?
JC: It’s kind of like my background growing up. Growing up in a small town in Iowa, you had to fix everything. You didn’t have any options. You couldn’t afford to take it to the garage and let them just fix it for you. So, I’ve always been able to fix things and do things, and those things have taught me how things are constructed, or how things should be constructed. And I think, you know, it’s been interesting to be self-taught because I’m not influenced. We’re in a little bit different league than most jewelers, where they shop out all their work and have it done somewhere else. We do everything right in our studio. It’s allowed me to just do what I love to do is to create and make things up every day and make model cars, so to speak.
VD: And artistically, in some ways you can see the influence of your rural background on your work.
JC: I’ve always been interested in industrial materials, because it’s all around us. I always look at the idea and materials and think: “How can you reduce that down, and still make it look important? How could that be utilized in a totally different way than what we normally think about it, and still make it look like it has an appeal?” It’s fascinating that almost all art, especially paintings and even sculpture, are monumental. And that seems to be the norm. But how do you relay that and how do you get people to look at something miniature the same way?
VD: How do you translate that monumental feeling in a small object?
JC: I use materials around me. A lot of my work has to do with texture, and making things look bigger than they are, or making things that should be maybe smaller or bigger.
VD: I’ve also noticed a lot of juxtaposition in your work.
JC: Right. And that’s just contradictory to how anybody would possibly think. My customers have something very unique, as opposed to Tiffany’s or something like that. You know they have something that hopefully will have intrinsic value down the road, and with being included in this book and getting recognized, that should build a little bit of my legitimacy, so to speak, as to who I am and what I am and how I think.
For more information, visit jcottergallery.com.