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Love, death and history merge in Athens artist’s jewelry

Lola Brooks selected for National Museum of Women in the Arts show in D.C.

Dressed in boots and jeans and a vintage ’60s sundress, Lola Brooks sits at a large wooden table in a tidy 1,000-square-foot studio behind the 19th century house she bought in rural Athens a year ago with her tattoo artist husband, Evan Morgan, after more than two decades in New York City.

An incongruous presence out in the green wilds of Georgia, with her vintage rhinestone eyeglasses and arms and neck encircled by tattoos (bees and butterflies, diamonds and roses, owls and acorns), her tongue-in-cheek collections of potted meats and a freezer full of taxidermy, Brooks does anything but disappear into her surroundings.

A nationally celebrated jeweler whose work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Art and Design, Brooks’ designs have been featured in Vogue and W magazine, and her jewelry is owned by celebrities including Jennifer Aniston, Florence Welch and Angelina Jolie. Blending inexpensive materials like stainless steel and expensive ones like gold, using vintage diamonds and facet-cut steel, her jewelry hovers between old-fashioned and modern, between hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll and delicate, nostalgic evocations of days gone by.

“Brooks takes inspiration from seemingly innocuous sources like nursery rhymes and fairy tales, which often have violent and unsettling undertones,” says Virginia Treanor, curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., who selected Brooks for inclusion in the show “Heavy Metal — Women to Watch 2018,” on view through Sept. 16.

Brooks wears “atehearts (self portrait with eight brooches). Contributed by Evan Morgan (For the AJC)

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“Her works are tense with the juxtaposition of the sublime and the abject; they inhabit the space between the familiar and the eerie — placing heart shapes and floral motifs alongside curiosities such as a simulated elephant skeleton or taxidermy birds with bejeweled eyes,” says Treanor.

Brooks’ work essentially operates on two levels, what you might call text and subtext. On one hand there is the fashion jewelry — the bulk of her income — beautiful gold rings with precious and semi-precious stones, the kind of seductive, high-end baubles sold in boutiques in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia and worn by movie stars and musicians.

But it is Brooks’ museum-quality, more conceptual pieces that plumb the depths of her obsessions, from the Napoleonic Wars, the Arts and Crafts movement and Victorian mourning jewelry to fairy tales, the gothic literature of Charlotte Bronte and the postmodernist Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Her work explores the fascinating dips and bends in culture that — consciously or unconsciously — inform how we think about beauty and romance, death and love.

“I’m really interested in the polarities of existence as a human being on this earth — love and loss and longing,” says Brooks. “To me that’s kind of where all of the magic resides.”

Growing up in Hartford, Conn., Brooks didn’t necessarily see the world like other children. Her parents divorced when she was 6, leaving her, a sister and her newly single mother with an expensive lifestyle to maintain in a well-to-do neighborhood.

“I was a rebellious kid for sure,” admits Brooks, who wore the same fashionable Guess jeans as everyone else at her high school, but ripped the tag off as her middle finger to consumerism.

Brooks’ brooch “four&twenty” is made from stainless steel chain, 14k gold solder and champagne diamonds. Contributed by Sienna Patti (For the AJC)

Brooks first discovered the magic of metal at 19 when she took a summer continuing education class in jewelry making at an arts center in Boston.

“The first time I joined two pieces of metal together was the most powerful feeling I had ever felt, and I knew in that moment that was what I would spend my life doing,” she says.

“You kind of think about metal as being this impervious, strong, unforgiving material and then the idea that you could put two pieces of it together in a permanent way felt almost alchemical.”

She eventually studied fashion at NYC’s Pratt Institute and metals at SUNY New Paltz. Upon graduation it was the connections she made living for several decades in a studio on Manhattan’s Canal Street that helped establish her name in the field.

“Living and working in New York City for 24 years offered me so many opportunities that I would never have had elsewhere … and was an essential aspect of how I built my career. I don’t believe I could have done this anywhere else,” says Brooks.

That, combined with teaching at a string of prestigious schools for 18 years, like Rhode Island School of Design, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and SUNY New Paltz, gave Brooks an identity in her industry. But it is her connection with Sienna Patti Contemporary, a gallery focused on studio jewelry in the Berkshires, that she credits for elevating her career. Brooks won an emerging artist award from the space, which came with her first solo show in 2002. She has exhibited regularly at Sienna Patti ever since. The following year, Manhattan’s elegant Ten Thousand Things boutique, frequented by customers like Uma Thurman, Susan Sarandon and Julianne Moore, began carrying her line of fashion jewelry.

“The work has great depth in its ideas, respect and integration of tradition and history, yet stands on its own as contemporary and relevant,” says Sarah Schleuning, former High Museum of Art curator of decorative arts and design (now at the Dallas Museum of Art), who tapped Brooks to represent Georgia at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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You could say Brooks is excavating the trite and tired tropes of romance; the roses and red hearts and diamonds that have become our cultural shorthand for love. For Brooks hearts are not just totems of affection, they are the meat and matter of love: the messy, gory beating hearts that signal our vulnerability and humanity. And roses? Those gorgeous, silky living things are also — like love, like us — destined to brown and decay.

Brooks’ work often uses potent and loaded vintage materials to convey meaning. Consider her “byebabybunting,” which Brooks says is one of her most political works, a piece about “the decimation of endangered wildlife.” It’s a sweet heart-shaped brooch in white rabbit fur (sourced from a vintage child’s muff) encircled with stainless steel chain. But flip that soft, furry heart, and nestled like a fetus inside the cavity of the heart is a tiny baby elephant skeleton carved from pre-ban elephant ivory by Brooks’ husband. It’s a pointed commentary on the cruelty of human beings, who slaughter rabbits and elephants for their hides and organs and parts. And also the propensity for hypocrisy in human kindness found in the brooch’s title, the sing-song lullaby about killing a rabbit for your child’s bunting.

Then there’s the equally haunting piece “twointhehand,” a brooch in which a stainless steel chain encircles a taxidermy male and female quail in an intimate, eternal embrace.

When Brooks showed the piece at New York City’s Collective Design Fair in March, she watched women break down and cry looking at her jewelry, as if the emotions she distills into her work had been magically reanimated.

Jeweler Lola Brooks in her Athens studio. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (For the AJC)

Describing New York City as her “heart and soul,” Brooks says she “hit a point where I wanted more space to work in.”

The offer of a one-year, endowed position teaching in the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia lured Brooks South in 2012.

“I’ve always had a love affair with the South: the literature, the landscape. The Civil War has always been a point of interest to me. There’s a darkness to the South that kind of permeates everything, and yet there’s also a kind of openness.”

And so, like a hipster Harper Lee or Eudora Welty laboring over their work in small, Southern towns, Brooks is part of a tradition, of an off-the-hook creative toiling away in her own Americana pastoral.

Because at her heart, Brooks is a storyteller.

Like a novelist who begins a story without knowing its ultimate conclusion, Brooks says, “I don’t always understand what the piece is about while I’m making it.” She describes her jewelry as autobiographical, an exorcism of not just history, but of her own feelings of loss and longing, like the tattoos snaking up her right arm that commemorate a former 18-year marriage.

For Brooks, creating her work, whether for a gallery exhibition or a patron’s collection, comes with the satisfaction of a story well told. “Once I finish a piece, I’m ready to send it out into the world.”

“It’s like, I’ve told the story.”

IF YOU GO

‘Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018.’ Through September 16. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $10-$8. National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., NW, Washington D.C., 202-783-5000, www.nmwa.org

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