Leslie Van Gils
How did you first become involved in goldsmithing / jewelry? Was there a point where you Knew that was the career path you wanted to take?
I am a third generation artist on my mother’s side and second generation on my father’s side. Five of seven children (I am the last) who are artistically inclined with various business’s in the arts from award winning watercolour artist, milner/bead jewellery designer, clothing designer, handmade guitar’s to a finished goldsmith. As a child, I can recall my parents cleared all the furniture out of our house to facilitate an art show that raised money for the awareness of MS – a new disease at the time. This show was compiled of a group of local artists including one new artist at the time – Robert Bateman with his original works of art. Through my parents artistic careers I was exposed to galleries, private shows, group shows, museums…all positive encouragement. My tenacity – I inherited that from my father, whom was disabled my whole life – he never gave up. I was just eight years old and being a very visual individual with a photographic memory – I absorbed everything! This was the 60’s! An exciting; impressionable, changing time for everyone!
My neighbour asked me to photograph his jewellery for his business. At the time I had returned to college for graphic arts – originally I had received a full scholarship to Sheridan Art College in Ontario, but I declined to move to Vancouver B.C.. I worked for seven years and then I decided to return college in Vancouver B.C.. I was a A/B student within the graphic program…but I was bored, so I dropped out of college, asked my neighbour (a master goldsmith from Lebanon ) if I could apprentice in his shop to learn the trade. Today, there are no private apprentice positions; without prior schooling these types of apprentice learning experiences only happen within families…one generation to the next. I am truly grateful – thank you George.
What are some of the different characteristics of your art? What are some of your methods? Where do you start? How do you work?
The art of jewellery making is one of the oldest trades/forms of art; involving so many different aspects. For me a typical piece starts from a vision – ie. could be a pattern I have seen…in my head I am creating that object…envisioning how the pattern will incorporate into a piece of jewelry. From there I go to paper, drawing the pattern, then the items, making changes until I find the right balance esthetically and for functionality. All the while I am visually making the piece in my head…in essence I work backwards. A little different than say an artist whom paints – the painting evolves. For me in jewellery, I know what I want , visually I can see the finished piece in my mind and then I determine the steps that are going to be needed in order to create that particular piece. To make jewellery it encompasses so many different applications – designing, hand fabrication or lost wax casting, wax carving, model making, setting, engraving, stone cutting or polishing, finishing the piece – polishing by hand or machine, stringing (ie. pearls, semi precious stones) and appraising. Each object is created differently – it all depends on the design. My preference when making a piece of jewellery is hand fabrication – it‘s a challenge that takes skill, knowledge and patience. The luxury of a handmade piece is evident in the quality, it’s much cleaner than a cast piece, it’s typically heavier – for the wearer it’s like comparing couture and ready to wear.
What are some of the aspects of goldsmith/jewelry design that someone who doesn’t understand the profession would never think of?
The most misunderstood aspect of jewelry making is the amount of labour that goes in to every piece. I remember once a customer was shocked at how gold bullion looked, he thought all gold was shiny and finished from the get go – if that were the case three quarters of the work would already be done. Metal needs to be manipulated to get desired effects – this is where it turns into an art form.
Talk a little bit about your training or schooling. What was it like? What were classes like if you took formal classes? How did your training prepare you for your career?
My whole life was training or educational that directly affected my career. My family was my biggest adjudication board if you will…we always evaluated each other’s work – you never had to ask…put a bunch of artist’s in a room and that is what you will get! With that said, my upbringing was a very positive environment – I was never told “you shouldn’t do this or that”; I was always encouraged to explore that side of myself which gave me a confidence in my art, my life and for my career. I never attended a school for jewellery; I apprenticed privately through a close family tie. I had to support myself the whole time and eventually I went back to work to earn a living while still producing jewellery – this enabled myself to purchase the equipment needed in order for me to be more independent. Because I am so visual, I am very much hands on, very competent with my hands, having an artistic background, photographic memory…all these aspects have had an impact in my career. There is one aspect of my training that had a profound impact on myself and my work. Traditionally, trades are held by men… with that said I was one of five women I knew in the trade at that time – only three of us were actual goldsmiths. Being in a male dominated trade I had to prove myself – to gain their respect; and the only way of doing this was through the quality of my work. It would be safe to say – you need tough skin to work professionally in the jewellery industry – high stress levels – a lot of pressure; not everyone is up to the challenge.
How much of your learning/training was hands on, once you started your career?
Basically – every aspect…jewellery is hands on, you learn from your mistakes, Everything is a learning experience. You cannot just read a book or sit in a class and absorb information you need to experience it and with time your mistakes turn into successes! I have been in the jewellery world for 28 years and still every job is different; so you are continually learning, evolving – your skill level is there, but there’s always a different twist – a new challenge!
Describe the feelings you get from the creative process. What is the most gratifying aspect of your work?
Feelings – for me it’s total absorption in that particular piece. When I can see/visualize the object I envision making – it’s like being flooded with ideas, different views ie. what Does it look like on the inside of that bracelet? How wide? Will it be patterned inside? What type of clasp mechanism? Then I start envisioning the process of making that piece. Next step is to commit the idea to paper – making alterations until I like the finished Drawing – is it balanced, functional. I continue to work out the details until the design is completed and then I commit to the work bench…
Most gratifying – besides a sense of accomplishment, is the look of joy on the clients face as they experience trying on the piece for the first time – for me that is the true reward!
What are some of the things people should know before they go into business for themselves? Advice?
Success does not happen overnight – you need to be prepared for that, especially financially and if there is a bump in the road you need to be able to adapt…it’s not always smooth sailing. Having a business plan and goals are good, research your desired industry, apply yourself, be the best you can be at whatever you choose to do, be patient, nurture your business, keep learning always improve your skills, always put yourself out there – get feedback good or bad – go back to the drawing board and keep evolving.
How hard do you need to promote yourself and your designs in order to make a name for yourself?
I don’t see it as “hard” – I see promoting myself as a journey. You need to be creative even in marketing of one’s self. Equally important, don’t have the audacity to think you “know it all” – I love learning, creating – evolving as an artist.
How has art impacted your life? How is it a lifestyle for you? What kind of background helps you succeed in art as a career?
Art affects every aspect of life – form and functionality. There is not one thing in our every day lives that has not been designed…our clothing, the pen you write with, the car you drive, the chair you sit in…It all starts as an idea, a concept and then it is created
Through various steps of conception to the final product – it’s a creative process.
Art as a lifestyle – to me this is what I do, my whole life is about art – creating. Some people get up and go the their respective office – that person may be an accountant…me I do the same thing; just, I go into my studio.
My upbringing in an artistic family has definitely impacted my career as a goldsmith. For other people…there are accountants out there who paint and have quite the following. I don’t think it’s the background that will help any one person succeed in the arts, but rather a desire, a passion for their medium or craft – what moves them, makes them want to create!
What advice would you offer students pursuing an art career of any form?
Stay focused, positive, adaptable, embrace your failures – learn from them, be open minded, creative, push yourself – always strive to do and be better, follow your intuition, be humble and don’t take yourself too seriously.
You can visit Leslies website and check out more of her work at www.leslievangilsfinejewelry.c