Catalysts

Jessica Mohl explores the beauty of the natural world by shaping metal. Her husband, Assistant Professor of Art Damon Mohl, made a film inspired by birdsong. 

Jessica creates “an illusion of growth, life, and decay” with her metalwork. With his full-scale and miniature sets, costumes, and props, Damon creates illusions of all kinds in his films. 

Their exhibitions opening the 2019—2020 season in the Eric Dean Gallery of the Fine Arts Center this fall—Unholding and The Bellbird’s Morning Song—were separate and as different as art can be. But the passion they pour into their work was one obvious common thread. 

Damon is dedicated to making art—“the language that embodies and evokes that which cannot be rationalized or explained”—while Jessica says her work makes her “a catalyst in creating something new.” 

Shaping and hammering metal this way, she says, “is a pursuit that reminds me I’m alive.”

The Bellbird’s Morning Song 

In 2018 I spent a month traveling New Zealand for course research. Before the trip I had sketches for an experimental film, but the fragmented images never connected. I arrived and started filming without a clear sense of the project. Traveling in a camper van I woke up earlier each day to the cacophony of birds singing before dawn. One song stood out because of its melodic, contemplative nature and haunting strangeness. This was the song of the Bellbird, and for the rest of the trip I set my alarm so I could record the Bellbird’s morning song. These audio recordings led me to a new idea, and I ended up creating an entirely different film—a ghost story. 

It is compelling the way an image or sound can lodge itself in the subconscious and open up an expansive idea.                                                                —Damon Mohl 

I’ve always wanted to work with metal

Jessica Mohl presented a gallery talk about her work for the exhibition and provided these notes for WM.

I remember being a child and sitting under the kitchen table pretending I was a jeweler “repairing” my own little collection of necklaces and charms.  I grew up with my grandmother and she had a huge collection of costume jewelry- from plastic beads and faux pearls, to jewelry made of seashells and painted butterfly wings.  She kept it all in a large wooden jewelry box and in the top drawers of her dresser, each piece carefully wrapped in a little napkin.  Sometimes, she would go through her jewelry, unwrap each piece, and show it to me.  It was the most beautiful collection on earth.  I have loved jewelry and metalwork ever since.

I always knew I was an artist and I found working with my hands as a way to most easily express myself. When I was a junior in high school, I enrolled in a new course that focused on 3-dimensional art.  I discovered metal as an art medium for the first time and I was so excited that I borrowed sandpaper and files so that I could work on my projects outside of school because we didn’t have things like that at home.  Over the years, I built up a portfolio of artwork, ranging from drawings and paintings, to ceramic pieces and small metal work.  Thanks to the insistence of my Mother, I applied to college and was accepted. 

I am the first person in my family to go to college. At Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, I began as a drawing and painting major until one fateful semester when a painting class I needed for my degree plan was full.   So I instead enrolled in an elective course, beginning jewelry and metalsmithing.  A few weeks into the semester, I had an epiphany: I’ve always wanted to work with metal, and I changed my studio arts concentration from drawing to metalsmithing.   After graduating from college, I went on to earn my Master’s degree in the fine arts from The University of North Texas with an even deeper focus on jewelry and metalsmithing. 

I’m inspired by the tiny, often overlooked details in nature, especially objects that contain and hold something else.  Seedpods and flower buds, eggs and cocoons, geodes and fossils, are all fascinating because they contain mystery, possibility, and potential.  I see them as poignant symbolic metaphors, and this idea is one of the central themes in my work.  Over time, my sculptural work has evolved from simple enclosed, self-contained forms to open forms that extend outward or consist of multiple pieces that can be removed and opened.  I believe this change is in part because of my own experiences and growth and because I’ve learned to thoughtfully consider, and intuitively respond to my material- whether it is a desiccated seedpod, a partially open geode, or a pristine sheet of copper.  

Process is a huge part of my work.  In particular, I love forming and raising metal to shape and create naturalistic and organic 3-dimensional forms.  Nearly everything I make begins as a flat sheet of metal that is approximately 12” by 12” and 1 millimeter thick.  My favorite materials to use are copper, bronze and sterling silver.  In my simple jewelry line work, my sole concern is design and process.  These are relatively quick to begin and finish.  However, in my sculpture, each piece begins as an idea or a fragment of a vision inspired by something I’ve read, seen, or experienced.  Sometimes I live with and grow these works in progress for months and years. 

After graduate school there was a period of a few years when I didn’t have a torch to solder with or a soundproof area in which to hammer metal because I lived in an apartment building. So I put my energy into planning projects, drawing, writing, and teaching.  (And I dabbled in beads…)  When I finally moved into a place with a garage, I bought my first acetylene/ air torch and began a small line of silver and semi-precious gemstone jewelry.  Still today, I continue to produce my humble little jewelry line, usually completing a “jeweler’s dozen” of pendants, rings, or earrings every few months.  Now, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, I am finally again in a place where I can create substantial metalwork pieces that require hammering and forming.  

I am so grateful to be able to make metalwork.  Many of the pieces in Unholding were finished specifically for this exhibition at Wabash College.   am fortunate to have the space, energy, and time to devote to doing what I love. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a child fixing a little brass charm necklace underneath the kitchen table.

—Jessica Mohl