Unnatural beauty

High-tech jewelry at Florida Craftsmen; shopping-cart photos at C. Emerson Gallery.

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge NOT GARLIC: But "Sphere," by Donna Sweigart, looks like it could ward off vampires. - Courtesy Of The Artist
Courtesy Of The Artist
NOT GARLIC: But "Sphere," by Donna Sweigart, looks like it could ward off vampires.

When Donna Sweigart and I meet at the Globe Coffee Lounge in St. Pete to talk about her artwork, she whips out a plastic container full of pieces to show me. But as she places the objects on the table, I only become more perplexed. There's a lightweight sphere of white plastic — a bigger cousin to the ping-pong ball — with a blinking red light inside. Next, a rubbery, pomegranate-colored bulb split into four sections. Then a cube decorated with triangles in earthy hues.

For jewelry, this is a brave new world. Without proper introductions from Sweigart, you might be hard pressed — as was I — to understand how some of the pieces translate into accessories you can wear. The white ball (fairly self-explanatory) fits on the finger as a ring. The red bulb (less obvious, but still intuitive) is a flower, with four petals that can be turned open. At its base, a plastic lip lets the wearer attach it to clothing with a rubber band for an instant brooch. The cube (most mysterious of all, at first glance) unfolds to reveal a bracelet of triangles held together by a strip of elastic.

Is this art or craft? Science fiction might be a better description. The more you learn about Sweigart's creations, the more mind-bogglingly weird and amazing they turn out to be. Her materials are markedly unusual: polymers and plaster, some pieces coated with metal in an electrolyte solution. Her shapes — large, eye-catching geometrical constructions — are equally unconventional. But most intriguing is the process by which her pieces are born, first designed by Sweigart on a computer, then "printed" on high-tech rapid prototype machines.

This weekend, you'll get a chance to see for yourself when Sweigart debuts an exhibition and trunk sale of her jewelry at Florida Craftsmen Gallery. At Friday night's opening reception, models will show off the inventive pieces, each worthy of a double- or triple-take. Sweigart will give a talk about her process and the technology involved to spell out exactly what it is you're ogling when one of her creations walks by.

My epiphany came in the form of a short video she showed me, created by a former classmate who uses the same rapid prototyping method. Different machines use different processes, but in a nutshell, the rapid prototype printers Sweigart employs make her jewelry "print" plastic in three dimensions. The process begins with a design file — created by the artist in a computer-assisted design program — that tells the printer what to do. In the process we watched, lasers slowly etched out solid plastic shapes in two dimensions from a bath of liquid resin, piling up the paper-thin layers of plastic until a three dimensional shape was born. The process can take days — and it can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

For Sweigart, who is well versed in the traditional techniques of jewelry-making as well, the effort and expense is worth it to ride the wave of the future. Many major players in the jewelry industry have already adopted the technique to create models, she says. Her jewelry is unique in that the "prototype" is the final product. (Only a handful of designers around the country are known for their rapid prototype jewelry, she says.)

Sweigart acquired her high-tech know-how in a cutting-edge program at Tyler School of Art, a division of Temple University in Philadelphia. In school, she recalls, teachers paid her the double-edged compliment of saying that, of all the students', her work was least like (the conventional idea of) jewelry.

The 33-year-old has been keeping busy in the Bay area by teaching at the Art Institute of Tampa and USF St. Pete, but she won't be around for long. A day after our tête-a-tête at the Globe, Sweigart called me with the exciting news that the University of Texas-Pan American had offered her a visiting professor position in a multidisciplinary design program.

Her new job starts next week.

Head a few blocks up Central Avenue to check out an exhibit called Film Lingual I at C. Emerson Gallery. The show presents an enjoyable hodgepodge of photographic styles — from the documentary to the abstract to postmodern narratives — with a couple of film and video pieces thrown in for good measure. All the participating artists are local except Craig Robinson, a Gallup, N.M., resident whose work I found to be among the strongest on view.

Robinson's aesthetic obsession is the lowly shopping cart, which he photographs in dramatic compositions — as he finds them, almost never staged — around the gritty Western city he has called home since 2000. With a practiced photographer's eye for light, contrast and texture, the former photojournalist and Marine snaps surprisingly affective images of the carts, often evoking wounded soldiers stranded in a hostile landscape.

Beyond their striking technical success, the images offer a tragicomic metaphor for humankind's consumerist mania and its destructive effect on the natural environment. To his credit, Robinson leaves the viewer to decide to what extent the result is beautiful or appalling.

The titles he bestows on the images tend to be a bit grandiose ("No Time for Poetry" reads the inscription below one decimated cart) — and I can't condone the practice of printing the title and the artist's "signature" in a computer font on the prints. But aside from those forgivable sins, the photographs are fantastic. (You can see dozens, some more sublime than others, at his website: happycarts.com.)

If you missed the exhibit's opening reception earlier this month, stop by on Fri., Sept. 21, 7-10 p.m. for a closing fête with talks by some of the other artists involved.

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.