This article frames a conversation with matt lambert around their most recent series in response to their PhD research, Self Care. Making its exhibition debut at Koru 7, Self Care consists of hand-made leather-bound cases in the language of luxury goods storage. The cases perfectly contain, protect, and conceal various gestures of the artist’s own hands: peace signs, clenched fists, fingers folded and outstretched. Folding over personal issues of care for fatigue and physical distress and the contemporary political climate, the objects blur and occupy the boundaries of personal and public expression.
lambert is a non-binary, trans, multidisciplinary object maker, jeweler, and co-conspirer working toward equity, inclusion, and reparation. They are a founder and facilitator of The Fulcrum Project and currently are a PhD student between Konstfack and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. They hold an MA in critical craft studies from Warren Wilson College and an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art.
This conversation holds space for the breaking apart of categories, whether jewelry-specific or universally impactful. We discuss the need for love, self-care, kinship, and destruction in order to build a world suitable for habitation. Jewelry—and the broad range of objects that that term may contain—plays a role in this process. Our dialogue explores what that role may be.
Steven KP: Your practice moves between so many disciplines, materials, and formats. When making a body of work, how do you start? What makes a project worth starting?
matt lambert: Either it rolls in my brain, or I wait for the right material or process to come—a lot of found objects or finding those right objects that ignite something. Or by meeting someone who I want to work with, which is a different kind of waiting.
From the outside it seems like the practice moves across disciplines or across concepts, but for me this is my discipline, this is my material, these are my processes. It’s just drawing or redrawing the boundaries of maps of what we think of as ownership, fields, or disciplines, and creating Venn diagrams with a few within them and saying, “this is my field, this is my place.” Denying bordering or nationalization and saying, “this is what you are,” and emphasizing that you don’t believe in these binaries, these divisions.
Speaking of boundaries and borders, you currently live and work in Stockholm after relocating during a global pandemic. How has that affected your practice or thinking?
matt lambert: It affected it greatly. At first I stopped really making at all. Or at least making things that could be purchased or consumed for a year. It really made me question what it means to make something that can be considered a commodity. What does it mean to make something new? Do we need new things right now? I started my PhD here and halted all production, making for making’s sake. It allowed me to really question why I feel the urge to be making objects—and I do need to be.
In the last month I’ve finally gone back to the bench and been able to make objects that I have control over. Also, really thinking about what is craft, what those terms mean, and living in an international discourse for this long has forced me to question how I define things. Always go back and reassess the moment you feel comfortable. When you’re comfortable you should always question why you’re comfortable, what you’re not looking at, what you’re not paying attention to, and how that allows you to be comfortable.
Is your adjustment in thinking more of a result of the relocation or of the step back from the bench?
matt lambert: That’s a really complex entanglement. Having just finished the Warren Wilson Program in Craft Theory and with a writing career taking off, it’s not really possible to separate those contexts right now. Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a better answer. The pandemic gave us “the time to do what we choose.” As someone with anxiety, I had a lot of time, but I had a lot of time to be anxious. I had a lot of time to be consumed by what was going on in the world. It didn’t really give me the time to step forward on my work.
That entanglement is really interesting to think about, especially as it relates to your most recent body of work. Self Care was recently exhibited at Koru 7. This collection started with a very specific history and category of objects: presentation boxes.
matt lambert: I have a background in leatherworking, and I’m always interested in the language, the vernacular of jewelry—the discourses around the objects as well. There is a whole discourse of makers who have played around with the clamshell case or the presentation box and it has always kind of rolled around in my head.
I went to the Hermitage in Amsterdam in 2020 for an exhibition of jewels—the collection of the Russian Court—and found myself more drawn to the cases. The jewels were beautiful, but they kind of overwhelmed me. So many diamonds, so much glitter. The cases are something I had never seen in person before. I wanted to know more about them—what’s underneath them, how they are made. But of course these are the objects with the least information on the wall. They become kind of a support or a background function, which I am always thinking about. The hidden figures of the work, the places of rest for the objects. The exhibit [also] got into domestic objects: pipe cases, cases for the heads of canes. I realized, “Oh, the case doesn’t need to fully encapsulate the object, it can protect portions of it.” And the logical question for me was, “can I make cases for my body?” Can I make cases for specific parts of my body?
Working within a very specific lineage or level of access can be challenging when creating accessible work. In your display cases, how are you situating your gestures, your hands, as the objects they contain?
matt lambert: There is a lot of baggage that one could put on these objects—and I love that. I’m always drawn to things in which there is ambiguity, multiple interpretations. One facet is absolutely the commodification of self-care and this need to purchase things—the face mask, the bath bomb. You can’t relax, take care, without purchasing something.
As I really started to work with my hands I discovered—probably from doing a lot more writing and making—tendonitis, something in my hands that made it very, very painful, having to wear braces, and feeling disconnected from the things I used to make every aspect of my life. And being scared. How do you be a craftsperson with damaged hands? I was questioning the value of my own hands and thinking about what it means to use or take care of them.
Another thing that gets added onto these objects is what is going on politically in the world. The rise of movements like BLM, more awareness, or at least discussion of inequality through the lack of funding and resources, the more intersectional you get, the more complex it is with people being ignored or harmed, not cared for. Seeing the rise of the diversity statement through social media, and these very canned responses to very real issues, makes me wonder what it means to have these gestures of care or solidarity present. What is their value? These are kind of think pieces to work through the question of where the gesture is valuable, or becomes devalued.
The questions of value and preservation are really interesting in the context of making cases to hold these gestures in place. Creating boxes that they fit into but are then held in place within. What does it mean to you to take a verb, like making a fist, or an action, like signaling for peace, and then protect it and also conceal it within a case? What does it mean to put these gestures in a box?
matt lambert: The important question is, “when do these gestures need to be seen, when do they need to be heard?” Always checking your privilege and point of your body. When are you the one who needs to be listening, when is passing important, when is passing abusive, these complex questions get raised by these pieces. And [I’m not] trying to answer them, my practice has been leaning more and more into questions without needing the answers. They can be talking points. And that’s part of the reason why jewelry, or the language of jewelry, can be so amazing. Because it can ask so many questions. If I freeze this object—this gesture—is it still imporant? Does it still have power? If I hide it is it still important?
Self-care has been such a topic of popular discussion. What aspects of this discussion do you wish were more focused on in your perception of the dialogue?
matt lambert: I wish that our perception of self-care didn’t require the purchasing of something. It can come at costs of course, saying no to things, slowing down. But I am more interested in the “cost to what?” To question why we don’t care. And that’s where self-care really extends into community care. Our ability to care for others is about our own personal care.
You often work in various collaborative models. In this particular work, how did that look?
matt lambert: Whenever I collaborate there is always an initial conversation of what that actually means to each of us. What is equitable? What does money look like? It’s important to have what people think of as ugly conversations. I find that it opens up trust. What do you want, is money up front, how do you want to be credited, do you want your name attached to this? Do you want to be listed as a collaborator or for hire? Do you want a percentage of the sales? What is your level of investment in this project?
In this particularly project (the cases), somebody I met asked to not have their name listed, and that happens sometimes. Especially with a lot of people who work in craft. Some people are very uncomfortable with those labels. It was such a joy working with someone who worked in leather because we could talk about small details. What ounce leather, what stitches worked best, what colors, how should it be tanned and treated, and what are our options? I took all the molds of my own hands in these gestures and then shipped them to them. And then seeing what happens. I didn’t have ultimate control, I’m giving someone a piece, a form of my body, which continues these metaphors of self-care and bodily autonomy.
These objects were selected for and exhibited at Koru 7, an international triennial of contemporary works by contemporary jewelry artists put on by Korutaide-yhdistys, the Finnish Jewelry Society, at the South Karelia Museum, in Lappeenranta, Finland. How did you situate these objects and these practices with dialogues with jewelry or dialogues around jewelry?
matt lambert: I look at the people I’ve studied under or worked with—Lauren Kalman, Iris Eichenberg, Christoph Zellweger, Evan Larson, to name a few—all of those people have instilled in me that there is always a question of “what is the jewelry”? Is it all jewelry? What could it be?
When you line these up and look at my background it stirs together and entangles to make a sort of logical sense on how I’ve gotten to where I am when looking at the work I make now. But I’m not really interested in jewelry as a format, I’m interested in jewelry as a language. My research now is concerned with craft—especially jewelry, but also zooming out to craft—to look at what it adds to a discourse in the world right now. I’m interested in how objects exist in the world. What happens after we make the physical object? While I was there and speaking at the symposium, those questions never got raised. No one really challenged that these objects were in some way not jewelry—because they are. They’re wearable, they go over my hand, and they lock on my wrists. It’s arguably one of the more realistically—due to scale—wearable pieces of “jewelry” that I’ve made in a while.
When they went through customs, the cases were actually split open and tested for their contents. It’s really interesting to me how a case meant for self-care gets split open as it crosses borders. I could see the fingerprints of the customs workers on the inside of the cases. To me, it adds to this conversation of lineage and heirloom, and collecting the stories these objects pick up. Another layer of complexity.
I’m really curious for someone who thinks these aren’t jewelry to tell me why. That would be a fun conversation.
The language around which or the lens these objects are viewed through can situate our understanding of them, but what you’re getting at is that those tools of understanding are always shifting. We’ve talked a lot about conversations or community. What are the conversations in jewelry or amongst jewelers that you want to see happening more?
matt lambert: Two of the big questions I’m really interested in now are, “What would life look like without jewelry?” And “What else could be jewelry?” Really expanding our boundaries and being inclusive and celebrating, rather than saying “is this jewelry” or defining what can or cannot be jewelry. Being concerned with where those borders are really limits what we can do with jewelry. I’m really concerned about what happens when we put craft and jewelry in bigger, theoretical conversations and in other fields like performance or the humanities.
These broadenings also just enrich us and our understanding. These boundaries sometimes no longer help us understand, but they become more about containing, limiting, or gate-keeping.
matt lambert: And also question why we need to have such clear definitions for everybody and everything. We can all have our own definitions and understandings. A curator can have their own definition. A book can have its own definition. We’re learning how important positionality is in critical writing. Stating where you’re from and who you are at that time, what lens you’re thinking through on this issue. And then not being tied to that. We’re human and we’re going to change. This is something that you should be doing in the academic or communal discourses. It’s a conversation of “this is who I am, this is where I’m at in this moment.” That doesn’t mean that positionality is “right” or “wrong.” It just means that it’s a point of view.
There is such richness to this discussion, and it all stems from these objects, which at the end of the day are quite “simple.” They are leather cases that hold something as familiar as a fist, a peace sign. But within them they contain these strata of dialogues that are really complex but real issues. These issues of care aren’t just abstract or metaphysical, they’re very physical. Where do you see this particular work or this aspect of your practice going?
matt lambert: My work is never really linear, and I don’t really think in groups or series. I’m excited by the things I make that offer so many different interpretations or live with the complexity of our lives. I don’t have really clear ideas on where these go from here, but I’m definitely carrying them forward with me.
Series can very easily fall into commodity, capitalistic, and the production of something new in the object. An object doesn’t need to be newly made to be new. A new arrangement, or the placement or situation, can make something new. It doesn’t always have to be a new consumable thing.
Is a piece of jewelry new every time it’s worn by a wearer?
matt lambert: That’s up to you. That’s what’s so exciting. Certain pieces can be big and bold in one outfit or situation and really demure on another. The piece can reflect entirely different things or emotions in certain situations. That changes the work.
The position of flux that jewelry occupies is why jewelry can be such a powerful place to bring people in and to move through dialogues with. We need to bring more people in, but also bring jewelry out. Out to hear new ideas and bring new possibilities to it. Jewelry is such an old way of thought and it’s clearly not going away.
The one thing that might be moving is those discourses. As they move, I’m interested in how we include voices—and include not as in tokenize, but include and support systems and structures of care.