Alice Whish

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The creative bug bit Alice Whish during her six years at New England Girls’ School. But there’s a big difference between creating patterns by peeling glue off a dormitory cupboard door to making and designing jewellery for Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrmann’s epic ‘Australia’. This is her story.

> Tell us a little about your background and how you become a jeweller?

I grew up in Inverell and went to NEGS as a boarder from Year 7 to 12. At NEGS I enjoyed Art and Design, and the craft studios. I particularly enjoyed these studios, as on occasion it was possible to have the key at the weekend and you could go and access the facilities – particularly if you were looking after the kiln firing that weekend.

I studied at the Sydney College of the Arts, majoring in Jewellery and Object Design.

> How did you become involved in the making of ‘Australia’? 

I was asked to join the costume department at Fox Studios when Louise Hamby, the anthropologist I have worked with in Arnhem Land over many years, was employed as the consulting anthropologist on the movie. Louise recommended a colleague and I, as she knew that we had experience in the area and were skilled in the construction of textile and wearable objects. 

That made us well placed to work on the indigenous wearables in the movie. I did go into the filming studio occasionally when Hugh and Nicole were on the set. However, with 600 people working in costume, you don’t really get to meet them. 

> What was it like working in Arnhem Land?

Working in Arnhem Land has been a great experience. In Arnhem Land I usually just spend time learning about the environment, working with natural materials, and learning techniques for processing and constructing each material. 

My work, for a time, has become more reliant on simple metalworking techniques, abandoning industrial processes, and computer aided design for simple studio techniques of sawing and cutting silver. Then combining these with the natural materials, such as ochre.

> How did your time at NEGS affect your choice of career?

I came to NEGS to board in Year 7. There I discovered the delights of the stationery shop, open once a week, and I have been a stationery addict ever since. I also discovered they sold Tarzan’s Grip – a fantastic model aeroplane glue – clear, smelling of solvents, and stretchy when dry. In Term 2, I was placed in a dormitory of six girls, on the top floor of Foster House, which is now the Music Block. I was so excited to be in this dormitory with all those girls in one room and on the top floor with a view. There were six beds round the walls and six cupboard doors (beautifully varnished) along one wall. 

The first afternoon after school we all set about decorating our new dormitory with posters and trinkets. I noticed my cupboard door had a tiny blob of old dried, Tarzan’s Grip on it. Intent on removing all evidence that someone else once used this cupboard, I picked it off, discovering to my delight that it removed the varnish beautifully, revealing the clean, cream, wood underneath. What a perfect drawing technique! I covered my cupboard door with smiley faces, love hearts, and big flowers, top to bottom. Everyone thought it was great and got out their Tarzan’s Grip and did the same. Unfortunately, we were grounded for the whole term as a result – and this was only Week 1! 

The following Saturday the doors were waiting for us to sand and re-varnish. With the help of the school handyman, his tuition and advice, I learned how to sand, which paper to use and how to apply the varnish. The morning turned out to be the most fun I’d had in a long time!

> What is it you most love about jewellery making?

I enjoy making jewellery, because it links people together. I make jewellery pieces, which are designed to be given and then worn by a loved one. Jewellery objects – rings, brooches, precious stones – are loaded with visual symbols and emotions, with memories of past owners of ancestors who once owned and wore them. Jewellery is social glue; it brings people together and it links people in families down the generations. 

A brooch once owned, worn and loved by a grandmother is today worn by her granddaughter. And as she wears the brooch throughout the day, she is reminded of the memories of that grandmother who has passed away. 

Women are lucky that they have many jewellery objects that link them to their past and to their maternal ancestors. Men are not so lucky. There are fewer objects left for them to wear – only occasionally a watch or signet ring. 

> What kind of pieces do you make?

I work across a range of areas – in particular commissions and exhibition work, as well as studio production and small runs of work. I also sell my work and the work of other contemporary jewellers through the Definite Style website: www.definitestyle.com. This site retails work locally and internationally. 

There are always exhibitions and projects in the planning. I am currently working on a series of workshops in Arnhem Land with three artists: an Aboriginal artist, Mavis Ganambarr, who makes wonderful baskets; a hat maker, Rosie Boylan, who made the hats for Australia; and me with my jewellery. We are seeking funding to run 10 days of workshops at Galiwinku for the women artists of the Mathakal Art Centre.

> What does the future hold for you? 

I intend continuing with my art practice across the many areas of life that it takes me. 

This includes residencies, exhibitions and studio production works. In the next year I hope to spend more time developing my website, Definite Style, as it is a great model and offers other artists retail opportunities from their studio without actually having to make anything more until they are sure of a sale. 

I hope to secure funding for the workshop at Galiwinku, and I expect an exhibition to develop from this. 

Having worked on Australia and the London Ballet production of the Nutcracker, I’d love to do more costume work if it came my way. 

> Thank you Alice.

To see Alice’s work visit www.definitestyle.com

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