Meet Whitecliffe Jewellery Lecturer Denise Callan

Returning to study after a 25-year hiatus was no barrier to success for contemporary jewellery artist Denise Callan. In fact, since launching her jewellery design studies in 2018, the former Whitecliffe student has rapidly been making a name for herself, winning awards, exhibiting nationally and internationally, and helping shape Aotearoa New Zealand’s next generation of makers.

Now a jewellery lecturer at Whitecliffe, Denise divides her time between the classroom and her Auckland studio, where she creates unique pieces of jewellery for multiple exhibitions and installations. In the last few weeks alone Denise has wrapped up a successful solo show ‘Dear Public’ at Masterworks and is now part of a Handshake8 group show ‘Proof of Concept’ which runs at Depot Artspace through until December 20.

It's a busy life for the talented artist, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My jewellery-making journey has been life-changing,” says Denise, who in addition to working at Whitecliffe is also part of the Handshake project (HS), a two-year mentoring programme designed to support emerging New Zealand jewellery artists.

“I had my first child at 18 and didn’t have the opportunity to return to study until I was in my late 30s when my youngest started intermediate. My husband bought me a ring from a lady who handmakes, and I thought I’d like to give it a go. At the time I didn’t understand the whole world of contemporary jewellery or art jewellery. It was a huge awakening and I’ve learnt so much about myself.”

Jewellery has always held great fascination for Denise, who recalls talking to her grandmother about who would inherit which rings, along with childhood visits to the jewellery workshop where her mother was once employed.

“I didn’t realise it at the time but the seed was being sown! I’ve always been a maker – I made pretty much anything when I was growing up – but there was always something special about jewellery. Jewellery connects people. It doesn’t matter what culture you are from, there is always a sentimental piece of jewellery that connects you to your history. I don’t think there is anything else object-wise that we connect with in the same way and that’s why I think jewellery has such a unique place in the art world. It has a fascinating connection to the body and its link to our identity is probably what drives my work.”

Denise’s work isn’t confined to specific metals or forms, rather it revolves around ordinary human experiences and the social constructs we operate within.

“These core ideas are what impacts everything else in my work, from form to material choice.”

Denise graduated from Whitecliffe in 2022 as the top student in the Bachelor of Jewellery Design and Technology and says the programme has been pivotal to her success.

“The opportunities we got at Whitecliffe to do group shows were huge. They provided real-world situations that gave us a real-world perspective. You get to see how your assessments and exercises follow through and help you as an actual artist. For example, writing about your work is not just an exercise for getting grades, it’s something that you will be required to do throughout your career.”

The “making rigour” was another big highlight: “We were constantly being critiqued and pushed to figure out the best way to make. Having a robust design process was one of the things that kept driving me forward. That’s one of the things Whitecliffe tutors are all good at, and they’re also very active and well respected in the jewellery world and very generous in the sharing of their knowledge. There are no huge egos – just huge experience.”

And now Denise is among them, as one of two Whitecliffe lecturers delivering the Level 4 Certificate in Jewellery, an 18-week programme that serves as the ideal first step for creatives keen to pursue a career in the jewellery or goldsmithing industry.

“I have the best job in some ways. Many students come in knowing nothing about how to make jewellery and by the end of the course, they can pretty much make anything. We give them the knowledge to delve into lots of different areas, and I love seeing them wake up to the potential of jewellery and all it signifies. After completing the certificate programme students could go on to work as a bench jeweller, or in a jewellery shop or with a jewellery supplier. They also graduate with enough of a base to begin designing and selling.”

However most students pathway into further studies such as Whitecliffe’s Bachelor of Jewellery Design and Technology.

“Whitecliffe is the only place in the North Island that you can do accredited jewellery studies and the bachelor’s degree opens up so many exciting opportunities. Our graduates have gone into so many different areas, starting their own businesses, making for the likes of Meadowlark and Partridge Jewellers, or becoming jewellery artists and exhibiting. Some have gone into gemology and others are working in film making props for movies like Lord of the Rings. There’s a lot you can do with that bachelor’s.”

Her advice to anyone thinking of studying jewellery at Whitecliffe?

“Give it a go! You don’t know what’s possible until you start. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I am so glad I did it. Jewellery making is hard – it builds resilience and character and it challenges you, not just physically in terms of making, but also in terms of thinking. These challenges teach you so much about yourself.”

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