Interview: Ali Munn, Metal Artist

Alison Munn is a Calgary native currently residing on the western coast of Canada. Her intuitive handcrafting nature is marked by her unique craftsmanship and skill for metalwork. Alison gives a softness that accentuates the durability of the metal pieces, endowing their natural strength with a sense of femininity suitable for women of many tastes. Her diverse skills transcend the art of jewelry and dip into the experimental nature of metalwork from various angles, degrees and periods of time. Alison divests the material of its predisposed links to industrial origins by lending her creative talent to a craft often undermined by its rough aesthetic properties and gives it life.

I was immediately taken by her thick flowing hair and blunt bangs that could eventually become her iconic look of recognition. It did not take the attention away from her welcoming gestures and warm conversation that set the tone of the forthcoming conversation. Ali is a frequent Instagram-er and profiles her updated pieces for her followers. Her workspace is shared with three fellow artists in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown, a true representation of a working space fuelled by creative incandescence.

Tell me a little bit about why you started doing this.

I started making jewelry when I was working in a beading and jewelry store while I was living in Calgary, Alberta and I did some basic repair work there for the owner of the store. She offered me to take a class at the Alberta College for Design, one of the extended studies courses, to learns basic soldering so that I could continue doing repairs for the store. I did an introductory silversmithing class there and I really loved it. I continued to take evening classes and learn different skills. When I began to look into going back to school full time I thought that would be a neat option to try.

What brought you to Vancouver?

I moved here for the program in September of 2012 for the full-time jewelry program at VCC. It’s been a great way to try different things and then continue to work on the techniques that appeal to you. There is a great selection of equipment there to play with, some traditional techniques and others more modern.

What kind of clients express interest in your work? Is there a general type?

At this point, I’ve actually been surprised at some of the pieces that have appealed to people that I wouldn’t have picked out with those people in mind. That’s kind of fun sometimes – to see something you made, that you didn’t have a certain person in mind for, being sought after by someone who really loves it. I don’t necessarily design for a specific type of person, it’s meant for whoever loves it.

Do you get any custom requests?

Yeah definitely. Often people who have seen a certain technique that I have used would contact me and say ‘oh I loved this one, would you be interested in making a piece that uses that technique but in the form of a ring?’ or another form. Sometime they ask for personalized elements that they want to have engraved on it, or stones that they want me to use. I really like making unique pieces for people, creating piece that are almost like a unique heirloom and become very personal. It’s a lot more fun than making something that you are trying to make appealing towards a mass market.

Do you have a current retailer or wholesaler who carries your pieces?

Yes. There is a store called Cavalier in Gastown that carries my pieces. Currently that’s the only store that I work with at this time.

Exciting, is that a recent collaboration?

Yeah, they opened last summer, and I got in contact with them once they opened in June. It makes a big difference when you make things by hand, and sometimes people that are interested might go to the shop and try it on before making the decision to buy.

In your opinion, what makes a person drawn towards heavy-type, raw metal jewelry as opposed to thinner, plated pieces?

Well it depends on what you are looking for. For me, I like the workability and the property of some of the metals I have worked with. A big part of my process is how a metal responds to being worked with. Some people do prefer to work with copper for instance. When you get into working with finer metals, they do have some nice working properties, and it’s also about knowing that you are creating something for durability, knowing that it will last a long time. If I make someone a handmade product, I want them to be able to keep it forever, I want to have faith that it won’t break. I would much rather craft something from beginning to end than assemble different pieces together.

What’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up in the morning?

(Laughs) ‘Where can I get some coffee?’ is probably the first thing on my mind. And ‘do I have enough milk’ and if not ‘where will I go?’.

Give me one word to describe your creative process.

Evolutionary. A process of building. It’s not about working towards one single thing, it continues to build as I go along.

And do you have a certain goal in mind when you are working?

Sometimes. If I am working on something that needs to be planned, like a piece that requires a specific process, technique or materials, then I’ll have to be very organized from the very beginning. But sometimes it’s also fun to sit down and hack away at something until it becomes something that I like. I guess it depends on if it’s a piece that I am aiming to create, whether it can be more organic and not perfect in form. If I have something specific in my mind, then I will usually sit down and make some drawings to plan how I can make that, but if it’s an experiment, then I don’t really need to have a goal in mind.

Do you find that you had similar drives when you were younger or is this something that developed over time?

I think that I have always been involved in making something, like drawing and working with my hands. I wasn’t really ever making sculptural things until I started working with metal. Once I got into working with metal I also experimented working with wood and plaster.

Do you also make things from wood?

I quite poorly make things from wood, yes (laughs). I have taken some woodworking classes. It’s still something I am interested in learning more about, maybe once I am done with my school, that is something I would like to do more of. There’s a few places I would like to look into on Vancouver Island, a few people run classes there. I would love to learn how to make furniture. I have a friend who has done a cabinet maker’s apprenticeship, and she is recruiting my help to make chairs within a few months from now, so I am working my way up there.

Maybe you could combine your metalwork with the woodwork for the furniture design … ?

That’s actually really cool. I was talking to a friend who gave me a few woodworking classes, and he does this amazing process in which he takes imperfections of the wood and pours metal into them. If there a big knot in the wood, he would pour copper into it to fill it. It was really cool. I guess in that way it’s about using techniques that can lend itself to one another.

In your opinion, what could most people use more of?

Hmm patience? I could use more patience with some things. I think there is a lot to be gained from persisting with things, instead of just giving up when it gets hard and frustrating.

That’s true. Do you find that working through the process of metalwork you learn to cultivate patience?

I think that it’s one of the reasons why I know that I love doing this. It’s because of how much patience I have with it. There are very few other things with which I could spend so much time on as I am able to with this.

I suppose it’s a good sign that you are happy with it.

It’s definitely true for some of the techniques – you don’t have much choice and you really have to put in the hours before mastering it and learning to do it properly.

I think it’s also a misconception for many people. They are quick to assume that a person is just talented and don’t realize the amount of work that had to go into it.

You have to put in the hours for sure. You might have a certain knack for some things, but everything takes time.

What does happiness mean to you?

(Laughs) Can we come back to that? I’m going to have to think on that one, I don’t know …

Are there any certain individuals that inspire you?

I don’t think there is anyone particular. I think that each time I meet someone who has a particular perspective or attitude in regards to what they are doing, they may inspire me, or other people in general. For a while I was using a lot of Victorian symbols in my work that I thought were really interesting. They have a very complicated directory of symbols and images that have such precise meanings linked to them. You can look at drawings or motifs based on the images or symbols used. You can almost tell the story from the picture and what they are trying to communicate. For example, there is a woman, weeping beside an urn, sitting underneath a willow tree. When you actually look into the meaning behind the image, the ring is intended for a specific person who has had something happen to them. It always links back to a larger story.

I guess it is also similar to the majority of second-hand jewellery. Many people go hunting for that one special item with a history behind it. Someone wore it for a lifetime before yours and you wonder what they did with it.

Jewelry is such a personal thing. It’s often used for many landmarks within a lifetime. I think one of the great things about having jewelry that you feel a certain attachment with is that if you have a favourite ring, you can wear it everyday, whereas, if you have a favourite sweater you cannot do the same. It becomes a staple within your life.

Do you have a certain goal in mind for the next few years once you have completed your program?

I think my personal goal is spend as much time at the bench as possible and just be able to make things. To be self-employed would be wonderful but in terms of a more short-term goal, I just want to continue to learn different techniques and to hone my skills while making unique pieces.

That’s the best part about being involved with something that you love to do.

That’s the neat thing, because I am just getting started. Sometimes I walk by with a second glance and think ‘I MADE that’, it’s a great feeling. I think that’s why many people get started with making jewelry as well. Once you have that idea of something that you wanted but you haven’t been able to find, it feels great to be able to bring something into existence that you haven’t seen elsewhere.

Given that you work with so many tools, do you have a favourite?

I have a few actually. One is a mallet that is nylon on one end and brass on the other, and that one is great for shaping the metal. With nylon, you can form the metal without actually denting or disfiguring it. I can form a ring but the surface remains smooth. Another favourite is probably my engraving tool … actually all of them. I use them to carve into the metal. They are also unique because I got to make all of my engravers at school. There is also a wax spoon that I use to melt my waxes. It is a small steel spoon that is pretty special as one of my instructors made it for me.

Do you have a recurrent symbol that you use in your designs more frequently?

I have a few. For a long time I made all things with hands last year. I find that this year, an image I use often is one associated with the prairies, like wheat stalks. Every time I have been away from Alberta for a long time, that type of imagery starts to pop up in my work again.

Image courtesy of Ali Munn’s online catalogue.