Museum of Brisbane

Artist Profile: Elizabeth Shaw


Elizabeth Shaw is a contemporary jeweller and metalsmith who is informed by silversmithing and sculpture traditions. She often collects discarded or broken objectsusually items that are made to last, like metal, ceramic or glassand gives them a renewed purpose through art. You can view Elizabeth’s work in the BRISBANE ART DESIGN exhibition, on until 11 August. We stopped by Elizabeth’s studio to talk about her process and the importance of retaining the ‘preciousness’ of objects.


What’s the most memorable object you’ve found and incorporated into a work?
Since I started my practice in the early 1990s, I’ve used recycled materials in my work, but originally I was reusing items just for their material value. For example, I made a series of belt buckles from sections cut from broken cymbals, but the cymbals weren’t visually apparent in the finished buckles. Around 2008, while digging a new garden, I found a small fragment of an arm from a glazed porcelain figurine. Further digging did not uncover any related parts. The incompleteness of the arm bothered me. I made a small silver hand for it, and it became the start of a new direction in my work. It gave me a fresh way to look at the various things my partner and I had collected over the years, and I now saw them as individual pieces with histories and implied narratives. Interestingly, we continued to find parts from other figurative miniatures buried in our garden, but never more than one part of a particular body.

The starting point for most of your jewellery and small sculptural works is discarded objects: things you find while walking the dog or gardening. What attracted you to these materials?
The things that catch my eye are made from metal, ceramic or glass—materials that have a very long life expectancy. The objects I find are either broken, or are no longer able to serve their original purpose, or they’re removed from their original use. In this society, they are rendered valueless.

You are trained in both silver tableware and in silver jewellery making. How do you reconcile the idea of ‘preciousness’ with these found materials?
Preciousness is associated with value, though they’re not the same thing. While the objects I find are no longer able to serve their original purpose, it’s possible that their former owner did hold them as precious [items]. Also, while they have lost their value here, they would likely have an economic value in other societies, where waste pickers would collect and sell them as the materials are recyclable. I see a value in the narrative potential of a found object, and this is what draws me to them. The things I find precious aren’t necessarily of great economic value, rather they are things that hold meaning.

Can you walk us through your studio set-up?
I am fortunate to have a great working space. It is quite big and airy. I have a couple of long work benches where I can spread things out. The main feature people tend to notice when they come into my studio is how many hammers I have. They’re all different, and specific in their intended use. While I have purchased new equipment, I also have tools that have come from other people’s workshops. Quality tools, if looked after, have the potential to last for generations, and I like that some of my tools already have. A significant number of my tools came from the workshop of Brisbane artist and lecturer Merv Muhling. I value that Merv’s family entrusted them to me.