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How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller

Contemporary jeweller Lisa Walker in her Wellington studio. Photo/Mike White.

Tomorrow Te Papa opens a new art gallery, Toi Art, with a remarkable exhibition by Lisa Walker. Mike White discovers how a teenage Wellington punk has become one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary jewellers.

In the hallway of Lisa Walker’s Wellington home is a tapestry she did at college. A teenager doing tapestry might seem the uncoolest thing imaginable – but then, you haven’t seen the tapestry…

Nerds would have stitched a prescribed pattern of still-life flowers or a pony. Walker’s creation has a giant snake, skulls, and random images of peace and horror. That was Walker at 16, spiked up, listening to hard-arse bands like Flesh D-Vice, slopping on loads of necklaces and studded bracelets.

Walker at 50 wears a gold wedding ring, and fake diamonds in her ears. But what she makes is still like nothing you’d expect, still like nobody else around.
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After leaving college, Walker meandered for a bit before enrolling in Otago Polytechnic’s craft and design course. “And it was like a light got switched on. I was 20ish and I became completely obsessed with jewellery.”

Even when backpacking overseas she took her tools, once setting up a workshop at a roadhouse near Alice Springs, using an upturned beer crate to work on. Back in Auckland, Walker joined three other women, rented an old laundry building, painted the walls yellow, and established the Workshop6 jewellery collective.

But after attending a talk about Munich’s eminent Academy of Fine Arts, she flew to Germany to try to get accepted. Considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious jewellery school, usually only two students a year were selected by its director, Otto Kunzli. Impressed by a box of experimental works Walker posted him at the last minute, Kunzli gave her a place and, in 1995, Walker took a plane to Munich and a crash course in German.

Lisa Walker, wearing one of her designs, simply called “Pendant”. Photo/Mike White.
At the time, Walker’s work was small and used traditional metalwork and goldsmithing techniques. But in Munich, she began collecting bits and pieces of other materials and gradually incorporated them.

“It became, ‘What’s possible here? Am I allowed to use other aspects of life and culture and myself in my jewellery?’ And yes, I can,” she says.

Walker suddenly recognised she had the freedom to do anything she wanted, and her work changed markedly, with pieces that often fused discarded or “found” materials. Kunzli said little. “But what could he say? Because who knew what to say. And I didn’t say anything – I just did.”

By the time she finished six years of study, Walker was being invited to hold solo shows at Europe’s top galleries. Her reputation continued to grow internationally and, in 2009, she was awarded what’s considered the Nobel Prize of world jewellery, the biennial Françoise van den Bosch award.

The same year, however, Walker moved back to New Zealand with her husband Karl Fritsch, who’s also an acclaimed jeweller, and their children Max and Mia, happy for life to slow down. Now she and Fritsch work from adjoining studios next to their Wellington home, with surrounding bush, a view to the beach, and the world calling at their door. A Walker brooch sells for $1200, a large necklace $10,000, with her work held in galleries, museums and private collections worldwide.

The greatest reward, though, is that she can now work full-time as a jeweller, without having to supplement her income with other jobs. “I’ve never really used the word career,” she says. “A career, to me, sounds like a system, or pathway, or feels very planned, whereas I’ve never seen what I do like that. In a way, I’m in my bubble, just doing my thing, making what I do.”

One wall of Walker’s workshop is covered with shelves stacked with materials: a plastic skull, a string of pearls, a box of barbed wire, some taxidermied ducklings, a fake apple, a gnome holding up his middle finger, a pink parasol, a luminous slinky that’s lost most of its slink. On her bench are pounamu pieces, braids of hair, paintbrushes, pliers, hammers and a glue gun.
Walker's 'Necklace', 2016, made of taxidermy ducklings.

Walker scours Trade Me for materials but is often given things by friends and family – Max’s broken skateboards, her mum’s crockery – that end up in her pieces. “Karl will go to the tip shop and see something for me and buy it.”

Her designs are often described as probing jewellery’s reaches of size and wearability, with Walker labelled fearless, an anarchist, an artistic insurgent. “I’ll never forget being at [Lower Hutt art museum] The Dowse and these two older women, probably in their 70s, looking at my work and saying, ‘Oh, what’s this shit on the wall?’ They hated it. They had their nice ideas of what jewellery is, and what the hell was this? I just laughed.

“But the thing is, you often want that critique. You don’t want to make nice, pretty, safe things that everyone loves, you want people to react and be challenged by it. You’re always going to have a million and one people giving opinions, and you’ve got to choose to not take that on board and just keep doing your work.”

Walker’s ease with rejecting rules owes much to her mother, Viv, a spirited protester and trade unionist who died in 2014. Viv, along with Walker’s father, publisher Geoff Walker, was arrested during the Springbok tour for running onto Wellington airport’s runway, and embodied a “who cares if you’re not allowed to do that” attitude. “When we came back from Europe, she said to Max, ‘Right, we’re going on a little trip tonight – we’re going to deface John Key’s billboard down the road.’ That was the little outing with Granny.”

Walker’s “Fischli & Weiss” bracelet, 2016.

Along with Viv’s anti-authoritarian streak and love of crafts, Walker has inherited her mum’s humour; her laugh spans octaves, between a tinkle and a Tommy gun. And much of Walker’s jewellery has playful elements that instantly appeal.

Te Papa’s decorative art and design curator, Justine Olsen, sees Walker’s work as more curious than confrontational. “She looks at the world through different eyes. It’s thinking sideways and she’s interested in pushing ideas.”

The new exhibition contains more than 200 pieces from Walker’s 30-year jewellery evolution, and Olsen says Walker’s use of identifiable objects, such as cellphones, Lego and eggbeaters, makes it extremely accessible art. “She thinks about contemporary culture and life and how that’s going to be transformed into jewellery making. She’s exciting.”

Renowned New Zealand jeweller Warwick Freeman has watched Walker’s work develop since she was a student, and says she’s now a major international figure in contemporary jewellery. He says while her style is distinctive, she continues to make fresh, “audacious” work.

“There are still pieces that make me have that moment of, quite often amusement, but quite often ‘oooh,’ a slight affront. I certainly don’t get the feeling when I see another Lisa show, ‘Oh no, I’ve been here before.’ If you did, you probably wouldn’t be interested in seeing anymore, but I’m always keen to see more.”

Walker says her discovery in Munich that she could use whatever materials she wanted in her jewellery opened up endless worlds and possibilities. “That’s when I thought, ‘This will keep me interested for life.’ And now, this strange idea of retiring at 65 – that’s not going to happen. I can see myself on my death-bed still fiddling around, making stuff.”

Lisa Walker’s 'I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered' is at Te Papa’s new art gallery, Toi Art, from March 17 until July 22. Admission free.

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.