Discussions around copyright infringement of jewelry designs usually center on intellectual property rights. It’s a pressing question for anyone who lives by creation. But besides the fact that copyright infringement can be a very expensive pastime if a maker copies the work of an artist who is aggressive about protecting his or her designs, what’s also important—and never discussed–is that the design world loses the imitator’s unique artistic voice.
Anyone who creates has a unique voice. It is distilled from their life experiences; the colors, shapes, and textures that move them; the way their minds interpret what they’ve learned; and how their hands move. Lexi Erickson’s interpretation of metal texture is not Carol Webb’s or Talya Baharal’s. They can’t be. Their lives and experiences are different. Their artistic visions are different. As a result, their voices are different. Anyone who attempts to imitate their work can only make poor copies that will disappoint—the maker as well as potential buyers: I think it’s this dilution of their personal artistic vision that incenses artists whose work has been pirated as much as the financial loss. However, what an imitator often fails to realize is that he or she is an individual with their own unique voice. If they imitate someone else’s work—intentionally or unintentionally–the world will never hear what they have to say through creative expression.
I’m not talking here about deliberate thieves who make cheap copies in the attempt to make money. I am talking about those who naively (or not) copy someone’s work because they see that work has been successful. Or a student who thinks learning a technique from an artist means copying their work down to the rivets. Or even someone who simply loves the artist’s work and thinks it expresses their own soul. (It can’t.) This kind of imitation is not flattery.
Not long ago I interviewed Kelly Jean Conroy, for an article for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. Kelly’s a wonderful jewelry artist who also has the courage and vision to teach metalsmithing to high school students. Kelly works with the ideas of grieving, memory, and loss in her work, and we talked about her use of photos and enamel to achieve this. She learned the technique she uses from Gretchen Goss, whose own evocative work seems to be about memory. But how different their work!
While Kelly employed Goss’s technique, she did not attempt to mimic Goss’s work. She took something unique and valuable from the way another artist works, filtered it through her own experience and hands, and combined it with something that moves her to make something unique. Seeing a piece of each artist’s work next to each other, you’d never know one was inspired by the other.
If Kelly had simply tried to copy what Gretchen does, not only would she have failed, but we would have lost the beauty of her own voice and experiences. Instead, she has given us all something unique, the gift of something of herself, a piece of her soul.
A wise writer I know, Gordon Burgett, once said he taught writing workshops because everyone has a unique voice and something to say, that there is room for all of us. That is as true of jewelry artists as it is of writers. Learn what you can wherever you can. Then follow your own voice. We all want to hear what you have to say.