Velvit Welcomes Hunter Gatherer

Laura Prieto-Velasco opens up about her experiences as an art student and educator, what it means to embody the hunter gatherer spirit in the 21st century, and what draws her to the color black

Velvit met with Hunter Gatherer’s conceptual and aesthetic designer to learn more about what and who inspires her work, the importance of using re-usable materials and how she expands her design process.

Laura working in her Chicago studio.

Laura working in her Chicago studio.

Velvit: Where did you grow up? 
Laura Prieto-Velasco: I was born in Rochester, NY but I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in a working class town somewhere between the Appalachian trial and Philadelphia. Its proximity to nature and metropolitan areas taught me to appreciate the way early people maximized their limited resources.

V: Tell us about an early pivotal moment in your career.
LPV: Around 1999, during my third semester of art school, I was taking one of my first metalworking courses. I was struggling with shaping a piece of nickel silver and getting frustrated with the process because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My cursing and racket attracted the attention of my instructor, who stood over me with her arms crossed and said in the most condescending tone, “Maybe you’re just not cut out to be a metalsmith.” It turned out she had said the right thing to me at precisely the right time. Her words pissed me off and I worked harder than ever on that damn project. I guess it was my way of saying “Fuck that, I can do this.”  

V: What was the first piece of jewelry you received that holds a strong memory for you?
LPV: A ring with a polished piece of meteor set in gold, which was given to me by my aunt. I remember thinking it was ironic that she had owned such an absurd memento from outer space, though she had been a devout Catholic all her life. I’ve always been fascinated by how artifacts connect past histories to present mysteries.

V: When did you start creating jewelry?
LPV: Though I have always been creative, I didn’t dabble with jewelry until art school. The pieces I created at that time were far from what is traditionally considered jewelry. I would call most of the objects from those early years to be wearable sculpture. It wasn’t acceptable to make traditional jewelry during that time.

V: How did your early experiences in art school affect your aesthetic as a designer? 
LPV: Art school encourages a type of aesthetic meandering that doesn’t allow you to plant yourself in any one place for long. It’s a good way to experiment, fail and even succeed within a short window. I spent a ton of energy exploring materials and ideas in as many ways as I could. Looking back, I see that this chaotic experimental period allowed me to mature as an artist in tandem with my aesthetic development.  A professor and personal mentor once told me to “get the crap out of the way so you can get to the interesting stuff,” and I repeat this to my students often. Lately I have been thinking about how this experience reflects a hunter gatherer ethos. There is poetry in the ritualistic cycle of collecting, discarding and transforming the world around you as a way to get to know yourself better.

V: What themes do you try to focus on when creating pieces for new collections?
LPV: Mostly I try to stay fresh with my ideas by re-contextualizing the hunter gatherer ethos within contemporary life. My instincts come alive when I find a way to connect ancient and modern worlds in an interesting way. Old experiences can tell new stories.

V: What is your process like?
LPV: My process is always evolving as I encounter new information and ways of making. One aspect that seems to be gaining greater momentum over time is my ability to listen to my gut and take greater risks.

V: How do you source your materials?
LPV: All the metals I use are refined and manufactured in the USA and sourced through Chicago-based industries whenever possible. My leather comes directly from fashion waste, predominantly leather jackets found in second hand shops and thrift stores. I am drawn to metal and leather for so many reasons. Their textural range is a big part the attraction, but I also love the processes necessary to transform them. Leather and metal are also highly recyclable and can live many lives beyond their initial raw state.

V: How did you decide on the name Hunter Gatherer for your line?
LPV: Before I founded Hunter Gatherer I was making art jewelry and responding to the niche, fine art-meets-jewelry market. My work used “low brow” materials such as found objects and waste, and I was collecting tin foil and twist ties like a magpie. The ideas I was working with eventually lost their potency for me, since consumer slanted design and fashion don’t emphasize resourcefulness in ways I find meaningful. I began exploring ways to make my creative practice feel relevant again within the design world, and ultimately conceived a project that would address these ideas head on. That was the birth of “Hunter Gatherer.”

V: If you weren’t creating jewelry, what would you be doing?
LPV: Making other kinds of noise.

V: Where do you think jewelry fits in the realm of fine art? 
LPV: It all depends on context. Fine art and jewelry have distinct histories, so it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Jewelry and body adornment have influenced art and vice versa. The most interesting crossover between these fields is the emergence of performance art and work that addresses the relationships between bodies and objects.

V: Are there any particular artists who have inspired you?
LPV: I don’t have a favorite artist, but there are definitely some key individuals who have influenced the way I think about art, context and culture. Isa Genzken was a major game changer for me early on. Her work spans many different genres and she is constantly challenging aesthetic ideals. With every new body of work, she pointed out the importance of questioning and rebelling against established standards. A great example of how she does this is “Fuck the Bauhaus,” which consisted of a series of assembled sculptures that were presented as playful, futurist architectural models of what a truly modern city could look like. Kim Gordon and Patti Smith also come to mind. Their work is provocative, they don’t have a formula and they challenge ideals in creative ways. These women are pure badass punks speaking their minds.

V: Aside from nature, which is a clear theme in your designs, what are some of your other influences?
LPV: Early flamenco culture is an influence that you might not deduce from looking at my work at face value. I’m most interested in how the gypsy nomad culture that produced flamenco also preserved customs and traditions that might have otherwise died out. The early pioneers of flamenco were not Spanish at all, but of Romani, Indian, Persian, and Moorish descent. Their customs and cultures were misunderstood and, as a result, they were ostracized and oppressed. The Catholic Church, for example, claimed they were practicing witchcraft and forbade them from dancing flamenco and playing its music. Some of these nomadic tribes sought refuge within the caves of southern Spain, but even then they had to practice their customs with utmost secrecy. Interestingly, these people were also renegade metalsmiths who offered their metalworking services and sold jewelry in exchange for sustenance. I’m fascinated by how they maximized the few resources they had to make a living while simultaneously developing one of the most painfully complex and influential folk art forms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

V: What advice would you give an aspiring jewelry designer?
LPV: Have a personality, don’t be a robot. Lead by example.

V: What does fashion mean to you?
LPV: I find fashion fascinating as an enigmatic social indicator of taste, class, personal value and identity. But it also drives me insane. Kim Gordon pretty much nailed these contradictory feelings when she said, “A lot of artists have an ambivalent relationship with fashion. Maybe it's about not buying into something.”

V: What do you find most compelling about jewelry?
LPV: Its intimacy by way of proximity to the body, as well as its ability to speak volumes about the wearer’s personal histories. On a more pragmatic note, I am also fascinated by its portability and recyclability, but that goes without saying. 

V: What draws you to the color black?
LPV: Black is an expansive and ever-changing metaphor of depth, space and time. It is also the color of carbon, the building block of life and the charred residue of death.

For more information about Laura Prieto-Velasco and Hunter Gatherer, visit our Artist profiles and shop our Velvit boutique.

Charlotte BarnesComment