A piece of jewelry by Susan Elnora serves as a personal record as much as an object of beauty. Her spare, fanciful metalsmithing draws on imagery from around northern New Mexico, and the ethos of conflict between industrial and natural worlds. It serves as a wearable reminder of personal values and experiences.
Elnora’s artistry began very early. “My siblings and I used to play ‘art studio,’ where an imagined client would ask us to make a specific drawing, like a cat wearing pajamas,” she recalls. The game mimics her current professional reality, making commissioned pieces that are sometimes very specific, “like a golden tiger skeleton with green diamond eyes, or tiny skull earrings with red gold santa hats, ha!”
Her love of drawing led her to pursue a degree in Studio Art at Carleton College in Minnesota. During her first years at the college she preferred working in 2D, particularly printmaking and observational drawing. It wasn’t until she took a metalsmithing class during her senior year to fulfill a program requirement that she discovered her affinity for the medium.
“I loved the way working with metals could feel empowering and permanent,” Elnora says, explaining that traditional metalsmithing techniques have remained almost the same over hundreds of years. “To me, there is something almost magical about both the connection to history, and the alchemy of the process itself, which demands complete attention to the present moment.”
The materials used in metalsmithing also called to her: “Gemstones created deep within the earth, precious metals raining down to earth from outer space thousands of years ago…it’s all very compelling.”
She began to realize that she could use metals to “draw.” Much of her current work—landscapes, animals, birds and skulls—uses perspective to create the illusion of a 3D image with nearly flat material.
After Carleton College, Elnora worked in sales and customer service for jewelry artist George Sawyer, who encouraged her to attend Revere Academy, a technique-oriented jewelry arts school in San Francisco. It was there that she learned the basics of being a bench jeweler. Building on the sawing, filing and soldering she’d learned as an undergrad, Elnora learned different stone setting techniques, repair methods and more advanced fabrication. She worked for master goldsmith Stephen Vincent Lehman in Minneapolis for four years. With Lehman’s mentorship and extensive practice, Elnora began to find her own voice.
Elnora had visited northern New Mexico during a solo trip, and, when she was ready to move, she chose Glorieta where she lived in a tiny one-room casita with her jewelers bench at the foot of the bed.
“The area…has very much informed the direction of my work,” she says.
She draws imagery from local landscapes, including railroads and old telephone poles around Glorieta, the latter of which appear in her work as “power lines.”
“I spent a lot of time in those days walking along the railroad tracks with my dog, contemplating the trajectory of my strange new life, and the landscape pieces were my way of keeping that experience close,” Elnora says.
Elnora also draws imagery from books and music, including phrases from Nick Cave, Joseph Campell, and Haruki Murakami. She’s also inspired by animal life, which she’s “always been obsessed by.”
“I find it very strange, useful and beautiful to consider the creatures around us, having an experience of the world that is so utterly different than the human experience, but every bit as valid,” she says.
A Narrative of Duality
Her interest in animal life and the landscapes of northern New Mexico also inform a theme of questioning an American mythos. She points to the symbol of the buffalo (or American bison) skull. The bison, she says, is often used to evoke the American West, the spirit of the frontier, and the values of strength and steadfastness. But the buffalo also means the diametric opposite: “it is also a necessary symbol of the destruction and devastation humans can wreak, in the wake of that same spirit of exploration and conquest, combined with the profit-seeking and short-sightedness that are also a part of our legacy as Americans,” Elnora says. “It's interesting to me that this animal can seem to contain so many conflicting truths about who we are as a culture, if there is a cohesive American culture. In my own work, by depicting the buffalo in skull form, and at the same time building as much expression into the face as I can, my intention is to suggest something of this duality we inhabit.”
Elnora often displays her work as layered narratives: a buffalo or deer skull near a fence or railroad piece suggests to her audience the conflict—and the similarity—between these elements.
“I hope that viewers might find something human in the animal, and something natural in the architectural—raising the possibility that our perceived separation from nature is ultimately an illusion.”
Elnora first encountered the concept of memento mori while studying art history, and again in the context of Victorian mourning jewelry. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that translates to “remember you must die,” and is an artistic trope often using the motifs of skulls and bones as a reminder of mortality.
“I loved the idea of wearing jewelry to remind ourselves of important truths,” Elnora says. But despite the macabre bent, Elnora had something different in mind. By making her skulls “tiny, playful and cute,” she sought to give the concept a more life-affirming spin. She even redefined it in her own words: "an object, such as a skull, symbolizing death and serving as a reminder to live one's life fully; to embrace each moment."
The idea of jewelry as a record of personal values and experiences is a theme in Elnora’s work.
“I believe that jewelry can serve a valuable function in this way, since we as humans seem to have trouble holding truths in our minds; we so easily get caught up in things and lose perspective on what is truly important. I love to make pieces with the intention of helping the wearer remain mindful of something meaningful to them, whether it is gratitude for life, abundance and prosperity, a partner's love and commitment, a lost loved one, a promise to oneself... the potential for meaning is infinite.”