If “fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” as style photographer Bill Cunningham once said, then Denver jewelry and metalwork artist Jesse Mathes has taken that notion to the nth degree. Her large, Elizabethan-inspired metal sculptures are powerful—and literally protective. “I traveled to Paris for a month in graduate school and got hit on a lot because I was alone and in my early 20s,” Mathes says. “If I could just be invisible, I thought, I could enjoy each place without these interactions. Some of my bigger pieces that cover my face are a reaction to wanting to hide. Other ones are really aggressive, and that’s where I’m feeling more powerful.”
The Colorado native got her bachelor’s degree in metalsmithing at San Diego State University and her master’s at Indiana University, then owned a gallery in Terre Haute, Indiana, worked at The Art Institute in Chicago and started a jewelry line before settling down with her husband, Nathan Richie, in Denver. All the while, Mathes was forming her art. “It wasn’t that fun making the same jewelry designs all day. I decided I would rather make whatever I want and not have to worry about whether it’s going to sell. My best work comes when I’m just doing my own thing and taking inspiration from my own life.” We sat down with the mother of two in her small backyard studio to talk about her beautiful adornments.
Were you always artistic? I liked beading when I was little but I’ve never really drawn anything. I was in college, majoring in business management, when a friend who was a film major told me about how much he loved his classes. So I changed my major to jewelry. My teachers—Arline Fisch and Helen Shirk (both now retired) were wonderful. I had never soldered or hammered metal before, but I like metalsmithing.
How do you create your pieces? I use hammers, an anvil, different stakes and jeweler saws to cut the wire into more detailed shapes; then I solder the pieces together. I use non-ferrous metals like silver and copper because they’re malleable and you can form them cold. Once I really figured out how to make my Territorial Defense pieces, I was able to do one of those in about 50 hours. But some I spend hundreds of hours on.
Where do you find inspiration? I did a semester abroad in Scotland and was introduced to Elizabethan pageantry from Queen Elizabeth I, who wore huge adornments to make herself the most dominant person in the room. That’s what got me started on the big stuff.
Your work is so dramatic. Does it draw attention? Yes. I like the reaction people have when they see my bigger pieces. Since they sit on the shoulders, they move with the body well. They feel empowering to wear.
So people can wear your work? Yes. My crocheted jewelry is intended to be worn. Everyone who’s worn one of the Territorial Defense pieces, though, really liked it. I had one on display when I was doing a technical demonstration at the Denver Art Museum during the Cartier show, and one woman asked if she could put one on. She walked across the education space, walked back and said, “This is awesome! I want to wear this to a party.”