Meet Athena, artist, ATHENA Atelier
February 14th, 2015
A pinch of intimacy,
a gallon of intensity and
a wheel barrel full of thrills
dug up from a
deep well of happiness.
Learn about life's
delicious recipe behind
Athena Theny and her work.
RED FLOWER (in bold): In this contemporary world, we find ourselves “meeting” like we are today without ever really shaking hands, looking into your eyes or giving a “hello” kiss on the cheek. How do you feel about this approach to getting to know someone?
I recently read an article in the NY times that was written by a Vancouver-based psychology professor entitled "to fall in love with anyone, do this" and one of the main steps in her successful formula was staring into the others' eyes for 4 minutes without speaking.
There's a magic that happens when we can instantaneously feed off of another's energy and flow. So, in a sense we’ve never been more isolated. That said, I love how the computer delivers me to every corner of the earth and to every epoch of history, and I admit to making some pretty cool friends over social media.
There's a vulnerability that we share with body language; the way our voice might tremble, our pupils dilate to match the other, a smile or a furrowed brow, a twinkle in the eyes--all of these aspects of expression that we can't control and really tell the other what is actually going on for us, whether we like it or not. Therein lies the thrill.
Let’s talk about “the thrill” for a bit. Some people are adrenaline junkies or dopamine fiends. What gets your blood pumping?
I'd say I'm both an intimacy junkie and an intensity freak. I absolutely love connecting with people in a meaningful way. I believe one of the greatest signs of personal strength is the ability to be vulnerable, to allow people to have access to our experiences in the present moment for everybody's shared benefit. I really value authenticity and being inquisitive regarding the human condition. I love to observe my intensity escalating, like a force of nature. I love to surprise myself.
When you say "I love to surprise myself," is the surprise the reaction you get from the other or just the act of doing something outside of your comfort zone?
Surprising myself definitely comes from stretching my sense of self rather than from shocking another. Quite often the other is intrigued and curious because the honesty is palpable.
I don’t want to know what happens next, I thrive in unknown situations. There always has to be the risk of failure, otherwise I'm just not interested. It isn't that I'm fascinated with failure or want to put myself in a dangerous position, it’s that I never want to stop evolving. Along the way, I surprise myself. I like this kind of experience because it’s humbling and mystifying all at once, and reminds me that life is bigger than I could ever imagine.
“Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.” --Gertrude Stein
We love the idea of an "intimacy junkie." How does time work with this? How long does it take to be satisfied? one second or ten years? Can you lose time when in an intimacy haze?
Intimacy is a great thing to be addicted to because intimacy is only possible in the present moment -- it’s a kind of shared mindfulness. Much like with meditation, when we’re in that space with another the sense of time dissolves and is at once never and forever. My love affair with jewellery is at heart a love affair with intimacy. I love how a ring can become a symbol of a relationship, that in our quest for iconography that means something to us we are drawn to objects. Perhaps my great great grandchildren will be able to make sense of the code that is embedded within my design work and come to know me through these objects.
Interesting. Let’s talk a little about your work. Can the process of mold making that goes into your work be used as an analogy for life?
I see the patination process more as an analogy for life than the mold making process. If I stretch my mind I suppose the mold making process is analogous to life in that it takes time and skill, and we have to carefully choose what to preserve and carry forward. Really though, mold making doesn't so much have to do with the process of life, but making an exact representation of life. molds mimic reality. the patination process is a story of change.
I love how the tonal qualities of bronze can be manipulated. When they are freshly cast they come out of the flask and are completely covered in plaster. Then I have to cut them off the tree, polish them and shape them into their varied forms. The final step is patination. That's where each piece becomes an individual and its complexity is revealed. Patinas continue to develop over time as it interacts with the environment, much like self-reflective humans. The secret is to wear it next to the skin and let your oils saturate the jewellery. For gifts to loved ones I always wear the piece for a couple days, warm it up, wear it in hot showers and use natural oily soaps…this really brings out the contrast in the patina and gives it depth. Bronze likes to be warm. Silver likes friction.
Does “less is more” resonate with you? How about the current trend towards a "Bohemian Rhapsody?"
As an artist I am materials obsessed, completely enthralled by quality and traditions of making. I never have a preconceived idea of what I want to make, I need to get lost and chase the muse, I want to be astonished by what forms.
The dreamy wild child aesthetic that the ny times article catches is very true to my inspirations in a sense, because I am thoroughly smitten by the perfection of nature and I treasure freedom. I’m not only interested in the look of this trend, but also the ideas behind the original sources. Why were the Victorians so enamoured with a return to nature? Do people remember that “Flower Power” was a slogan for nonviolence?
I take as much pleasure from the bridges designed by the great 19c builder Brunel as I do the work of the jeweller Lalique or the writing of Huysmans in his 1884 novel A rebours. I want design that shoots from the hip, that isn't preoccupied with being cool, that wants to wear its heart on its sleeve. Since nature is by definition wild, it constantly inspires my vision.
Nature is the supreme industrial designer. The work of Gaudi celebrates this, for example. In Sagrada Familia he expertly appropriated the forms of trees, crystals and shells, to borrow not only from their intrinsic beauty but more importantly to impart the same genius tensile strength and power of endurance into his own structures. The strength of something's aesthetic appeal for me can never be disassociated from the pragmatism of its design.
Perhaps we unconsciously respond to the integrity in strength that comes from something in nature that is designed to do a job--the spiralling strength that keeps a tree aloft, the way a leaf is shaped like a funnel to lead nourishing rain drops into its core. It would be impossible for me to approach design in any other way, superficial and disharmonious.
As a person I am a “more-is-never-enough” kinda chick, love that intensity.
"The chief enemy of creativity is good taste." --Pablo Picasso
Clearly, the materials used in the jewellery are both important and intentional. Some are 100% allergic to animal product like deer hide which you do use. Walk me through the a conversations you would have with a vegan anti-animal goods type patron. Can they be turned to understand why you use what you use in your pieces?
This is a topic that is often spoken about in extremes with high emotions and moral conviction, in black and white terms. That said, if you're dealing with a sincerely curious person, it is such a fascinating issue to exchange ideas about. There is no doubt that in our consumer culture animals and the environment are being exploited for our hedonistic benefit. What I am doing takes a stand against this. I am saying "I care where this leather came from and give thanks that the animal had a wild life, it fed a community, and now is transformed into a meaningful object to remind people of the beauty of life and how we all fit into it."
I'd be curious to hear what specifically people are allergic to, because I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually allergic to the chemicals used in the tanning process rather than the hide itself. Most leather is tanned using chromium, which is a pretty gnarly and toxic process. The environmentally threatening pollution, as well as the illnesses it causes in tanners and around tanneries, were major motivators for me to pursue the ancient indigenous tradition of smoke-tanning leather to make buckskin. That and foremost my deep appreciation for the wisdom and history of traditional First Nations (indigenous Canadians) peoples and their continued work towards sovereignty in Canada. So many life lessons and important contemporary concerns are contained within the act of tanning a hide.
My process is absolutely chemical-free. I make use of natural oils, and seal and waterproof the leather by smoking it with wild harvested woods from the Pacific Northwest rainforest. The aroma of smoke gives buckskin its distinctive characteristic. Leather tanned in this traditional manner bears many characteristics of the land from which it came, showing natural variances much like the terroir of wine. Each hide takes between 20-80 hours to produce soft buckskin leather. This varies greatly depending on the size of the hides, and whether it is deer or moose. Every hide is unique; the surface texture of the leather tells the story of the animal’s life.
Tanya Tagaq is a major hero for me in this respect, I really value how boldly she defends her ancestral traditions.
The grey areas are abundant within any belief system. Some have the room you talk about to have an honest conversation where there is real listening going on. John Francis, the Planetwalker and Conservationist, stopped talking for 17 years because he felt that he had more to gain listening than speaking. (“The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World” by John Francis) Is there hope for Idealism, with a capital I?
I'll carry the torch for idealism. throughout my life I've drawn a lot of inspiration from my name, Athena. Having emerged from her father Zeus' head in full armour and being the goddess of wisdom, justice, arts and culture, her powers are steeped in ideals. I've always been preoccupied with justice. I still recall a presentation I did when I was in grade 3 on sexism and racism, and I remember that those issues were very relevant and upsetting to me even then.
I think most businesses, particularly for large-scale producers and chains, have lost their consciences and have been completely deluded by a loss of idealism. They've forgotten how to be a part of the good life in the grand scheme of time. Cashing out for instant gratification and sabotaging any potential for an expansive understanding of profit and value.
What resonates with me/athena atelier about red flower is the desire to preserve a sense of community surrounding health and beauty while honoring the earth.
Do you believe that one person can make a difference?
Oh absolutely! I try and keep an open mind and a warm heart, and I try and stretch myself to elevate others. I know that people transform and soften when they are treated with sincerity. I’m also really excited by the potential of businesses to create wide-scale and lasting impacts--the intersection between social justice and the economy is filled with hope for me.
Dr. Annie Ross (see her amazing work here) has made a profound difference in my life. She was the first person to teach me about buckskin leather, so I am here in part as a result of her guidance. In one of her classes I learned both Salish and Navajo weaving styles, which have given me and my hands a portal to peace.
“The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people's chances to enjoy theirs.” ― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Here’s to levity...how do you feel about owls?
It’s cliche given my name, but I have always been mesmerized by owls. I am often visited by owls in the wild, and at times have believed them to be omens. I find it fascinating that owls are considered dangerous in many cultures; that an animal can represent all of our primal fears surrounding uncertainty and mortality. It’s not a morbid interest, it’s very pure. Owls are symbolic of wisdom in the unflinching sense that they see what you do not, and are amulets of truth and seeing through deception. The owl on my shoulder tells me to embrace everything, because that’s reality, and that’s what will make life truly delicious.
“As a human being the artist may have many moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is 'man' in a higher sense – he is 'collective man' – one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind.” --Carl Gustav Jung
Everyone is made from life’s “delicious” recipe, don’t you think? What’s your ingredient list?
I recently checked out the "Secret Language of Birthdays" site and apparently I'm born on the day of the Enchanted Soul Searcher. It says that my types are empathic, soulful, intimate, graceful, reclusive, and long-suffering, and that my special colours are turquoise, orange, and pale green…so creepily true. Damn I love orange, turquoise, and minty green...and a little bit of sparkle on top.
My maternal grandfather is a large part of my soul. People close to him call him Mac. My eyes are the exact same as his Irish father's. I learned from my Haida friend, who culturally believe in reincarnation, that it's possible that I am my great-grandfather, and I like that thought. He was agile like a cat and fiercely independent, according to Mac.
My family has always lived close to nature, and I am at my fullest when I am in the forest. I like to go into the woods alone and get lost. I learn the interconnectedness of the trails systems and see cool wildlife. It gives me peace to see the bigger picture as an enchanted forest.
We like to consider the red flower clan as a “den of do-ers.” Sounds right up your alley, no?
I'm so into doing. haha. I strive for what is known as a "Flow" experience. This is where you are concentrating so hard on a challenging task that you become absorbed in it, somehow consumed to the point where you are beyond thought and able to exercise impressive skill. I like to do challenging things so I can lose all self-consciousness and find intrinsic rewards in the action. This is happiness to me.
“It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life
Everyday when we think of the products we make we find ourselves focused on the benefits that are produced by using a lotion on your arm, misting your face or lighting a candle. What do you consider is the by-product of the work that you do?
On the production level I'd say Athena Atelier contributes to community building, supporting the local economy, preserving ancient traditions, and personal artistic growth.
On a personal note, my wish is that people who bring my work home cherish it as a special piece that reminds them of something that is important to them. It could be a secret wish, a value like freedom, a time in their life, or a person. Jewellery is one of the most ancient tools people have used to express themselves and communicate how they fit into a group.
I love that someone could bury one of my pieces, dig it up 5,000 years later, and it would only look cooler and have thousands more years of meaning behind it.
Thank you, Athena for your contributions over the past few months. You have shown us something new and helped us see what we do in another light.
Keep on keepin on.