Lucy Sarneel – A Relation with Matter Through a Body of Thought

by Marissa Ryan Racht

 This past fall Lucy Sarneel became the main advising tutor for Alchimia’s second year MFA program. Marissa Ryan Racht, one of her students and an on-going contributor to Alchimia’s blog, has been asked to interview her. The outcome is a short story on her practice as an internationally acclaimed jewelry maker, as a professor and as a mother.

Lucy is not a very egocentric artist. I could tell she was a bit hesitant to talk about herself, beginning by saying that others will probably be able to tell me better who she is, but agreed to give it a try.

After one basic year and three years of technical jewelry training at the art academy in Maastricht, she felt the need for greater artistic challenge. Gradually it became clear to her, that technique is a means to intent, not the intent in itself.” The fact that Onno Boekhoudt was head of the jewelry department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy at that time, made her continue to study there for another four years, finishing in 1989. After the academy, things went well; lots of opportunities to show her work and some grants that supported her artistic development, without too much pressure on earning money (Oh – the Netherlands!).

She later met her partner, painter Jelle Kampen, and in 1995 and 1997 their daughters were born. “This was an indescribable experience and a huge change in my way of living and working.” The birthing experience is life changing, “you suddenly have an entirely new role. There is much less time to work. It changes your whole psyche.” Before kids she had more time, and especially more time for doubt. After having children she found herself becoming much more decisive – “decisions began to come more naturally and effectively. You develop a greater sense of living in that moment.” Plus, the imaginative world of children can be very inspiring. “The freedom, the lust for life and impulsiveness of expression…it’s a wonderful learning experience.”


Her oldest daughter made this jewelry piece for her in her studio when she was around 7 years old. It says: ” isn’t it beautiful?”

For many years Lucy’s practice as a professional maker was mainly developing in the studio, while having a few wage earning-jobs, and being a mother. In 2009 she began teaching on a regular basis at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy until 2014.

Teaching at the Rietveld Academy was intensive and interesting, but she desired to dive deeper into her own work, so left the position to dedicate more time to her own studio practice. The balance between these two roles is fragile, and never easy to handle, there is a constant risk of one taking over the other. However, the challenge proposed by Doris Maninger and Lucia Massei last year to become tutor of Alchimia’s MFA was accepted with pleasure: “I admire Doris and Lucia for establishing Alchimia from the heart, independently and non-bureaucratically, and developing it to such a high level as it is now.”

She enjoys the contact with the students, and is intrigued by what occupies them and their working-processes, finding it an enriching search. She notes, “…to follow a course of study like this is a very courageous choice!” Meetings are intense, but articulated in workshops throughout the years, so getting used to the incidental contact with the students was no easy task, while becoming accustomed to the more distant interaction. However “the teaching staff keeps each other informed by e-mail about lessons, which is important in order to understand the input that the students are getting.”

Lucy finds it a rewarding challenge to give the right feedback to a student and a pleasure when she sees it work out well. Questioning and listening are essential aspects of teaching. As a professor she tries to “crawl into someone else’s skin” in order to understand their reasons, and to be able to give appropriate suggestions to help developing further. “The warm, relaxed atmosphere at Alchimia is wonderful and contributes to an open attitude.”

She hopes the students will develop a dialogue between the idea, the material, and the form, by evaluating attempts and failures, while doing and reflecting, and thinking in possibilities rather than solutions. This way of working opens personal potential and ways of looking, while teaching the students to rely on themselves and to convince others of the value of their work. Lucy personally strives for a strong and authentic visual language with a consciousness to the realm of the jewelry field. “The work is the vehicle for communication with the world and leads to certain situations in which it is positioned and shown.” She is interested in the way people live their lives – how they try to master this incomprehensible life with an inevitable end. By miming the evil, for instance, in the image below to the left, of an Austrian Krampus…


…or by beautifying (as in the image above to the right) “people express themselves and their surroundings and everything in between these two options, they establish their place in the universe.”

Image on the left: Iris ApfelAmerican businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon. Image on the right: Woman from Marken, ca. 1940-50

She believes that body ornament and related matters provide rhythm in life stages and identity. Objects of unintended beauty from daily life, folk-art, curiosities, bring her wonder.


A farmer wearing a milk stool, image by Lucy Sarneel.

“The intimacy between a person and a jewelry piece/object and the private in the public intrigues me.”

6. Mexico


Photo taken in Mexico in 2010 by Lucy Sarneel.

“Traditions and ceremonies: how they transform through time: on the one hand people want to keep things as they are, but at the same time society changes and asks for anticipation which is a complex process.”


Cover image of “How to Wrap Five More Eggs: Traditional Japanese Packaging” by Hideyuki Oka and Michikazu Sakai, Published January 1st 1975 by Weatherhill Inc.

Her work results from trying to understand the world around her, “people and animals are being sacrificed for what purpose, really?” She is looking for fields of tension in the form of ideas and materials as a metaphor for life in the quest for balance between forces and ideas of role-patterns by which we are influenced.

“Aren’t we all jugglers, trying to keep all the balls in the air? The extremely big element (the ball) brings the whole in physical balance, but into visual imbalance. The ball is at rest.”


Lucy Sarneel, Juggler’s Moment #2, necklace, 2014. Materials: zinc, polyester ribbon, acrylic paint, varnish, bamboo fibre, foam clay. Dimensions: 57 x 10 x 7 cm, courtesy of a private collection, Australia.

Recently she was invited to contribute to an artist’s project: Spakenburgse Divas, a combination of photo-series, theatrical documentaries, performances, workshops and publications about the inspiring role of Dutch traditional women’s costumes in Dutch art and how incorporating them into contemporary art, though the tradition is being lost, may help them to live on in a certain way.

The artists have been working together for 16 years with three women from Spakenburg who have committed themselves to art. They regard these women as guardians of traditions. Lucy is one of eight artists working on the project and was asked to enrich two of the kraplappen with her signature style and the artist Joseph Beuys as an inspiration. The two force-fielded kraplappen are meant to signify eight professors from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The project is scheduled to be exhibited at the end of May.


Lucy Sarneel, Juggler’s moment #6, necklace, 2016. Materials: zinc, part of metal plate from thé flea market,wood (back side) bio-bamboo, acrylic paint, varnish, polyester ribbon, foam clay. Dimensions: 55 x 10 x 8 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


10.Juggler's Moment_7

This is an image of a woman in the traditional costume of Spakenburg, wearing Juggler’s Moment #6. Part of the project Het Wilde Oog/ Wout Nooitgedagt. Image provided by the artist.

Lucy is curious about people’s fascination with branding – a word initially deriving from burning an owner’s sign into the skin of an animal. Just like traditional tribal tattoos (indicating to which tribe one belongs to), people surround themselves with logos and brands, communicating who they are and which corporations they belong to. “They work hard to be able to buy things or services that they don’t really need. It’s a strange situation…”

Society becomes structured in a tribal way, now the light of the computer replaces the light of the campfire. We have evolved, but not as much as we think we have. We are still driven by prehistoric instincts. Lucy would like to think that we are all somehow searching for significance, and for her making jewelry is a way to communicate this need and to share it with others. It’s also a matter of playing for her – putting the seriousness of life into perspective and enjoying that moment. A smell, a sound, a flower or the sun on the face – all reasons for wanting to make. “…the idea that this thing that I make has the mission to be intimately connected with a person gives it an extra dimension; the giving.”

We also talked about materials. “The value that is attributed to jewelry (still) is strongly connected to the belief that its powers lie in the qualities of the form (symbol) and of its materials”. Zinc is an important element for her. The grey-tone reminds her of the Dutch sky and sea, it’s not a color, but the reflected light between black and white, light and dark, it relates to the subconscious. Zinc (or most often zinc-plated steel, because zinc protects steel from rusting) is omnipresent in urban environments, used as architectural details like turrets, dormers or rain-pipes. In the past, in domestic environments – buckets, washboards, and bathtubs were often made of zinc. For her it is an association with daily-life and “secure feeling”.

Making constructions of this kind is a challenge. Zinc easily tears and burns and the tin solder that is used has a very low melting point. When soldering one part there is a risk of another part collapsing, because the solder melts throughout the piece.

She also explores other materials. They seduce her and “it is a pleasure to apply them, to make them on my own and give them a meaning in a piece of jewelry. Sometimes the materials are autonomous objects; like for instance antique chest-patches of traditional Dutch costumes or objects like wooden knobs and peanut bowls.”


Lucy Sarneel’s studio. Image provided by the artist.

Gradually materials we associate with “the exotic” entered her work; like bamboo, seeds, wood and bone. She feels drawn to cultures with rituals, magical thinking and close relations to nature giving shape to something beyond ourselves.“There’s an aspect of strange and at the same time familiar, looking at for instance, a nkisi mpya, which has to do with an affinity for Catholic artifacts.”

12. nkisi mpya

Nkisi mpya. Image provided by the artist.

She plays with the suggestion of pure, natural materials, which are in fact artificial or come from commercial products that use nature as a marketing strategy. Another reason for applying artificial materials with a natural appearance is that we mostly see what we want to see, not what is actually there. It’s about the relation with matter through a body of thought.

The raffia is plastic, the wood is micro-paper or plastic, the bamboo comes from a fly-screen, the dried fruits and seeds from a perfumed potpourri mixture one can buy in home-decoration shops, the drawings on the metal are made with a permanent marker, zinc is painted in a zinc-grey tone, etc.

Imagination is the magic matter for Lucy.


13.Offer Bali

Food offering in Bali. Image provided by the artist.

“Balinese people make these food offerings daily to thank the gods for every new day. Although they are ephemeral, they are made with a lot of attention and dedication.”

This series of Daily Offers are referring to this tradition and at the same time to the commercial world with its seductive daily offerings in the shops.

14.DailyOffer 4-LSarneel sm

Lucy Sarneel, Daily Offer #4, necklace, 2015. Materials: zinc, plastic, bamboo, acrylic paint, varnish, nylon thread, nylon raffia. Dimensions: 32 cm x 14 cm x 5,5 cm. Courtesy of a private collection, Australia.

15.DailyOffer 6-LSarneel

Lucy Sarneel, Daily Offer #6, necklace, 2015. Materials: nylon raffia, nylon thread, zinc, artificial ivory, plastic, acrylic paint, varnish. Dimensions: 30 x 17 x 5,8 cm. Courtesy of the collection of the China Academy of Arts-Folk Art Museum, Hangzhou, China.

“An offering also indicates a sacrifice, which is more and more real in our world when you think about the difficult situation that many people today are experiencing. I’m currently working on this aspect.”

This is a piece she recently made, Waiting for the Sun.



Lucy Sarneel, WAITING FOR THE SUN, necklace, 2016. Materials: zinc, leather, nylon thread, 33 x 15,5 x 2,5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Marzee, Netherlands.

“It’s about shutting yourself off from the misery in the world. The shape of the pair of glasses derives from a plastic part from a pair I found on the street. Whose eyes looked through it and what intent did they have in mind? Although, at the same time, it’s about the lust for life which makes us look for the positive sides of it.”

Her advice for someone finishing their studies and entering into the professional field of contemporary jewelry is that you need an inner necessity and passion for your practice as a jewelry artist. We need each other to make ourselves visible; artists, collectors, museum-directors, curators, gallerists, writers, teachers, colleagues, audiences, bloggers etc. “It’s wonderful to be in charge of your own cosmos, but it’s also a tough job.” Lucy encourages us to take chances, push boundaries, and try to connect with others through the work. Concentrate on what we expect from ourselves instead of what others expect from us. We need to give ourselves time to grow, because it’s a never-ending, enriching learning process. In this sense, a profound lesson in Lucy’s story, work, world-view and teaching is that we should allow ourselves the freedom to see and take in the simple and honest aspects of daily life, whether good or bad, and react to them in a natural and non-self-conscious way in our work.

Marissa Racht is a jewelry artist based in Florence. She is currently attending the second year of the MFA in Contemporary Jewelry and Body Ornament at Alchimia, tutored by Lucy Sarnee



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