project m zine

Interview with Russ Sharek
by Adrienne Jones
September 2004.

With The Morpheus Company, you've developed a line of jewelry geared towards unorthodox tastes. Yet unlike the mass market imitations we see hanging round the necks of teen Goths and the like, your work is refined, using the highest quality materials and craftsmanship. What sort of buyer does this draw?

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm as much a storyteller as I am a sculptor, so allow me to answer that with a tall tale from my questionable youth:

I'm fairly certain somewhere lost to mankind is a cuneiform tablet. Scratched in ancient glyphs, it outlines a long-forgotten entrepreneurial writ pronouncing that anyone starting a professional venture must suffer year one carrying a set of self-esteem damaging, twenty dollar "hope they spelled your name right at the copy shop" business cards.

So like every other hell-bent startup, I began my career with the requisite set of horrible cards in hand. In my case, I managed to beat the curve and a few years later the damned things got to see proper use as kindling.

Flammability aside, the cards still provided some early education in who I was going to be when I allegedly grew up. More accurately, they hinted at who I'd be dealing with professionally. Scrawled below my name in an attempt to be memorable, I had a phrase which took years to really get a grip on:

"Creator of custom things for custom people."

Flashing forward a dozen years of in-the-trenches psychographic research, I found that uniqueness and individuality may be the only common ground my clients share.

As a subculture, The Morpheus Company's collectors seem to have made a lifestyle out of defying categorization. Preachers, sinners, fellow creative types and people whom you would never fathom having an original idea have all come to my studio over the years and asked for things I never would have dreamed up on my own.

I think the thread that ties them all together is the fact that they are, in a word, weird. Somewhere along the beaten path they took a turn and ended up off the map; which apparently lands them outside my door.

Of course we do our share of "boring jewelry" projects, but more often than not the rarefied someone who really appreciates finer things and the idea that they can have exactly what they want is who becomes a collector.

These days we call them the dream people, and they certainly keep the job interesting.

Some of your most impressive pieces have been derived from commissioned work; for instance, "Glassforger's Signet", with custom symbol topped with a black diamond. Do you do some of your best work on assignment, and how does this compare to pulling designs from your own imagination?

At this point in my career I don't think it would be suffering the ravages of ego to say I'm a fairly talented designer. When left to my own devices, ideas come and I do my best to realize them. When it works, obviously it works well and some great things happen in the studio.

Still, in my opinion, the best of The Morpheus Company's portfolio is our commissioned designs. I tend to think of those projects as a collaboration between myself and my client.

Depending on how involved a person wants to be in the act of creation, my role can vary from artist to dream interpreter to being nothing more than a talented set of hands that lend themselves to the task. Regardless of how much a client invests themselves in the actual process, there is still a synergy that occurs between us.

In the end that connection between artist and patron has never failed to surpass anything I could envision on my own. A simple case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

The Morpheus Company designed a token Green Lantern Ring for author Harlan Ellison, a big score in my book, being a fan of his work. Did that assignment give you a little extra tingle?

You've found my dark, ugly secret identity: the unrepentantly geeky "Fanboy Jeweler to the Stars". I've had the pleasure of working with a a few media celebrities, and have even been the fine-art guest at a handful of multimedia conventions. Without question, the strangest and most fun portions of my resume are the projects where my interests outside the fine art arena come colliding into it.

I also think its interesting to see how comic books, obscure bits of Japanese animation and the like have become as relevant a mythology as anything in history. Hercules then, Batman has always found ways to honor heroes and epic stories.

My personal favorite of your galleries is the Mitsuro collection, where the hands-on manipulation of materials gives the jewelry a unique twist--pun intended. The use of black pearls against the silver, particularly in 'Orchid' and 'Octopus' is a haunting match. How do you choose the stones to set in your designs, if you opt to use them at all?

Unlike a lot of jewelers out there, I think of myself as a sculptor first and a jeweler second. This, coupled with the minimalist streak that comes naturally from working on a finger-sized canvas, means I tend towards seeking out the simplest and most sophisticated way to express and idea that I can. Where a traditional jewelrymaker using diamonds might focus on making sure a piece achieves a certain total carat weight, I'm just as likely to suggest dropping the stones all together if I feel they are wrong for the design.

So the decision of what stones to use in a piece, or if to use them at all, is really something that has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. For example, when I originally began working in Mitsuro, I wanted to focus as much as possible on the technique itself and the 1300 years of oriental history behind it.

For those reasons, it was a logical decision to keep the stones minimal, and where possible try to use materials like fine pearls and jade which were historically appropriate to both Nara-era and modern Japanese aesthetics. As I found my own voice in the medium, naturally I've branched out and allowed myself to start experimenting with whatever seems to work well with its organic nature.

Conversely, sometimes a stone itself will dictate the piece. I've literally had gems lie on my workbench for years until I finally let go and paid attention to the material. Da Vinci used to say that he did not carve anything until he saw the object of his desire in a particular piece of marble. He took this to such an extreme that he would reject block after block until he found what he needed.

Strictly speaking, I'm not sure that such thoughts about inanimate objects are ramblings of a sane mind, but then again Da Vinci was a genius and I've experienced the same effect to a lesser degree so there must be something to it.

In your own words, you ornament the 'refined yet rebellious'. Has it been difficult sticking to your own style, creating work that comes from your heart, while trying to develop a wide enough market for financial success?

One of the most difficult aspects of being any sort of professional artist is the fact that there are times where the business side of things will come knocking, with intent of conflict, at your studio door.

No matter what level of success you achieve, once you choose to try to make a living with your artwork you have to deal with all the things any business does in addition to all the obvious challenges that come with being a creator.

Yes, you have to be commercially viable. You have to keep the lights on, do the paperwork and someone has to sweep the floor of your gallery before an opening.

I've found that the secret seems to be making sure I know where I am wanting to head both artistically and professionally. By maintaining a clear vision of where The Morpheus Company is and where I want it to go, I've been able, for the most part, to make sure that the decisions I make on the business side compliment the artistic side (and vice-versa).

There are times where I've looked at what might have been a perfectly sound idea and have been forced to say, "This isn't something The Morpheus Company would do."

The real trick is figuring out when the idea is good enough to consider sitting down and re-evaluating the sacred cows instead of eating the same holy hamburger night after night. In order to grow, you have to evolve your notions of how you are "supposed" to go about doing things.

In my case, I have the added benefit of being stubborn enough to let my integrity win regardless of the potential gain. No one with their head screwed on straight gets into the arts, professionally or otherwise, to get rich. It's a calling, and generally speaking the best I've seen don't have any other choice but to keep at it.

How does it make you feel to see roadside wagons selling oodles of cookie-cutter designs similar to your "batty", but with plastic rather than garnets and moonstone, and God-knows-what in place of sterling silver and stainless steel?

Is it really the fault of the wagoners?

In the industry side of modern jewelry, there's a unfortunately common mantra, "Crap is King". It refers to the ugly truth that most purchasers of jewelry are looking for as much flash for as little cash as they can manage.

Throughout history, jewelry has been a common sign of wealth, status, power and position. Kings and merchants could cover themselves with ye olde bling-bling, and bluntly the revolting peasants couldn't.

Needless to say, times have changed. In today's world, anyone at any station of life can bejewel themselves, provided they are willing to sacrifice notions of quality in the name of its possession.

With that in mind, it isn't really surprising that a lot of vendors have chosen to cater to the lowest common denominator. They can make it up in volume, and to be honest the bulk of the population is neither concerned enough nor educated enough to really know the difference.

I'd venture to say that most of the world has never been exposed to a truly high-quality diamond worthy of having a proper European certification. Hell, I didn't see one in the first five years of being a jeweler. The point is that most people not only don't know the difference, they don't even know that an alternative exists.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the bargain. I buy black t-shirts from discount stores and do half my grocery shopping at places with phrases like "super" and "wholesale club" in their names. However, I do this so I can afford the finer things when I want them, arguably because I have the education to understand the difference.

The information, thankfully, is out there. If an idiot like me can figure it out, anyone can. A fine jeweler worth dealing with spends a percentage of their time with a client being both consultant and educator. When I act as a precious gem broker for a client, I make sure they understand both the industry they are buying from and what they are getting for their purchasing decision. When I make a piece for them, I try to involve them enough in the process that they come to have a respect for the work involved.

The problem is most people just don't care. They are perfectly willing to crown themselves in crap. Provided they do this willfully and with an awareness that it is not the only option, I say have at. Those people have made an educated decision and I'm not going to spend my time convincing them otherwise.

On the other hand, a minority do manage to get past all the marketing hype and come to realize that, away from the roadside attraction, lies some options which may better suit their rarefied tastes.

These people, the "dream people" I mentioned earlier, are why The Morpheus Company has a purpose. Each time one of them wanders far enough off the beaten path to find my studio door, I remember why I started doing this in the first place.

Good luck with The Morpheus Company, and thanks for catering to the unorthodox stepchildren --- something Project M Zine provides for and relies on as well!

06 / 05 / 2009