The path to finding one’s true artistic voice can be an unpredictable one: circuitous or long and winding, full of unexpected obstacles or blessed with fortuitous twists. Mexico City jewelry maker Jennifer Musi’s journey took her across the globe on a decade-long quest for self-discovery that ultimately brought her back to the country—and even some of the shapes, motifs, and themes—of her childhood.
“I lived in the States, in Europe, in Asia—I was gone from Mexico for about 10 years in all—and everywhere I lived, I worked,” says the designer behind recycled sterling silver jewelry line Musibatty. “I tried everything: I was an administrative assistant, a waitress, I basically worked any job that would keep me in the city I wanted to experiment with living in.”
The daughter of a textile artist and an architect, it was no surprise that Jennifer grew up to continue the family’s creative tradition, but she knew she had to do it her own way. “The years I traveled were a time to get to know myself. I felt that, as an artist, the most important thing is to live your life and find out who you are before you can actually say something. When I finally landed back in Mexico, that was the first time I felt I knew who I was. I could live alone. I could do anything. I could land anywhere and I would survive. Now it was time to start something of my own, express what I had found, and find a medium that would show who I was, if in an abstracted way.”
Today, Jennifer works happily from her home studio in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood, finding beautiful new ways to express her artistic vision every single day.
Read on to learn more about this tireless explorer and explore the Musibatty collection.
You named Musibatty after your parents, both of whom are artists in their own right. How did growing up with creative parents shape your approach to creativity, or your feelings about creativity as a way of life?
It was totally important. I think all my friends had parents who were engineers or lawyers, and they all went off to study at college. But I never even thought of college as an option. I did apply and I got accepted, but I just couldn’t see myself working for someone else, or working as part of an office.
My dad always built the houses we lived in—everything in Mexico is a little handmade, even if it’s a building. In those days, you couldn’t buy a pre-made door, you had to build it to fit the house. There were always carpenters and construction workers around us. You could almost design your toys, and they would make them. It was a very handmade lifestyle.
My mother was always creative, too, but she discovered she was an artist after she had my sister and me. So the way she got to make art was to make us make art as well. As she was learning to make punch rugs, we were learning to make punch rugs. As she learned batik, we learned batik. I grew up learning carpentry, dyeing textiles, sewing, painting, ceramics, jewelry making—it was all part of what we did every day. Most of the time we were creating things, and that gave me total self-confidence. I’m not afraid to approach any material, because it just always felt like play to me. I didn’t have the seriousness of art school, and I actually didn’t go to art school until I was in my 30s. Instead, I just entered different little workshops and studios around town, where I would have access to a kiln or to other materials. I didn’t feel like I needed formal training as an artist, and I think that gave me freedom.
How long have you been making jewelry, and how did you get started?
I began making jewelry nine years ago; I took a class at a local workshop to learn how to solder, how to cut metal, and how to use the basic tools—the most medieval kind of tools. Then for an entire year I experimented, trying to get used to this smaller medium, because I was used to making large ceramic clay sculptures and large paintings; I wanted to translate what I was doing in large formats to something that was small and wearable, and something that would be just as interesting as an art piece.
It took me about a year to develop what I felt was a personal voice using silver, to feel that I had something to say and was adding something to the conversation, and that’s when I began to sell my work. After I made my first collection, I was invited to a local design fair here in Mexico City that took place every two months. It was in a park near where I live now, in an area called the Colonia Roma, which is full of old Colonial buildings from the 1800s. I showed up the first day of the market and I sold everything I had made.
That must’ve felt nice.
It felt great, because at the time I had like $20 left in the bank; I had invested everything in my materials. My other option was to be an assistant to my sister, who is a chef, and I really didn’t want to be her assistant. So I was like, “Please, let me sell!” From that day until now, for eight straight years, I have sold every single piece I’ve made, and I’ve been able to make a living doing just this.
You mentioned wanting to translate some of what you’d been doing with ceramics and paintings into your jewelry work. What themes or influences have remained consistent for you across mediums?
I have always been attracted to very simple, still, contained forms. I love old tombstones. I love old tools. And Mexico City is a very sculptural city—the government invested a lot in putting art in the streets, and the buildings here are also very monumental. So I have the influence of that heaviness, of pyramid-like structures and thick walls.
The houses we lived in that my father built always had rounded corners: not rustic exactly, but very handmade. I appreciated that energy of how it felt to live in an environment that was handmade, that didn’t feel like a machine had built it, and that had some warmth to it. I had the sense that I wanted to translate that into my work, but for some reason in painting it always felt a little flat. And with sculpture, I never felt like I knew what to do with the sculptures. I missed the part where you could actually wear what you had made.
When I found metal, I felt it was the perfect medium for me, because it is very sculptural, and it’s also very graphic. But for some reason the fact that it goes against a hand, or leans against your neck, or frames your face as earrings, was a perfect combination for me. For the first time in my life I felt a complete click with the medium, and I felt that what I expressed just worked really simply. I think for most artists, we have certain parts of our lives when there are mediums that work best to express who we are. Sometimes you outgrow them, but in general you feel it when it clicks.
What is your design process like? How do you go from an idea to a finished product?
I believe that ideas come, and if you don’t catch them, they go; I’ve read this in many places, and Liz Gilbert talks about it too. So I always catch them when I get them. Even when I’m in a movie theater, even if I’m talking to you, I will stop and draw it quickly. That’s just to keep in mind what it is that I saw when I imagined the idea. And in all these years, I’ve never had a block, or run out of ideas. On the contrary, I’m always running after them, I have too many—I have notebooks filled with ideas in my cupboards at home. Afterward, I don’t trace the drawings or try to make something identical. I’d actually rather not, because I like to leave a little bit to chance, to the making. I’m a perfectionist, so the more I can interfere with my perfectionism, the more interesting a piece comes out.
My approach to designing is very tactile. I work with metal sheet and wire, always recycled sterling silver, and it helps me to start with the materials in hand. When there is a blank canvas I can get stuck and feel lost, because I have to start from scratch. But with metal, for some reason, the fact that I have the sheet and I have the wire, I can kind of play around. It’s almost like a like a collage in a lot of ways.
Once I start to build a piece, and I actually have a very limited range of techniques. I know how to solder, how to forge, and how to chisel, and I’ve kept that limited for a reason. As an artist it’s really easy to get lost when you have all the techniques in the world. It’s really hard to focus and come up with something personal. So the fact that I have limited resources in terms of techniques helps me really develop my voice. My limited options show every decision I make, and the character of the piece will be very specific. The fact that I limit myself to these very basic building blocks makes everything become mine in the end.
That seems important for someone who’s doing all one-of-a-kind pieces.
Exactly. And it also makes me really try my imagination, to think, “Okay. What else can you do with this?” Because there’s always more you can do. And since I grew up in a house where we had to make do with what we had, and in a country where we make do with what we have, that’s something about it that I love. I think our imagination is our most valuable resource. So that is also something that I want to be proving in my work. I don’t need the big machines. I don’t need the perfect gemstone or the perfect laser soldering thing. Instead, it’s: how can I invest who I am in each piece and have you feel that at the end?
More than anything, when I’m working I am feeling my way through the work. If it feels right to me I think it’s going to feel right to someone else at the end. And I know that the decisions that I make with my gut are always interesting to me, or surprising to me, and that’s what makes it fresh. I want to be surprised to see what all of those decisions lead to. That is my favorite part of the process, because what I hone, and what I’ve been honing this whole time, is my connection to myself—my inner instinct, my intuition. That’s what I love about the artist path. Just like a musician hones his connection between his body and his brain by practicing his instrument, I think as artists what we hone is the connection with our inner truth or our inner self.
Going back to the idea of perfectionism, when you find yourself trying to be too perfect, do you have any techniques that you use to get away from that?
Oh, I do. For example, when I laminate sheet metal, it comes out perfectly smooth. So what I do is bang it up. I literally start every piece that is built from sheet metal by banging it up. I do it as irregularly as possible, because I know that all of that adds to the overall feeling of the piece. I don’t ever erase or polish off scratches left by files. It doesn’t mean the work is messy, because as I say, I’m a total perfectionist. It’s just about a piece having character, because nothing is perfectly flat or perfectly shiny.
That helps me, and also I’ve made enough pieces to know not to judge my work as soon as I’ve made it. As long as it works, and it’s well built, I leave the piece, even if I’m not thrilled with it, and then I wait a day and see it again. And the next day I always see what’s interesting about it, and the reason is because sometimes you have an idea in your mind and what you make doesn’t look exactly like that idea. The next day you don’t have that idea in your mind anymore. You’re willing to see the piece anew and see what it’s worth. And that’s when surprises come in, and I think letting yourself open up to new possibilities as an artist is what pushes your work forward.
What are your hopes and dreams for your creative future?
In terms of jewelry, I am considering making a cast collection, because every day I get emails from people saying, “Please make that ring again. Please repeat that piece.” At this point in my path I am willing to explore that possibility, instead of making every piece one of a kind. I’m thinking about making a small collection once or twice a year, that would help me keep my shop stocked. Casting also gives me the possibility of creating pieces with more volume, because of the process used to make it. So that will open up a whole new range of designs that I haven’t explored, because I only do flat things now.
Another thing that really has me excited these days is that I have just started to teach. This whole idea of how to find your calling, how to find your voice as an artist, and then how to make a living working as an artist, is one of my favorite subjects in the world. And I think it’s because that was such an important part of life for me, and it’s given me so much, that I just see so many people around me wanting to learn, too. In the States there are a lot of resources, but in Mexico there are none. I taught my first workshop last Saturday, and I loved it. I’m going to do a lot more of that.
Photographs by Jennifer Musi.