Saturday 21 September 2019

Jeweller Khrystyna Marriott: 'I believe plants and flowers have a power over people'

In homage to the heavenly, heathery hues of the West Cork landscape, jeweller Khrystyna Marriott has created a bespoke wall paint that evokes the soul of rural Ireland. She tells Regina Lavelle how she went from making colourful nature-inspired jewellery to inventing a whole new hue

Khrystyna Marriott
Khrystyna Marriott
Khrystyna Marriott working with flowers

Many artists want you to hang their picture on your wall. Jeweller Khrystyna Marriott is going one better: she wants to literally cover it. One of 29 Irish artists commissioned by the General Paints Group to inspire a range of 144 artisanal colours, her contribution is called 'Rarity'.

When asked by the General Paints Group to send up a collection of items that represents her aesthetic, she found her inspiration in the landscape around her.

"I sent up dried heather and lots of lovely, mauvey, earthy tones because, being in West Cork, heather is such a prominent flower on the mountains here and it really affects the colour of the landscape. I think that's really where it came from." The result is, in Khrystyna's words, "a really lovely dusty purple". The project is something of a departure for the 33-year-old from Cahirsiveen. She is more known for her nature-inspired jewellery. Incorporating found items from the land around her cottage, her work is a paean to the Irish countryside at its untamed, unexpected best. Redolent with vivid purples and vibrant greens, each piece is its own Lilliputian terrarium, mesmerising snapshots of the land freeze-framed inside glass. Perfection in miniature.

She hand-produces every piece in her studio in Schull but you sense she is such a perfectionist that she wouldn't have it any other way. "You're working out of maybe a 5mm gap. You have to be really delicate because you're working with these dry, brittle things that you have to position through these tiny spaces. It's just a lot of patience and that's just something you learn."

Her primary tools, she says, are "really, really small tweezers and very good eyes. It's not something I'm going to be able to do forever, and that's a fact!"

She initially found success selling her work online. As she says herself, there was more than a little luck in it: "I think it started with an article on [online art community] BoredPanda, just really randomly. I was featured by Etsy a lot, on the front page and in their newsletters. So quite a few different [media] companies picked up on me and wrote about me - and once one did, others did. From there, it exploded."

But Khrystyna (the spelling is Polish; her mother, Christina, had a Polish friend with the same name and preferred the way she spelled it) didn't originally intend to be an artist at all. She achieved a degree in nutritional science at UCC and ended up being invited to pursue a PhD, despite a rocky start ("I'm not someone who is that academic so it was a big challenge for me"). Still, she went from "failing everything in the first two years" to graduating with a 1:1. She puts it down to "sheer stubbornness and working every weekend".

Ultimately, she didn't pursue the doctorate. "I knew I didn't want to take the PhD on and then not give it everything that I have." This is an insight into the drive that has brought Khrystyna success. As she says, "If I take anything on, I like to give it 110pc."

Leaving university into the teeth of a recession, Khrystyna needed to find a new direction. Neither of the obvious options of a PhD or emigrating appealed to her, so it was with craft, rather than science, that she returned to education, taking a course in fashion design in Mallow College of Design and Tailoring. "I'd always been interested in fashion anyway," she says. "When I was in college, I'd had a blog which was a mix of homesteading, gardening, preserving and nutrition, and also fashion. I've always been interested in vintage clothes, so that was kind of my outlet while I was doing the degree. That was my creative outlet."

Being raised in an artistic family - her parents are ceramicists and painters - it was a natural step for her to start to make her own jewellery to sell in the local market at weekends. "As a teenager, I was always hustling creatively, selling paintings, making little ceramic sculptures, jewellery, anything I could think of. It's kind of in my bones to make things, and use that as a way to make a living. To me that's normal because I grew up in it."

In the time off from her day job in a clothing store, she initially dabbled with fabric-based jewellery, which she describes as "much more childish stuff made out of buttons". She was 25 then and says her style was "immature, but also fun and silly, and a lot cheaper as well".

Soon her determination and entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and she quit her day job to pursue her craft full time. "I just took a leap of faith. I just cut myself off financially from any security blanket I may have had and that just put the fire under my a**e to pay my rent every week."

Her first big success - crystal bell jars - was as much a surprise to herself as anyone else. "I started exploring working with plants. That became my complete focus and I pretty much dropped everything else. Then I started working with crystals and one day I came up with the crystal bell jars. That was one that I really thought was going to be way too 'out there' for people." But it wasn't. The BoredPanda article came along not long after, and the rest was Etsy history.

In retrospect it's not surprising that it was with naturally-inspired work that Khrystyna found success. Growing up around her parents' business, Fuchsia Cottage Pottery on the Ring of Kerry - and with her closest sibling a decade older than her - she had a solitary childhood full of ambient creativity and the dramatic countryside of Kerry.

"My sisters, Saffron and Rachel, were 10 and 12 years older than me so a lot of my childhood I felt like an only child. I think that's why I spent so much of my time on my own. I think that's where my love of nature came from, because so many days of my childhood I would have spent just roaming around the mountains with my sheepdog on my own."

It would be almost by accident that she hit on her next big idea. "I was ordering from my art supplier and I noticed these little tiny bottles. I've always been intrigued by snow globes and I love taxidermy. So I bought 10 of them as a sort of 'I'll order these and I won't know what to do with them'. And I didn't - they were on my desk for ages.

"There was a bunch of flowers that had died on my windowsill and amongst them was a dandelion. I saw the little puff of dandelion seeds sitting in the jar. I just had this moment of: 'Oh, I wonder, can I fit one of those in?' I picked off one of the dandelion seeds and popped it in. I love the idea of wishing on the dandelion seeds and I thought, if you encapsulated a single one that it was a single wish you could give as a gift."

Her vision caught on, almost immediately. "I put it up on Facebook and people just went crazy. I didn't have a big following at that point and the 10 that I put up sold in minutes."

She came to a realisation that has informed her work ever since. "I realised then the power that plants and flowers have over people. There's such a strong sentimental attachment between people and plants. We all have - with some flower that was growing in our mum's garden or something, you know?"

She is ambivalent about her popularity at that time. "It went crazy for a couple of years but it was too much. I felt like I lost sight of what my ambition had been. I don't like feeling under huge pressure to churn out lots of pieces at volume; I don't think any craftsperson wants to be in that situation. I could feel that was starting to happen so when it started dying back down again, I was relieved. It allowed me to refocus on my craft and constantly improving my techniques."

She now lives in a cottage in Schull with her partner, Padraig, in a lifestyle that she describes as "ridiculously idyllic". She continues to develop new ideas and the outdoors as always central to her life and practice. "Any free time I have, I'm outside. I think the inspiration is just a knock-on effect, the result of relentless curiosity. I'm the sort of person who gets extremely obsessive about anything I do, I'm constantly thinking and processing and incorporating new inspiration. It's not something I really consciously go out to do but I'm surrounded by it, so it's easy."

This collaboration with the General Paints Group will inevitably propel her profile to new heights, and it has already produced great results with her contribution to their range. Her philosophy is encapsulated in 'Rarity'. "It's not really possible to find anything in nature that clashes: when you see flowers growing together in the wild, it doesn't matter how crazy they are, they never clash - they always complement each other. You can tie that into colour. It's such a serene, harmonious colour that it could work anywhere, in any home, for anyone you know."

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