RECREATING MYSELF BY JOAN DULLA
By Wolf Schneider
She began her art career as a traditional jeweler, setting stones and soldering. Then Joan Dulla decided to start creating hand-made chains. “There’s chain-making that’s link-to-link, and there’s chain-making where you use a crochet hook or an awl,” she explains. “And in the process of trying to figure out how to do that, it got sculptural on me. It changed from just making chains to making beads and bowls and everything else I do.”
Nowadays, the Arizona-based Dulla is known for crocheting gold, copper, silver, and niobium wire into jewelry, teapots, bowls, and other sculptural objects, sometimes incorporating beads, freshwater pearls, and Swarovski crystal into her artworks.
Here’s how it works: She’ll gather a few strands of colored wire, and, using a crochet hook, combine them. “I’ve been mixing the wires together—mixing 24-gauge and 26-gauge wires together—and the colors are vivid and brilliant and different,” she describes. “It’s like yarn. It’d like you’re putting two strands of yarn together and you’re knitting them together. I’m taking two or three pieces of wire and crocheting them together at the same moment every time I pick up a loop. And the colors get real different than just the pure color.”
Besides the colored copper wire she’s fond of these days, and the fine silver wire she’s always liked, Dulla is also partial to niobium wire—niobium being a reactive metal that colors with voltage. To prepare her raw material, Dulla puts the niobium wire in a water bath with a negative anode in the water and a positive on the piece. When she applies a low voltage, it colors the wire a deep dark brown, then a purple color. At higher voltages, the wire turns teal and then hot pink.
Dulla says her crocheted metalwork, which she began doing in the mid-1990s, is unique to her but related to a movement that Arlene Fisch wrote about in her book Textile Techniques in Metal. When Dulla met Fisch at a spinning and weaving conference in Denver four years ago, Dulla says, “She said she’s seen people that have done a knitting stitch that looks like mine, but she’s never seen anyone do the balls or sculptural stuff like I do. I use a crochet hook, but what it looks like is a knitting stitch.”
MORNING GLORIES NECKLACE BY JOAN DULLA
The jewelry is the mainstay of Dulla’s work, but the galleries representing her keep asking for more teapots and sculptural pieces. “The teapots and sculptural pieces are bigger, and I have to think ahead and plan,” notes Dulla. Whereas the necklaces, earrings, and bracelets she can make in her studio, or while watching an episode of a favorite TV series like “Ugly Betty,” or while flying on an airplane to a show.
When traveling, Dulla packs the wires and jewelry in a Tupperware tub and places that in her carry-on bag. “Of course when I’m going through security I get stopped, so I say, ‘You need to search my bag privately because I’ve got gold in here.’ So we go into this little room with the security guards and they go through it all, and they’re oohing and ahing,” Dulla relates. “Then I sit and talk on the airplane and I make beads and everyone has a grand old time, and I sell a piece of jewelry.”
Dulla, 58, has lived south of Phoenix in Chandler, AZ, for 25 years, and been making jewelry in one form or another since she took her first classes at the Mesa Arts Center in the late 1980s. But the first half of her life was not nearly so focused or secure. Born in Hartford, CT, in 1949, she’d moved 14 times by the time she graduated high school—to California, Vermont, New Hampshire, Illinois, and many other states. Her father worked for a mimeographing equipment company, and he went where his company sent him. “It was chaotic,” Dulla recalls.
She’d always been interested in arts and crafts, but she majored in elementary education at Drake University to achieve some semblance of stability in her life. She graduated, married a pharmacist, and began teaching. Then her husband got it into his head to go to medical school in the Dominican Republic in the 1970s, so Dulla went along and taught kindergarten to the children of foreign-service emissaries at the different embassies, and the couple had two kids of their own.
There were other moves, too, but finally, the family put down roots in Chandler. “We moved here for the blue sky and the bright sunshine and the warm weather,” declares Dulla. In Arizona, she began taking art classes and affiliated herself with the Arizona Designer Craftsmen association. At first she made more traditional jewelry; she began experimenting with the crocheted jewelry in the mid-1990s. “You start off thinking you’re going to make a simple chain, and all of a sudden it’s a magnificent chain, and then it’s a bead,” says Dulla. “I’m pushing something that’s never been done before, so it’s really exciting.”
Others agree. Dulla’s first show was the 2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. Since then, she’s shown at the American Craft Council in San Francisco, CA; the Contemporary Crafts Market in Santa Monica, CA; the Washington Craft Show; and the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, where she won best of competition in 2004.
She’s been perfecting her technique of crocheted wire for a decade or so now, but still, she says, “It’s different every day. There’s no such thing as it being rote. I’m challenged by it constantly. I think I’m the luckiest person alive. I love what I do.”
Attending shows has given Dulla a perspective on what is still possible to accomplish. “I want to become the grande dame of crocheting,” she says, optimism brimming, “and I want to teach all over the United States and Europe and Japan. That would be nice. I mean, Arlene Fisch is known for her textile techniques and teaching that, and Mary Lee Hu is another fabulous wire person who does exquisite pieces. I want to be the next generation.”
Featured in “Fine Art Craft” April 2008