Olivia Dryden creates jewellery and artworks combining her curiosity about death with a unique skill set – she’s a qualified silversmith.
To create her jewellery, Dryden uses the bones from animals to make moulds and then casts them into silver. “I call it a modern take on taxidermy jewellery,” Dryden says.
Her fascination with death started when she was studying jewellery at the Adelaide College of the Arts and she made a necklace out of bones from a chicken carcass. The response to the work was so weird that it ignited a curiosity in Dryden about how people perceive death.
Olivia Dryden, African violet flower and pearls studs, Sterling silver and freshwater pearls, 6.3cm x 2.7cm
She then delved into the Victorian Era and was fascinated with the mourning period and how expressive it was. People often made jewellery using the recently departed’s hair and they also took photographs of the deceased, know n as memento mori (‘remember your mortality’) whereas these days talking about death has become taboo.
Dryden uses elements such as a possum’s vertebrae or a skull in her works. “The technique I use shows all the details,” she says. “It gives you an up close and personal view of things that you wouldn’t otherwise see. Like a bird’s foot.”
By using precious metals like silver, Dryden is highlighting beauty through death. “Silver is a beautiful metal to work with. If I just used the foot it wouldn’t appeal to people and it wouldn’t look as beautiful.”
Olivia Dryden, Baroque Freshwater pearls with claws drops, Sterling silver, baroque freshwater pearls, 15cm x 19cm
Intriguingly, Dryden has her own flesh-eating beetles in her studio which clean the bones for her. “They don’t eat the skin so I preserve the skin. They eat all the organs and the flesh. It’s like the circle of life. They are getting all their food and then they leave me with the skeletons and I make the moulds from the bones.”
Dryden was recently announced as one of the recipients of the Helpmann Academy Fellowships, supported by the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation. This will allow her to spend a couple of months in London where she will further develop her taxidermy and jewellery-making skills. She will also have her first international solo exhibition at the Brick Lane Gallery in London.
Olivia Dryden, Smokey Quartz with Galah claw, Sterling silver, Smokey quartz, 23cm x 15cm
She currently has her second solo exhibition at Hill Smith Gallery called Little Wonders, which focuses on the idea of the cabinet of curiosity. The exhibition features jewellery, wall pieces and Dryden’s cabinet of curiosity – specimen jars, taxidermy, original antique mourning jewellery, jars of bones and pinned butterflies and bugs, all elements which influence her artwork and jewellery.
The wall pieces are an attempt by Dryden to use all the elements of the animal. For example one of the works is a magpie’s wing, which has been embellished with Swarovski crystals, sterling silver flowers and a chain, and another is a lorikeet’s head that has a glass eye.
“I really try to use the entire animal and expose its different elements,” she says. “I want to show people what I see as beauty. I’m showcasing beauty through death but also doing a play on what is seen as beautiful.”
Header image: Olivia Dryden, Magpie’s Fortune, Baroque Black freshwater pearls, sterling silver, 15cm x 19cm
Photography: Jasmine Van Der Byl