Christina Goodman - Handpainted Miniatures and Jewelry


by Chiori Santiago

When Christina Goodman visits a museum, she sees not just the paintings but the frames; the finely-carved curves of each scroll and curlicue studied, and the patina of age that rests in each gilded groove is relished. Upon examining the picture in the frame, she looks past the figures in the foreground to the chiaroscuro pattern of a distant mountain range, or delights in a perfectly-rendered cypress tree in a tiny corner of the background. "I find myself drawn to the details," she says. "It's almost as if I enjoy starting with the basics."

Triptych brooch, 1996, 2.2cm high
4.3 x 2.2cm (closed), 1996

Goodman replicates her fascination for a picture's smallest components in a collection of hand painted brooches and earrings inspired by Persian and Renaissance miniatures. Each piece is a tiny landscape or animal surrounded by an ornate frame, which is embellished by a centuries-old, water gilding technique. Her tools and sensibility are derived from the painting studio, not the jeweler's bench; her craft honed at the easel. Not until she turned to the diminutive world of ornamentation, however, did Goodman find the right outlet for her microscopic vision. "I realize that the materials and techniques I use are an unlikely choice for jewelry," she writes in her artists's statement. "Jewelry, however, is the perfect medium for the intent and scale of my work." Hers is truly a wearable art.

Goodman produces two lines of unusual portable paintings. A production line consists of one-piece framed 'canvasses' molded of lightweight polymer clay, a modern material with an affinity for the ancient gilding process, in which a surface is sized with a layer of semi-liquid clay. "I stumbled upon the idea of using polymer, and the two media seem to work well together." she says. For a newer line of one of a kind pieces, Goodman becomes a carpenter of sorts, constructing architectural frames and triptychs of feather-weight bits of wood. One every piece, scenes are so perfectly hand-painted that it is easy for the imagination to wander within the Italianate charm of their castle-topped hills. "Landscapes were often used in Renaissance painting as allegories for the spiritual journey. People who buy my work find their own personal meanings in the imagery, whether spiritual or just nostalgic," she writes.

Landscape Tabernacle Brooch, 7.15cm high, 1998
7.15cm high, 1998

Goodman was born in Pisa, Italy, to American parents, and the memory of the place is carried in her bones. Although her family returned to the states when she was a baby, she feels a kinship for that land of Renaissance genius and travels there for inspiration and instruction when possible. Her father's work for NATO kept the family moving during the Goodman's childhood - to Colorado, Maryland, and finally to New Orleans, where she graduated from high school. "When I was growing up, it was a very Old World city," she recalls. "it's a damp, hot. climate, and a lot of buildings were in a state of decay; in some ways it was a very strange atmosphere, very creative and very old."

An appreciation of places where mystery and antiquity permeate the atmosphere is evident in her miniature scenes today, but as a painting student at Colorado College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the early 1980s, she struggled with her archaic sensibilities. "Painting wasn't popular to begin with," she notes. "and we weren't taught that much technique. There was one oil class where you were just given materials and told to paint. I was a little lost; I wanted more structure; there weren't enough limits, and I struggled with content. I couldn't decode what was important enough to paint. I did mostly representational paintings, landscapes. I'm a private person, and I guess I just relate to nature better than I do people. One great thing about Colorado is that it is such a beautiful place; you're surrounded by incredible scenery."

She met her husband at school, spent a couple summers working at a cannery in Alaska simple for the adventure of it, then moved to New York where, still uncertain how to translate her love of art into a career, she enrolled in Parsons School of Design. She earned a Certificate of Fashion Design, but realized the rigor and conformity of the industry were not for her. "Although when I look back, I would have enjoyed costume design," she says.

To pay the bills while in school, she had taken a job at a company that made interior accessories: furniture and light fixtures cast of resin and painted to imitate marble, granite or wood. "it was the closes thing to an art-related job that I could find at the time," she shrugs, "but I really enjoyed it. I learned to gild and to do faux finishes. Making surfaces and textures just out of paint fascinated me." She began to notice the surfaces around her - the interplay of colors in layers of chipped paint on an old table; the glossy patina of a stairway worn smooth by generations of footsteps; the way age, even grime, lent an undeniable character to a brownstone building. "The way things age can be beautiful," she says. "I found myself paying attention to old things rather than new. They have more depth."

Her first adventure in entrepreneurship took place in New York. A friend and she painted a collection of plaster angels with the idea of peddling them on the street as holiday decorations. They had barely set up their card table enterprise on Fifth Avenue when a couple of police officers appeared, part of a city-wide crackdown on street vendors who, like Goodman and her friend, did not have permits. Their angels were confiscated and after some hours in jail, the intrepid pair dissolved their fledgling business. Later, a job as a sign painter taught Goodman skills that Goodman skills that continue to serve her well: lettering, proportion and, most importantly, patience.

The city offered a wealth of museums, and Goodman explore the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance collections. "The time spent in the museums allowed me to narrow my interests," she writes. "I came to understand what I found compelling and why - I examined the surface or color of a background detail; every surface had something to offer, whether it was a tapestry, an ecclesiastical artifact or a painting." Slowly, she trusted her instinct for analyzing and appreciating a surface, as well as an ability for deconstructing it. Unconsciously, she was gathering the skills that would allow her to share that particular vision.

She took another sign-painting job after a move to Seattle in 1990, but that company produced their wares not by hand but by computer, a method far more efficient and a lot less interesting. Goodman went to work for another company, hand painting abstract designs in fancy rainwear until, a couple of less-than-fulfilling years later, she hit upon the idea of turning her love of painted surfaces into jewelry. "My first thought was to make bits of frames and icons with faux finishes. It took a while to perfect the idea; in the beginning the pieces were pretty chunky and crude," she says, taking a few of those old pieces from a drawer. Still, they sparkle with charm, the minute care in each brush stroke as appealing as an ancient illuminated manuscript. Miniatures, Goodman points out, ave a timeless attraction. "Ages ago, people exchange portrait miniatures as gifts. They carried or wore them as pendants, so there is a jewel-like quality about them. Miniatures are portable and personal; they're private - you have to hold them in your hand and look closely to appreciate them. Maybe they're about control, too; you don't have to share them. Some of the brooches I make are triptychs that open. You can wear them open or keep them closed, so I think of them as places for one's own private symbolism."

Ornate Tabernacle Brooch, 1998, 7.9cm high Small Tabernacle Brooch, 5.0cm high, 1997
7.9cm high, 1998
5.0cm high, 1997

Her debut at a neighborhood center craft show was followed by cold calls to galleries. "At first, people didn't know what to make of the work," she says. "But then I did a wholesale show and received a good response, so I kept on." Only recently has she begun to think of herself as either a jeweler or a painter. "There doesn't seem to be an appropriate category for what I do, but there is an historical precedent," she says, "When I look at other people's work at art expos, I see that I'm part of a trend, although I never realized it. There seems to be a move to realism and nature-inspired subjects. I'm noticing the use of materials is a little more traditional." Recently, she learned egg tempera techniques and plans to add the medium to her repertoire of organic material. The glues, sizes and glazes are, for the most part, mixed based on traditional formulas that have changed little in five hundred years.

For expediency and affordability, her production line starts with non-traditional polymer clay. For the scrollwork and filigree of the frames, she searches for old buttons and kitschy keepsake boxes from thrift stores, modifying and combining the patterns and textures with concepts drawn from historic picture framing. "There really isn't a design motif that hasn't been done," she notes. The basic design is cast in plaster, which is then used as a mold for the polymer foundations. These are cast by a man who specializes in making doll parts. Goodman's art, in fact, depends on a parallel universe of items created for a doll-size environment. The architectural one of a kinds based on Renaissance frame styles use thin sheets of wood intended for models and dollhouse furniture. The carved details are fashioned of dollhouse molding, the birdseed-size hinges are dollhouse hardware. She assembles the bits of wood by hand ("It's very satisfying to build things from scratch," she notes), then seals the surfaces with gesso, sanding the layers until they are smooth as polished marble "so that when they are gilded, it looks like they're made of solid gold."

Next, both the cast polymer and wood pieces are covered with a thin layer of clay, called bole, mixed with rabbit-skin glue to make a perfectly smooth surface for the finishing application of gold leaf. The surface is flooded with water to activate the glue. As goodman tips a tissue-thin sheet of gold leak on the moist surface, the surface tension of the water pulls the gold onto the bole layer, covering every ripple with a veneer of gleaming metal. A final burnishing with an agate, an the illusion is complete: "Water gilding is an alchemy of sorts, turning wood into burnished gold," she says.

A row of finished frames waits on her workbench by the window. The interior canvasses are prepared with a layer of gesso. Goodman chooses a brush - "sometimes the best ones are the old ones; the more they wear down, the finer they get," she explains - and in a few strokes brushes in the translucent blue sky. She works her way down the row. Sky after sky appears in each tiny frame. The brush dips into gray-blue paint (acrylics at the moment, as they dry quickly). With deft strokes she flicks the edge along the row and the mountains emerge as if by celestial command. A few more strokes with a clean brush remove sections of paint to model and highlight the miniature mountain range. When that is dry it is time to paint "trees, trees, and more trees," she says, smilingly.

Experimenting constantly with washes glazes and colors, Goodman works to achieve the depth of Renaissance painting. "For the scenes, I go through all my art books, find images and assembles them into compositions. Each piece is part of the learning process." Favorites for inspiration are Bellini, Carpaccio and Van Eyck. "You look at their paintings and you see how the configuration of details work as a whole," she points out. "It's like a quilt - every part is equally important, every part is rich, every surface has its own integrity. A tiny tree in the background isn't just a tree, it's almost a portrait of a tree."

Images from beloved paintings are borrowed without compunction; her rearrangement of these snippets is an homage, much the way a jazz musician quotes another composer's passage in solo. "There's a whole tradition of copying," she explains. "Renaissance painters copied from each other; it is a really good practice; that's how apprentices learned, by copying the masters. It wouldn't be a bad idea to bring that back to an art school education." Part of Goodman's art is preservation, holding in freeze-frame the delicious, overlooked details of Europe's grandest and most familiar icons; at the same time, the magic of her work is its singular ability to make us see that art anew. Goodman's view is molecular - it zeroes in on the perfect fragments of the visual world, expanding them until they fill our consciousness. We are ready to wander down the curving path through the medieval wood, or launch a boat on the rippling water of a sea that exists, almost literally, on the head of a pin.


Chiori Santiago, a freelance writer from Berkeley, California, writes frequently on the arts.


Reproduced by permission. Originally published in Ornament, Summer 1999, Vol. 22, No. 4. Copyright © Ornament. All rights reserved.

Photographs: Robert K. Liu/Ornament