The solitary jeweler - leading and working in a contemporary team by Laura Bradshaw-Heap (guest)

Photo by Rod Gonzalez. Copyright JUNK: rubbish to gold.

I work within the contemporary craft discipline. My main focus being that of contemporary jewellery. When people ask what I do for a living I usually pause for a moment. Sometimes I say I am an artist or a researcher, or a curator – in reality I am a combination of all three. Contemporary jewellery can be a research led or a practice based genre, depending on the individual’s focuses and interests. It usually revolves around project work - short term, often publically funded - cumulating in exhibitions, new bodies of jewellery or artist publications.

Jewellery is traditionally a solitary profession. Contemporary jewellery - a sub-discipline - is even more so. Spread sparsely across the globe, we practitioners are usually found working from home or in small communal studio spaces interacting with other colleagues only during conferences or events, such as Munich Jewellery Week, SIERAAD or JOYA , or if we work within a university. In past years, as an attempt to counter the isolating experience of solitary work, I have actively sought out ways to work with others in my field, be it through developing research projects, organizing symposiums or curating group exhibitions of work. In this blog post I would like to talk a little bit about my recent experiences of working as part of a team.

I will share some of my experiences of how a small group of independent professionals, each used to solitary work, came together as collaborators and co-creators of a project. I hope to demonstrate how rewarding this experience can be – both in terms of project development and in terms of personal insight into others and one’s own working practices.

 


My approach and role

As an independent, opinionated practitioner, the idea of sharing the control and direction of a project was one that I certainly, at the beginning, approached with some trepidation. What if my opinions were overruled or discounted by the other team members? Would we retain equal authorship over the idea? Could I trust them to maintain interest throughout and would they care as much as I did about the final results? And, most importantly, could we work together? These are questions that no doubt trouble many who find themselves in similar positions. Despite these trepidations working in a team gave me the ability to bounce ideas off others, to test working hypotheses and to develop my skills in a safe environment. 

When forming a team, it was important to understand that the aims and objectives of each team member will have similarities but also slightly different focuses. Each person will have specific ideas of the direction the work should take. For these different perspectives to combine in a way to make a project stronger - rather than clashing against each other - it was important to spend a significant amount of time listening to each other; to understand each person’s perspective and each person’s aims. From a personal perspective, within my most recent project, I found this sharing of ideals very rewarding. Seeing how others interpreted the project we worked on together enabled me to expand on my ideas of what it was and what it could be, encouraging me to be bolder in my own ideas of what we could achieve. Here are some examples of how.

One of the most tangible ways we found for doing this was through the writing of our project aims, objectives and methodology. By putting our various ideas and conceptions of the project in writing, we gave ourselves the space to then debate, develop and expand on the direction we wanted to follow during our regular meetings. This continued as we wrote funding applications and abstracts. 

It was my job to do the majority of this writing, which in turn gave me a key role in shaping the foundation of the project by acting as its ‘voice’. But it also placed me in a particular position within the team as it was my responsibility to allocate space for the other team member’s voices by integrating their feedback and alternative viewpoints back into the writing. 


This was a challenge at the beginning. Each of us has our own specific voices and as the writer I automatically wanted to iron out these differences to produce something that was more fitting with my own style. Yet finding techniques which would enable every voice to be heard became a key part of the project. It became the key for each of us to maintain co-ownership. This process evolved throughout the project and became more effective as we as team members grew to know each other better. To begin with we followed a process that anyone who has co-authored a paper will be familiar with, but for jewellery practitioners is exceedingly rare.

We first discussed our ideas face-to-face. I then mapped out these ideas into a text which would be forwarded to one colleague, who would edit and add content, and then share with the next who would also comment and edit as needed. This new draft would bounce back and forth until we were all satisfied. Inevitably we would meet and talk about the progress, flag up any content that worried us or to make alternative suggestions. We made a point of listening and considering all opinions throughout, though this did not mean that all could be integrated. Indeed there were times where ideas I had were overruled by the other team members, and this could have had the potential of causing resentment. However, as we had provided the space and time for all the alternative views to be voiced and heard, this possibility was negated. Interestingly, because all team members sought to actively listen and consider each other’s opinions, there were none of the typical heated debates that can occur in such situations where ‘he-who-shouts-loudest-wins’.

This was a lesson in letting go of control for me. Throughout the project I had to drop some of my own ideas and accept others. It was the same for both of my colleagues. A large level of trust had to be built between us, to have faith in each other’s viewpoints and to accept majority decisions. Through this continuous iterations of learning to collaborate and work together, we developed an effective method of co-authorship which resulted in a strong methodology for the project. Subsequently we were asked to talk at a major conference and won three significant funding bids.


Working together as a team

Successful teamwork sees the integration of each person’s individual abilities within a project. By working with others who had different skill sets to mine I found that I gained a renewed confidence in the things that I was specifically very good at. When working alone we become a sort of ‘jack-of-all-trades’, often unconsciously neglecting the jobs we are less confident in. Within a team the dynamics change as roles are designated to different team members based on individual strengths and competences. 

Although basic roles were designated at the very beginning, we discovered that by maintaining a high level of communication we were able to develop an approach that adapted to each of our own strengths. 
We began with monthly meetings, increasing to bi-monthly, and finally two or three a week during the most intense periods of the project. These varied between face-to-face and via Skype. In addition, when I worked with a colleague on particular aspects of the project we insured that we coordinated our time so we could work together. We often had daily Skype meetings combined with sending ridiculous amounts of emails to each other as we worked, sprinkled with the odd telephone call. How and how much we communicated was left very fluid according to particular needs at any given time. By maintaining this constant communication it became possible to then develop a flexibility within the team that enabled the shifting about of jobs as particular strengths or reluctances emerged.

While our approach required a significant amount of sensitivity so not to bruise egos or leave any team member feeling less than adequate in their skills, working this way proved invaluable. An example of this was how my colleague and I divided particular tasks when seeking sponsorship. I focused on making initial contact via letter and email, and she followed these up with a phone call – thereby negating my reluctance to use a telephone and her reluctance to write. Together we made a formable team and successfully managed to draw in a significant amount of sponsorship to the project. 

Of course, this approach was not without its challenges. For one, we are not always aware of our own or others shortcomings. Shortcomings are only revealed upon reflection and after the fact. However, by maintaining an open and frank dialogue throughout and through observing each other’s insecurities, a structure was put in place that gave each member the chance to play on their strengths during the project. We also provided a support structure so no team member felt in a position to take on a task they felt was outside their competences.


What I learned working in a team

One of the most surprising parts of working as a team was how it enabled me to observe myself and the work that I do through other people’s eyes. Self-reflectivity is well understood to being key in professional development, but in reality how we observe and analyse our own actions are greatly affected by our personal biases. It can be incredibly difficult to see what we did as opposed to what we think we did and it is easy to focus on some certain aspects of what we have done more than others.
 
The support structure that was put in place within our team, based on constant communication and a sensitivity to each other’s reluctances and strengths, not only enabled us to complete roles and tasks most suited to our abilities and strengths, it also provided a system of feedback between the team members. This feedback gave insight to what each team member accomplished during the project. By receiving feedback on my team’s perception of how I worked, I was able to develop an increased understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses. It gave me a new perspective on what I personally achieved during the project.  

It is very easy to take for granted the things that come easily to us - a love of list making, a familiarity of social media, a love of writing - yet it was many of these traits that proved to be what made my contribution to the project so successful; as they complimented the skills brought by my team members. 

Through honest feedback from my team members, throughout and at the end of the project, I was able to develop a much more complete picture of my role within the team. Subsequently I could take a more holistic approach to my own self-analysis and self-reflection. 

So what did I learn about my own working practices? An awful lot - too much to write down here. But in the main: 

  • That I enjoy pushing and developing ideas and require others to bounce these ideas off for them to grow. 
  • That I am naturally inclined towards research and will spend hours insuring all avenues are investigated (be it for funding opportunities, sponsorship partners or research methodologies). 
  • That I was not always as direct as I thought I was in expressing my opinion. Which was surprising as I had always thought I was very blunt. This discrepancy in understanding between what was blunt and what was not became clear when we talked through our various cultural understandings of what ‘direct’ actually meant. 
  • That I sought to reconcile differences of opinions. Sometimes I took on the role of translator within the team when miscommunication arose.
  • And most importantly, just how much I enjoyed working with others. It’s now a key part of how I would like to develop my own professional practice in the future.  

 

Teamwork is a complex beast. It requires equal measures of self-motivation to push a project forward during moments of disagreement or fatigue, sensitivity, the ability to listen to others and the ability to give all members the space to develop their own voice and ownership of a project – what some would call a coaching approach. While I approached this project with some trepidation as an independent practitioner, for fear of losing control, working in a team actually became an empowering experience as we achieved things I don’t think any of us would have been confident enough to do on our own as a result. All the while we gained valuable insight into how we each individually work.

Note

[1] These are different types of jewellery selling venues that have a particular focus on promoting contemporary jewellery. Munich Jewellery Week is an unofficial jewellery festival in Munich in which thousands come from all over the world to set up ad-hoc exhibitions and to see what is on offer. Both JOYA and SIERAAD are more formal, run by contemporary jewellery enthusiasts acting as selling fairs for the public to expand the reach of contemporary jewellery, with the aim of expanding the disciplines customer base.

To connect with Laura:

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Check out her most recent collaborative project: https://www.rubbishtogold.com