A visit to jewellery artists Lisa Walker and Karl Fritsch in a cottage by the sea

Spinoff Art editor Mark Amery and photographer Ebony Lamb pay a visit to the internationally celebrated jewellery couple at their colonial cottage above Island Bay.

The white horses are galloping in from the Cook Strait as photographer and singer-songwriter Ebony Lamb (Eb and Sparrow) and I roll in to Island Bay, to the home and studio of jewellery artists Lisa Walker and Karl Fritsch.

Haven’t heard of them? That may be their fault. They are in high demand internationally. When Eb and I visit they’re just back from Lisa’s new solo show in London, and Karl’s about to head off for New York Jewellery Week and a show at his New York dealer. In New Zealand, Karl shows regularly with Hamish McKay Gallery Wellington and The National in Christchurch and both were recently part of Fingers Jewellery’s annual group show in Auckland. In 2018 Lisa was honoured with a major 30-year survey show at Te Papa, I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered. This year it toured to Melbourne and Apeldoorn in Netherlands, and in March it opens in Munich.

This little place above the boat-bobbing bay is jewellery central. Munich-born Karl moved from Europe with Lisa ten years ago and set up home in Island Bay. When the elderly woman next door passed away, they bought her derelict Victorian workers cottage, all scrim, rimu and faded newspaper. The oldest house in this part of the bay, it provides space for his-and-her studios and workshops, and a spare bed for visiting artists.

I asked Karl and Lisa to tell me about their home, their work and how they combine the two.

Karl Fritsch and Lisa Walker at home. All photos by Ebony Lamb.

Lisa: We’re both lucky to be able to do this full time, though lucky is a weird word, we’ve worked bloody hard! We feel very privileged. When we travel for exhibitions usually one of us will go for their show or project, and the other will stay at home. Every now and again we travel together. Well, our son Max is 20 now, but Mia is 13. She came over to London and Munich in the school holidays which was wonderful. But it’s another story really when you take children!

Karl:  For what we do – the jewellery art thing – it is still so specialised. You need to spread out as far as possible to reach people who are interested in that niche. So we have dealers in New Zealand, Australia…

Lisa:  …London, America, Munich, Sweden. I’ve probably got nine galleries. In New Zealand you have places like The National in Christchurch. Caroline Billing there is brilliant. Masterworks in Auckland, who I’ve worked with for about ten years now.

Karl: And then you have the traditional [galleries], like Fingers in Auckland. Coming to New Zealand I didn’t expect there to be such a scene. With Hamish McKay it was unexpectedly amazing to be included and be part of things here. There was much more of a market than I thought, and opportunities to exhibit and collaborate. It feels like New Zealand is close to jewellery. There’s a real feel about it. It has quite a natural place in the identity I think.

Lisa with hairy ’70s work by Judy McIntosh Wilson in their studio cottage. Photo: Ebony Lamb

Neither of you appear to be wearing jewellery. 

Lisa: No hardly ever! Every now and then I wear something out. I’m always trying on pieces in the workshop

Karl: I only wear when I have to represent. I mean I try all of them on! Around the workshop, yes. Outside, very rarely. Lisa comes over and occasionally puts something around my neck. 

Lisa: When we got the (second) house the whole garden was overgrown and we didn’t know you could see the sea. Yet we’ve very protected from the southerly here, it’s a killer! There’s a room for taking photos and for packaging – to have a whole room for that, unheard of! There’s also Karl’s workshop downstairs; you can go down round the outside or slide down by ladder. I don’t actually go down there.

I’m sure I can see cat fur in amongst Karl’s rings.

Lisa: Yes. That’s Puff. Every time I have a show I find his fur on my pieces… it sticks!

Karl: I always come to a full workshop. There are hundreds of things that want to be finished. I don’t have to start with nothing and think “Oh, what can I do today?” It’s an ongoing process. 

Karl: Working with wax allows you to be very spontaneous. I don’t have to make a sketch. If I have an idea I pretty much make it and it sits there, and I look at it later and see if it’s good. Sometimes I know they’re instantly good but some of them… there’s boxes, 10 years old, where I’m not quite sure if they will make it or not.

Here downstairs I do most of the work with the models. The casting, the turning of wax into metal. All this machinery. I make moulds. The wax goes into flasks and gets embedded in plaster and then gets heated, so the wax melts. Then it goes into what is pretty much a vacuum which sucks air – so the metal gets sucked into all the detail through the plaster. 

Karl Fritsch explaining his process to The Spinoff Art’s Mark Amery. Photo: Ebony Lamb.

It’s hard to get parts here. When something broke down in Germany I could pretty much go around the corner. Here it’s tricky to get an instant fix when I need it. I have two kilns here. One is a New Zealand kiln so I can easily find parts. I need a backup if something goes wrong with the other kiln, because I don’t cast ring by ring. I accumulate say 50 or more rings and then do a session of casting. A whole exhibition in one casting process. So if that goes wrong… 50 to 100 rings… gone! I’m nervous of things breaking down.

I use what I find – stones I have for many years and I use them when they fit. I’ve started using synthetic diamonds and jewels. More people are catching on to this. There feels like there’s a change. Some of the synthetic diamonds are very expensive to make. Some are easier because of the consistency. There’s more awareness of where things come from, how politically correct they are sourced, and how much damage is done at source. 

Lisa’s studio is upstairs. She describes it currently as empty – 13 new pieces have recently been dispatched to London. Lisa and Karl show me some ‘moa stones’ they’ve collected. Perfectly round stones that once lived inside the gizzards of moa, to aid digestion.

Lisa: They’re almost perfect, they’re beautiful

Karl: It’s a good story. How many of these stones that they sell as moa stones have really been in a moa, well that’s the thing! But they were so nice, a group of random pebbles, I thought they’d just be so great in jewellery. But, since we’ve had them… it’s been hard. You suddenly become conscious and less sure whether you should do something with them: do they become work, or is it just better to leave them as a thing?

Lisa: Yes, I couldn’t decide whether I could do something with them. Maybe not. 

Lisa: I collect materials and also I collect online off Instagram and other places. Actually, that’s more of a kick-off for pieces than materials now. I always think that I’ve discovered everything I can on Trade Me, but then I just discovered another great category. It’s just called craft or something. Amazing stuff there. Like I just bought this: a coconut shell bag! With a zip! Do you believe it?! I’ve just reinforced it and now I’m going to paint it somehow, I’m not sure yet. $10! It took him weeks to send it to me.

Lisa: There’s an instinct that collects. A sort of attitude I suppose.

Karl: For me, there’s some excitement that gets kicked off, and that carries on or it may die off.

Lisa: I never get rid of things here. I’m always getting rid of things from the house – but not here! 

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I pick up a small, single fake wood log bookend. 

Lisa: I feel like I’ve exhausted those wooden objects now. I collected a lot of strange quirky wooden things from second-hand stores when I moved back. I never found objects like that in Europe. I probably looked for something like that for three years. Then there are some things you see everywhere – a massive bunch of materials you find in craft or model railway shops all over the world. Other things are more specific to places.

Lisa Walker and Karl Fritsch. Photo: Ebony Lamb



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