Timothy Veske-McMahon | Vanillaroma
LITTLE TREES-BIG IDEAS
When is an air freshener a jewel? When it is the centerpiece of a necklace by American artist Timothy Veske-McMahon. As in his prior series, Glyph and Borne, Vanillaroma balances Dada humor with purposefully perplexing iconography. Combining intellect, emotion, signifiers, and things, Veske-McMahon impels us to view the world in all its variety and nuance. Persistently striving to make objects that are, as he states, “confounded enough to avoid…sudden definition and compartmentalization by prior experience,” he, nonetheless, draws his ideas from fundamental human needs: communication, relationships, and home.
At the time Veske-McMahon conceived Vanillaroma, he was living with his Estonian husband in a small village on Vormsi, an island in Estonia. The world was struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, along with its socio-political fallout, an example of which was a universal feeling of isolation—both real and psychic—caused by locational disorientation and loss of palpable experiences. Furthermore, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was forcing a national confrontation with the perpetual dangers and iniquities faced by Black people in America. Veske-McMahon was, himself, engaged in a personal challenge. Although married in the United States, his domestic partnership was threatened by a lag in the implementation of laws that would recognize this same-sex marriage in Estonia. His advantaged status as an American caused him to feel conspicuous and alienated from the representations and symbols of the U.S. that he was experiencing within an Estonian context, spurring a visceral connection to the land, which he demonstrated by learning to make traditional syrups, inks and dyes from local vegetation, and reading books that might help him understand the ways in which “the privilege, discretion and experience afforded to [him] is of best use.”
Several of the necklaces in Vanillaroma are assembled from plastic replications of “Little Trees,” or “CAR-FRESHNERS,” as they were originally called, when they were invented in the mid-20th century in upstate New York (about a 3-hour drive from where Veske-McMahon was born). Regarding the car freshener as an ideal symbol for the racial problems in America, he discerns an exoticized and commercialized chemical simulation of scents associated with the colonial slave trade: vanilla (loaded with meaning and a code word for “white”), coconut, and sugarcane, as well as the exportation of American nationalism to isolationist political perspectives resurfacing in Eastern Europe. Veske-McMahon even informs us that, ironically, the European licensee for “Little Trees” produces a vanilla-scented, American flag-themed version called Vanilla Pride, a group of which he’s strung as a necklace.
Veske-McMahon additionally perceives “the idea of the air freshener as a sign that acknowledges the old, stale, stink of past events… [along with the] idea that the materials, formats, cultures of jewelry may also need freshening, and that as a system of identity, could also provide a method of acknowledging one’s own histories, privileges and entitlements.”
Other necklaces in Vanillaroma, which address current political and social tensions, recall the party-banner, only instead of “B-o-n V-o-y-a-g-e” or “H-a-p-p-y B-i-r-t-h-d-a-y,” Veske-McMahon implores us, for example, to “V-o-t-e” or “V-e-t-o.” Cut from old plastic, the faded colors, redolent of dwindling scent, imbue the rearrangeable garlands’ elements with a sense of age and the passage of time. Plastic brooches depicting cartoon eyes reference an Estonian saying, which translated means “fear has big eyes,” signifying xenophobia. Vanillaroma is an enigmatic series; the works express multiple layers of meaning, making them most rewarding to wear.
–Toni Greenbaum, Brooklyn, New York, April 2023
Timothy Veske-McMahon divides his time between Providence, Rhode Island and Haapsalu, Estonia. He received a MFA in metalsmithing (2013) from Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he also served as assistant to department head Iris Eichenberg, and BFA in sculpture, with honors (2004, concentration in jewelry), from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, where he later taught. In 2015 he was appointed Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt, before leaving to assume a position at Rhode Island School of Design, where he is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director for Jewelry and Metalsmithing. Veske-McMahon has won numerous awards and received several grants. He has shown in many solo and group exhibitions in the U.S.A. and was the subject of one-person exhibitions and has been included in group shows in Beijing, Seoul, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bratislava, Stockholm, Tbilisi, and Toronto, among others. In 2011 he participated in the prestigious Talente exhibition at the Internationale Handwerksmesse, Munich. Veske-McMahon was featured in a cover article in Metalsmith magazine in 2016. His works are included in many prominent private collections, as well as the Yale University Art Gallery and RISD Museum.