Jeweler Daryl Aukee’s work speaks for itself. Whether at the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop, the Millpond Music Festival, or the Mono Lake Committee Information Center in Lee Vining, Aukee’s designs, crafted from metal, stone, and found objects, are memorable: at once fluid and geometric, subtle and bold, and always one-of-a-kind.
An artist all his life, Aukee discovered his passion for jewelry in the ‘60s. Although he gave it up for a while, working in construction, restoration and drywall, for the last 10 years he has returned to jewelry as a full-time occupation.
The Sheet sat down with 73-year-old Aukee in his Bishop studio to discuss his path to jewelry-making, which included a 4-year stint on Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol from 1960-1964.
The Sheet: How did you come to live in the Eastern Sierra?
Aukee: I really came from the San Diego area. A friend of mine asked me if I’d ever skied, and I said no, and he said, Do you want to try it? So we left San Diego and went to Aspen, Colorado, and I learned to ski. Not well, but enough to get where I wanted to go. From there we went to Sun Valley, and then that spring I had a friend that was working in Mammoth, so I went down to visit.
I had gotten my First Aid card in Colorado, and I filled out an application for Ski Patrol. So after about a year I got a call from them, and I went to work on Ski Patrol at Mammoth. About halfway into the season the director of Ski Patrol got married and left the area, so they told me, you’re head of Ski Patrol now.
Sheet: That’s fast.
Aukee: Yeah, it was a pretty small department. The area was still small, and I had, I think, 4 patrolmen. So I went to work as a head of Ski Patrol, and I worked from ‘60-‘64. Then I got married, and I left for awhile, and then I came back. I always liked the area, so I decided to stay. Then we moved to Bishop, and I’ve been living here [off and on] since.
Sheet: Were you a working artist during that time?
Aukee: I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve always stayed in the arts; I’ve painted and sculpted, and all my life I’ve been somehow involved in the arts. Then I worked in construction, and I had a drywall business for a while. I raised 4 sons here, and they still live in the area.
As far as dealing in the jewelry part of it, back in the late ‘60s I had a friend of mine, George Miller, who worked in the shop with me. He worked in leather. Really neat guy; he passed away about 6-7 years ago, quite young, in his 40s. But before he moved away to San Francisco he says, I’ll give you this book on making jewelry, and I’ll give you this hammer. I said, What’s a hammer got to do with jewelry? So I got to reading the book, and I really enjoyed it, and I always enjoyed working in metal.
I’m self-taught. Everything I either read about, or watched somebody else do, then put the two together, and made a whole lot of mistakes, and learned from that. The more you are involved in it, the more you find different ways to do things, too. So maybe some of the things I do are pretty unorthodox to other people, but I enjoy what I do.
Sheet: So you’ve been making jewelry since the ‘60s?
Aukee: I got burned out on it back in the ‘60s, because I was doing what they call production work, which is 10 of these, 12 of these … I had a family, and a car payment, and a house … I was dealing with galleries and craft shops from San Diego clear up into San Francisco. So I was working some long hours out here [in the studio], and one night I said, I’m just going to quit this for now, I’m burned out. So I went back into construction, and I was in that for awhile. And then we’ve done other things in between. I’ve owned an art gallery and frame shop here in Bishop for a while, and then I got tired of working for the public [laughs].
Ten years ago, I started having some health problems. I was doing heavy work, drywall, and my doctor told me I wasn’t supposed to lift anything more than 50 pounds above my head. I told him what kind of work I did, and he said, You can’t do that.
I came home and I was really bummed out. I was feeling sorry for myself, and my wife says, If you want to go back and start making jewelry again, if you do the housework and get dinner ready, we’ll make a deal. And so we did that up ‘til the time she retired [from teaching preschool for the Bishop Adventist church].
This time around, I don’t do production work. I’m pretty lucky. I get to do what I want to do.
Sheet: What’s your process now that you don’t have to do production work?
Aukee: I work in anything I really feel like working in. I mix metals, and I use wood and I use found objects. What I do is I usually work in a series; I’ll do something for maybe 6 pieces, and each one is different, but in the same vein, and using the same materials. I always keep something else laid out, like I’ll have rings setting somewhere, or pendants, or broaches setting, and that way I don’t get burned out doing just one thing.
As far as design-wise, I don’t do much drawing. I’ll have something carried around in my head, or have something laid out on the bench and I look at it and keep looking at it and looking at it, and then I’ll turn around and put the pieces together. A lot of the time it’ll look exactly like I want it to, and then there’s other times where you start out and all of a sudden things start changing and moving. You only have a certain amount of control over your materials, and so things change, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.
They’re not all winners; I have a couple of boxes of all losers. Sometimes you’ll sit down, and everything will go perfect and everything falls into place, and there’s other days you go in and you sit down and you work for 20 minutes and you go, You know, I’m wasting my time here. Then you’ve got to do something else, like go outside and cut firewood or something, and then come back and you have a different attitude towards it. Sheet: Where do you feel you draw your inspiration?
Aukee: I don’t know if I’m a big fan of inspiration. I really love textures and design, and I like things to be acceptable but still a little edgy. Sometimes I’ll see something and it hits me or grabs me, and I’ll think, that’s a good line, or that’s a good texture. But that’s basically where inspiration would come from. If I see a rock with 14 holes in it or something, to me that can be inspiration. Or it can be just sitting down and hearing some music. You come from all different directions. To me it’s always hard to put a stamp on anything, and I don’t like to do that.
Sheet: And I think you absorb so much on a daily basis that you might not even be aware of what’s brewing in your mind.
Aukee: Oh yeah, you do, every day. If you don’t learn something every day, you’re in trouble. As far as jewelry making, even a mistake, you learn from it, and it makes you better at what you do, and that’s the fun part about it, too. A lot of times what you think is a mistake, if you live with it long enough and you look at it long enough, you turn around and take one piece off or put another piece on, and you look at it again and it’s not a mistake anymore; it’s a piece of art.
A lot of people think that art is one thing and craft is another. But an artist has to be a craftsman, and a craftsman has to be an artist. When it comes to jewelry, not only is it a piece of art, but you have to make it so that it’s wearable for the human body. Some pieces of jewelry you can wear for 15 minutes; other pieces you can wear for the rest of your life.
Sheet: So have you seen your work evolve over the years you’ve been making jewelry?
Aukee: Oh yeah, you always do. I’ll find a piece somewhere around here and go, where did that come from? You know you, you’ll go along a ways and then all of a sudden you’ve just got to step up and do something different, and whether it’s right or wrong, that’s what painters or potters or anyone has to do. You always move on.
Sheet: Has it ever been hard for you to let go of a piece, or sell a piece?
Aukee: You know, not really. I have enjoyed making the piece, watching this whole thing evolve, and to me, what I seem to really enjoy is when all of a sudden I realize that someone else is going to enjoy it.
But my jewelry isn’t for everyone. Maybe there’s one piece that you like, or you can like them all. But I do what I want to do, and if somebody wants to step up and enjoy it, that’s fine … I like to see people like and dislike. I think that’s the important part: that they are thinking about it.
Because we live in a world right now that is so mechanically inclined. And I think all of a sudden, I don’t know if it’s when you get older, but people want something that you don’t have to push a button on, or plug in. They realize that a handmade object is something that’s really important. And I think it’s become more important as people get educated to the fact that the whole world doesn’t revolve around a light switch and a wall plug.
There are a lot of really good craftsmen [in the Eastern Sierra], and a lot of very good artists. I don’t go out looking for these people; we run into each other in different places. But there’s a lot of people here, and sometimes we don’t realize it, because everybody does their own thing.
Sheet: Do you think this area attracts people with artistic sensibilities?
Aukee: Oh yeah, pretty much so. To me, because I live here, it’s the space. This is one of the very few places in the United States where you can go in any direction, and go over a fence, or through a fence, as long as you close the gate and don’t let the cattle out, and say you live here in Bishop, in 15 minutes you can go from 4,000 feet to 12,000 feet in the Sierras. You can go to the White Mountains. There’s such a variety of places and things to do, if you want to do them.
So I think that freedom of, you don’t have to knock on somebody’s door and ask them, Can I go out into your backyard? If you take care of this place, it is your backyard.
Sheet: I think that was something I personally missed when I was living in an urban environment.
Aukee: I think cities generate artistic endeavors, but it takes a certain type of person to be able to draw that energy, or see those things: the underground, or the belly of where they’re at. There’s artists that have lived in New York, or New Jersey, or Chicago, and they’ve only been 30 miles out of that community their whole life, but they’re generating amazing pieces of work.
Then you have other people in places like Tahoe; there’s a certain lighting, a certain feel there, and it’s what they’re searching for. Not only is it physical, but it’s emotional, and you have to find where you feel accepted.
Sheet: Why do you feel you’re drawn to work with metal?
Aukee: Metal’s pliable, and yet, it controls you. You can only do so much with a piece of metal, and it’s gone. It can be soft, it can be hard in how you use it, how you design with it; you can have these really straight, hard edges, or these beautiful, flowing curves, and you can pull it and bend it; you can crack it. Cracks can be used sometimes. Wood does the same thing.
And if you screw it up, you can always send it back to the foundry and have them melt it and rework it [laughs].
I made a pair of wedding rings for a couple in Bridgeport, and they didn’t have a lot of money. I asked them, Do you have any used gold? I don’t know if it was a necklace or a bracelet, but I melted it down and I re-rolled it and I reused it and made a set of wedding rings for them. There’s lot of things you can do with metal: you can build a skyscraper or you can make a ring.
Sheet: So I heard your nickname on Ski Patrol was ‘Animal.’ I’m curious about that.
Aukee: [Long pause]. See I grew up at the beach, and I surfed years ago, and everybody would get names. So I don’t know. I enjoyed a good time. I had a lot of fun. If somebody said, Do you want to go to South Africa for the weekend? I’d say, I’ve never been there, let’s go.
I started working on the Mountain, and we worked hard and we played hard. We did a lot of things we shouldn’t have done, but we never hurt anybody. It was fun. But the Mountain was small. It was like a family. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a dishwasher, or if you’re a ski instructor, or if you were a patrolman. Usually everybody got along, and you partied together, and if somebody had a problem, you help them out of it.
But I had that name ‘Animal’ for years. We also had a kid working on the Ski Patrol with us, we called him Yosemite Sam. He was from Yosemite, and he was actually a climber, and he was the one that, if you got in trouble, he and his partner would climb up and get you out of trouble. That was Yosemite Sam. So you know, people ended up with a lot of different names.
… I had a good time in Mammoth. I met a lot of people, and then my dealing with Dave McCoy was that we had a real good understanding. I mean I wasn’t the perfect employee, and so there’s some pretty wild stories, but he put up with us because he saw something in us that nobody else saw. We were young guys and we were hard workers. We did a good job for him.