Mann Made

Techno-Romance Artist Thomas Mann

by Rebecca Levy

I had to listen fast and hustle to take notes when I called Thomas Mann in New Orleans the other day. Mann is a jeweler, sculptor, and first-rate businessman whose Techno-Romantic exhibition 423D (combining art and technology) is currently featured at Clarksville Pottery near Central Market. He speaks with rapid-fire, unadulterated enthusiasm for all aspects of the career he has chosen. Nearly a decade ago, I represented Mann's work through Willingheart Gallery, so we have a number of friends and acquaintances in common. We spoke first about a former jeweler who, he says, is now nearly finished with a degree in computer science and a dancer about to receive her Ph.D., in nutrition. "I'm still just making jewelry," Mann says, understating the facts.

I called using his (unpublished) 800 number, a perk available to the artist's wholesale accounts for the last four years. "It was unusual then, but not now." Mann says. "It's part of the current wave of marketing chutzpah available to the craftsperson." He answered my questions in anticipation of his first visit to an Austin gallery since we worked together years ago. He will be coming to accompany a unique exhibition intended to "show and tell" clients about the artist's process. Mann says 423D is about thinking (the 4th dimension) and how it leads drawing (2 dimensional work) as preparation for making jewelry and sculptural (3 dimensional) objects. Seven years ago, the artist opened his own retail outlet in New Orleans, a design (as opposed to art or craft) gallery in which he sells his work and that of others. The experience made clear how much labor, money, and time goes into putting a show together. Mann reasoned that if he were to assemble all components of an exhibition for galleries, they would be more likely to show his work. 423D comes with its own press kit and four large, shadow-box panels with jewelry under and on top of the glass, working drawings, narrative, photographs, and a decorative border of objects frequently used as components in Mann's jewelry. They provide a self-guided tour through the artist's brain.

These boxes first were shown in August of 1994 in Artful Eye Gallery in California. Next, Mann presented them at the February America Craft Enterprise (ACE) show in Baltimore. At wholesale markets like ACE, hundreds of craftspeople across the country set up booths and display their objects to galleries and other retail outlets. Mann offered not only his newest line of jewelry, but also an exhibition of the boxes, invitations, press kits, and contracts for clients ready to commit. As a result, the show will be touring in galleries across the country through next year. Accompanying the exhibition are historical pieces of jewelry made by the artist that are not for sale, and others that are available. And of course, there is always the assortment of production-line Techno-Romantic earrings, necklaces, brooches, and bracelets made with hinged hearts, fish, photographs, Plexiglas, and perforated metal. He artfully combines industrial materials with romance.

423D is the third show assembled in this fashion by Mann. Each one has been different. Everyday Objects will be shown at I/O Gallery, the artist's New Orleans space, in October. Food for Thought used jewelry to talk about issues of hunger. It was shown eight times during 1993, and each time proceeds from the exhibition were used to raise money for local food banks. The artist reports that somewhere between $50,000-$60,000 was raised before the show was disassembled.

"I'm an advance representative of what it means to be a complete artist," says Mann, explaining his virtuosity as both designer and marketer of his work. "I'm in a different place." Mann has built a veritable Techno-Romantic empire in New Orleans, which includes a jewelry studio, office, the gallery, and a sculpture studio in which his every inspiration can be quickly given form, crated, and shipped. He employs 26-28 people, including 14 who assemble his production-line jewelry. I have known his distinctive work for at least 15 years. I visited Clarksville Pottery to test the possibility that I might be tired of the gadgets and gimmicks that he uses. On the contrary, viewing cases full of "Mann-made" jewelry at Clarksville Pottery was a treat. Much like visiting with good friends I don't see often, they offered familiar comfort but enough growth and unpredictability to remain interesting. I found new shapes, combinations, and variations in scale. Mann is hardly stuck in a rut; he is building methodically on success.

"One design mode always bleeds into another," he writes. "I call it trickle down." The artist has included this theory in one of the boxes, and the phrase "trickle down" reminds me of how pragmatic a business man he is, "not only making jewelry, but making a market for it, as well." Mann is always thinking ahead.

The newest project the artist has in the works is called The Oxidation Burial Project for the Year 2000. Mann is preparing 20 pine boxes in which he will be placing rusted steel necklaces. Jewelers, painters, potters, poets, and musicians, all friends of the artist, will be invited to add their own creations to the boxes. Then they will be exposed to the elements - earth, water, and air. The boxes will be buried in various places around the country that are significant to the artist, where they will remain until the millennium. The project is about "the nature in which art ages." By exposing art to the elements in this way, Mann hopes to document whether time enhances or depreciates the value of the contents of each box.

He is also selling "art futures." For $100, you can purchase a first-refusal position on purchase of any one of the boxes in the ground. Each comes will detailed documentation. So far, over 30 artists have been involved in the four boxes completed to date. Artist friends in Austin will be asked to participate, although none of the boxes will be buried here. While Mann remembers the city fondly and has great friends here, it is not a significant enough place for him to bury the boxes.

It was significant enough, in terms of his marketing scheme, however, to visit during the course of the show. And the new work, both production pieces and one-of-a-kind jewelry and boxes, are certainly special enough to have a look. n Jewelry is available at both Clarksville Pottery locations, Central Market and Arboretum Market. The show continues through October 15.

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