To Adorn and to Enlighten: Jewelry / Metal Arts Faculty Nick Dong

When you first enter Enlightenment Room (2008), an immersive environment artwork by Jewelry / Metal Arts faculty member Nick Dong, nothing happens. You walk down a short, mirrored corridor in semi-darkness to a gray cushioned seat that faces the entrance.

But the moment you sit down, light begins to fill the space, and thousands of white, oval tiles glisten into view. Ethereal music fills your ears. The light brightens, and the music intensifies. This experience can last a few minutes, or a few hours, depending on how long you remain seated . . . waiting.

The moment you stand, the music and lights fade out.

Watch a video of Enlightenment Room

In 2012 Dong was invited to present Enlightenment Room as part of the Smithsonian's Craft Futures: 40 Under 40 show at the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. The work attracted much attention and was featured in numerous magazines and newspapers, including an eight-page spread in Metalsmith magazine's June 2013 issue.

"It originally started off as a somewhat sarcastic sentiment -- examining a person's need for spirituality and religion," Dong reflects. But, over years of labor and refinement, the room came to be "executed with absolute sincerity. The interior walls consist of 20,000 tiles, all of which were made by hand over a six-month period. An artist's intention can be transmitted through labor, as long as it's not mindless.

"My father is a practicing Buddhist, and I never paid much attention to his teachings at home. Now, as I grow older, I've started syncing his attitudes into my own personal belief system."

Read about Enlightenment Room in the Washington Post, the Smithsonian blog, and American Steel Studios.

The artist also notes that the show created a real community among the 40 featured artists. "To be selected by the Smithsonian was an amazing honor. And to be introduced to 39 amazing artists! We still stay in contact with one another." (Another CCA affiliate in the show was Lacey Jane Roberts, who received a dual degree in Fine Arts and Visual and Critical Studies in 2007.)

On View in Taipei: Frozen by Fire

Dong's work ranges from small jewelry pieces to full-immersion installations like Enlightenment Room. His most recent series, currently on view at Michael Ku gallery in Taipei, involves five large pieces (one of which is an assemblage of 28 smaller items) that incorporate ceramic, metal, drawings, and paintings.

He began with delicate pencil drawings, not on paper or canvas, but on a frosted enamel base. This he then sealed over with many layers of clear translucent enamel, giving the drawings a three-dimensional richness. The title of the show, Frozen by Fire, is actually literal: "It was necessary to heat the piece in order to preserve it," he explains.

"This new work is about my current life, my current subconscious space," he continues. "Being in 40 Under 40 made me conscious about my age and this period in my life. Most of my work had been conceptual, without a lot of personal narrative, and I felt the need to return to painting."

Undergrad Years in Taipei

Dong was born and raised in Taipei. It was while studying art as an undergraduate at Tunghai University that he started creating "all-sensory" experiences. A Sampling Research of Some Creatures' Evolution (1996) was an attempt to create an outdoor environment within the gallery space. Copper figures buried under layers of dirt and hardwood created depressions in the floor, and speakers transmitted low-level hums and vibrations.

The deep, emanating sounds had a calming effect on visitors. "The piece transported them into another environment. Seeing their reactions fueled my drive to make work that can touch people. The whole process was an amazing surprise to me personally, and a defining moment in my career."

Moving to the US, and the Origins of Enlightenment Room

Dong moved to the United States in 1999 to begin his MFA in metalsmithing and jewelry at the University of Oregon in Eugene. It was there that Enlightenment Room first began to take shape, as part of his 2002 thesis project. "I kept refining it, and the production values kept going up."

After completing his MFA, Dong followed his partner down to the Bay Area, and was very happy to find what he describes as the ideal community he'd been seeking for his personal and creative projects.

"It's so exciting to be here, I love the diversity and the culture! There is such freeness. I'm a fish in water."

A big influence on his work was his job at Gallery Flux, a San Francisco jewelry gallery, from 2002 to 2004. "As a metal artist I thought I knew my materials well, but no! That job attuned my eye to the detail and preciousness of materials. And I began to think more about the body, and how we connect adornment with desire."

His work from that time examines delicacy within unusual contexts. The series The Hair Body Show (2005) is a group of sterling silver body pieces designed to be worn by large, hairy men. Wonder Ring (2004) is an 18-carat gold ring with a band of garnets that are inside, rather than outside, so only the wearer knows they're there.

"For me, a work always resonates more if it's a hybrid of concept and material."

On Teaching, and CCA

In 2008 Dong was invited by his friend and Jewelry / Metal Arts faculty member Curtis Arima to assist with teaching the senior project course in the program. "We met in Oregon at school, and had kept in touch; for instance we're in the same critique group. He knows my capabilities as a teacher and a problem solver -- how I'm able to utilize different materials and methodologies."

Since 2008 Dong has cotaught with Arima one semester per year, and in fall 2013 he will be teaching the course solo.

Dong loves to introduce students to his discoveries of new materials and the phenomena of interpersonal relationships. "They get a fresh perspective from me as a working artist, and I am very inspired by them in turn. Everyone in this world is growing and advancing. My intention is to be open to all possibilities and inspirations. Sincerity within the work will always help to make the underlying intention clear to the audience.

"I tell my students that if they're proud of what they've made, they'll keep making good work. Their senior CCA show is just the beginning!"