Article by Gloria Hickey

magine you are flying into the Auvergne region of Central France. Out of your plane window you can see the ancient volcanoes and farm fields outside of the town of Pionsat. It is an ancient landscape that today retains simultaneously its original organic shapes and the traces of human land use since medieval times. This was the place where the ancestors of goldsmith and jeweller Don Beaubier began. If you can picture translating an aerial view of unfurling spring oaks into peridot and furrowed fields into silver you can begin to envision his latest body of work entitled Deux Terroirs.

Beaubier estimates that it has been ten generations since anyone in his Canadian family had visited the Auvergne and it was for him “a profoundly moving experience.” Growing up in rural Alberta, Beaubier was the son of a long line of farmers that had immigrated in 1813 to Upper Canada and later made a homestead in southern Alberta. The land has shaped his family’s existence and outlook. Don’s connection to the land persisted through years spent at the Alberta College of Art and Design, the University of Calgary and St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia earning degrees in visual art, art history and adult education. No wonder landscape has inspired and influenced Beaubier’s jewellery for more than thirty years. Living in Newfoundland since 1978, it was the view outside his rural Bay Bulls studio that he would depict in many of his neckpieces.

With the combined sensibilities of a visual artist and
a farm boy, the complex and beautiful landscape of the
Auvergne had a powerful impact on the artist. At the same
time, he was struck by how much his family had lost. Not
just in language or culture, which had been dropped in
an eagerness to adapt and survive in a new country, but
in the sensitive stewardship that the French landscape
expressed. “The French countryside has preserved its
natural contours, the shapes of the farm fields I saw were
organic. It’s a different world from the Alberta landscape
controlled by the harsh grid geometry of nineteenth- and
twentieth-century land surveyors,” Beaubier observes. In
2006, the year after he visited France, he would return to
the family homestead near Champion, Alberta and this
confirmed his impressions. “Our family had been on that
farm since 1907. I hadn’t walked on its fields since 1964,
when my father sold it. Flooding created by an irrigation
dam on the Little Bow River had changed some of the
fields but it was still an emotional experience. I knew I
wanted to examine the link my family has had for generations
with the land. It has moulded who we were and
who we became.” That examination would become an
exhibition of 19 generously proportioned brooches and
neckpieces on display during the fall of 2007 at the Craft
Council Gallery in St. John’s and in February 2008 at the
Zilberschmuck Gallery in Toronto.

In St. John’s, the jewellery was displayed flat in plexiglass
capped cases, forcing the viewer to look down at the
dazzling landscapes in silver and gold punctuated with
an array of gems such as aquamarine, amethyst, peridot,
citrine, jade and morganite beryl. Nearby were aerial
photographs, taken by satellite, of the corresponding specific
fields or topographical features that had inspired the
brooch or neckpiece. They were distributed – as the Deux
Terroirs title suggests – into two groups, one representing
the pure business-like geometry of Alberta and the other
the undulating contours of the Auvergne with its adaptive
stewardship that follows rather than defies nature.
Beaubier further explains his use of satellite photographs.

“This technology seems to me entirely appropriate
for this project as it allows me to more easily isolate
geographical elements within the larger landscape. In
addition, satellite photographs tend to reduce the landscape
into a low relief, almost two-dimensional, format
that is more easily translated into works constructed with
sheet metal components.” Don does not cast or etch any
of his jewellery. Instead he favors non-toxic methods of
fabrication and prefers to manipulate the sheet silver and
gold directly. The result is truly unique pieces that are
unusually free in terms of design. Surprisingly, Beaubier
does not sketch out his ideas prior to fabrication. “I use a
digital camera to capture images that intrigue me instead
of drawing. My working methods are very direct. I can
always crumple up my mistakes and have them melted
down if I have to.”

The aerial perspective has another advantage in dealing
with the landscape: distance. The aerial view simplifies
the depicted landscape into features that are recognizable
but not bogged down in literal details. It also affords
an emotional distance, holding off “at arm’s length” an
emotionally charged theme whether it is about ecology
and proper stewardship of natural resources or the painful
loss of home and lifestyle. Whether it is the rhythmic
rows of an Albertan field or the multi-layered terraces
of the Auvergne, both are sophisticated sources of controlled
design, as Beaubier neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of
literalism and propaganda as well as sentimentality. The
resulting work is – as it has always been – elegant.

Gloria Hickey is an independent curator and writer since 1981,
based in St. John’s NL.