The place jewelry meets artwork and witchcraft

Pledging to do a daily creative challenge became something of a trend during lockdown among artists and designers – perhaps because it provided structure and a focus when the rest of the world had ground to a halt.

But these routine acts of making are not solely linked to the pandemic – plenty of artists have long found this process helpful to their practice. Among these is designer and artist Mark Mcleish, who is holding a retrospective of his ‘talismanic brooches’ – which he has made daily since 2014 – at the Weavers Factory gallery in Greater Manchester.

Mcleish trained as a jeweller and is also a lecturer at Manchester School of Art, and his daily practice of making brooches, which are perhaps better described as wearable artworks, can be seen as an act of rebellion against the strict rigours of craft more commonly associated with jewellery making.

“When you’re a jeweller, that idea of craft is associated with your work,” Mcleish explains. “Some of these things are collided and glued quite quickly. So in terms of the language of jewellery and that expectation of craftsmanship and skill, it’s a very loose way of making … it’s more of an artistic practice.”

Mcleish at the Weavers Factory; all images courtesy Weavers Factory

Mcleish has only had about ten days off from making his daily brooches in the past eight years – five quite recently when he was struck down with Covid – and now sees the process as “part of my day”. “It’s like meditation,” he continues. “The making is completely tacit, I don’t even think about it, my body just does it.”

Yet despite the seeming simplicity of the act, there are multiple layers within each work, which bind memory with magic and then with the materials Mcleish chooses for each piece.

Each begins with a series of words. “It’s the folding in of witchcraft into the idea of making something,” he says. “I start with thinking about the day – what I know about my day, how it’s going to play out – and then I project into the day and pull out words.”

He then searches for objects that he has collected that can come together to form the brooches. “I have different ways of collecting things – the obvious ones like mudlarking or beachcombing, things in charity shops, to really considered things like rainfall on Friday the 13th, which will then become a slip for porcelain. So there’s these webs of collecting – each of the objects come in and they have this provenance preset within them.”

The next layer comes from the response that Mcleish receives from others when wearing his work out in the world. “The thing I love about wearing them is the comments or the gaze that you get. If you’re wearing something ostentatious you do get looks. I love that because those responses feed the spell.”

While many of us may talk of spells in a casual sense, for Mcleish this is a serious business: he identifies as a witch and is part of a coven of 18 witches based in Lancashire, which he joined 20 years ago. “I was recruited,” he says of finding the coven. “Everybody is sought out for their gift. I was recruited at my college show – two members of the coven saw my work, asked me questions, asked if I identified as a witch. And I did! I think I definitely have a psychometry for objects, a clairvoyancy for objects.”

Mcleish acts as the “charm maker” for the coven, providing magic objects, which again ties back into the daily brooches he makes, which he imbues with spells to act as “a vitamin or antidote for the day. It’s this extra kind of shield.”

The show at the Weavers Factory is the first time he has displayed a retrospective of this series. Appropriately enough, there are 365 works on show, and with most of the pieces for sale, Mcleish will see them take on a new life with someone else, though with his magic and memories carried with them.

“This work’s never been seen off my body. I make it every day for that purpose. It’s made with the intent of magic, it’s made as a spell. But now all of these brooches have memory attached to them, because they’ve been worn, they’ve been part of my life.”

The exhibition design leans into the storytelling quality of Mcleish’s work, with visitors given a sticker of an illustrated eye to wear which is intended to ‘guide’ them to the brooch that is right for them. The brooches are presented in clusters throughout the space, and also on slightly unsettling wooden structures and gloves stuffed with hay. There is a sense of humour here, as well as magic.

And for those who might be tempted to ask Mcleish to offer up a spell or magical object for personal use, you wouldn’t be the first. “As a witch, people come to me as a client for witchcraft, to have an object made for them,” he says. “You do get interesting requests. Most of my days is saying no to people. It’s always medals of love, it’s always those things.”

It is never what you did or didn’t do by Mark Mcleish is on show at the Weavers Factory until November 6;