Timothy Veske-McMahon | Vanillaroma

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Timothy Veske-McMahon

Timothy Veske-McMahon |


May 6th - June 10th 2023


When is an air freshener a jewel? When it is the centerpiece of a necklace by American artist Timothy Veske-McMahon. As in his prior series, Glyph and Borne, Vanillaroma balances Dada humor with purposefully perplexing iconography. Combining intellect, emotion, signifiers, and things, Veske-McMahon impels us to view the world in all its variety and nuance. Persistently striving to make objects that are, as he states, “confounded enough to avoid…sudden definition and compartmentalization by prior experience,” he, nonetheless, draws his ideas from fundamental human needs: communication, relationships, and home.

At the time Veske-McMahon conceived Vanillaroma, he was living with his Estonian husband in a small village on Vormsi, an island in Estonia. The world was struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, along with its socio-political fallout, an example of which was a universal feeling of isolation—both real and psychic—caused by locational disorientation and loss of palpable experiences. Furthermore, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was forcing a national confrontation with the perpetual dangers and iniquities faced by Black people in America. Veske-McMahon was, himself, engaged in a personal challenge. Although married in the United States, his domestic partnership was threatened by a lag in the implementation of laws that would recognize this same-sex marriage in Estonia. His advantaged status as an American caused him to feel conspicuous and alienated from the representations and symbols of the U.S. that he was experiencing within an Estonian context, spurring a visceral connection to the land, which he demonstrated by learning to make traditional syrups, inks and dyes from local vegetation, and reading books that might help him understand the ways in which “the privilege, discretion and experience afforded to [him] is of best use.”


Several of the necklaces in Vanillaroma are assembled from plastic replications of “Little Trees,” or “CAR-FRESHNERS,” as they were originally called, when they were invented in the mid-20th century in upstate New York (about a 3-hour drive from where Veske-McMahon was born). Regarding the car freshener as an ideal symbol for the racial problems in America, he discerns an exoticized and commercialized chemical simulation of scents associated with the colonial slave trade: vanilla (loaded with meaning and a code word for “white”), coconut, and sugarcane, as well as the exportation of American nationalism to isolationist political perspectives resurfacing in Eastern Europe. VeskeMcMahon even informs us that, ironically, the European licensee for “Little Trees” produces a vanilla-scented, American flag-themed version called Vanilla Pride, a group of which he’s strung as a necklace.

Veske-McMahon additionally perceives “the idea of the air freshener as a sign that acknowledges the old, stale, stink of past events… [along with the] idea that the materials, formats, cultures of jewelry may also need freshening, and that as a system of identity, could also provide a method of acknowledging one’s own histories, privileges and entitlements.”

Other necklaces in Vanillaroma, which address current political and social tensions, recall the party-banner, only instead of “B-o-n V-o-y-a-ge” or “H-a-p-p-y B-i-r-t-h-d-a-y,” Veske-McMahon implores us, for example, to “V-o-t-e” or “V-e-t-o.” Cut from old plastic, the faded colors, redolent of dwindling scent, imbue the rearrangeable garlands’ elements with a sense of age and the passage of time. Plastic brooches depicting cartoon eyes reference an Estonian saying, which translated means “fear has big eyes,” signifying xenophobia. Vanillaroma is an enigmatic series; the works express multiple layers of meaning, making them most rewarding to wear.

April, 2023

Toni Greenbaum, Brooklyn, New York

Vanillaroma, necklace, air fresheners

“I had this moment… We have a car in Estonia, and in that car I have a Little Trees Air Freshener in the shape of an American flag. For me it was kind of this campy, kitsch little memento of home and kind of like my quirkiness in being there. Over that summer I was realizing I saw American Tree air fresheners in the cars that have bumper stickers and sayings pinned on their windows and dashboards about the Nationalist and xenophobic political partiesmovements which were very much against other kinds of people coming into Estonia. I was a different kind of person living in Estonia, but I was the good kind right? I was the American kind....I started to really have this physical reaction to seeing the American flag air freshener.”

Do You Remember Vanillaroma, necklace, repurposed plastic, aluminum, glass beads, nylon

“I made duplicates of “Vanillaroma” from plastic pieces cut from vintage, low quality plastic trays from Estonia that I’ve had for ten years… I went back to that material because of its faded quality, that it doesn’t last, and is low value.

I started to really think about my love of, what I call, ice cream colors - faded pop bright colors that have lost something, have lived through something. I started to think about this relationship and understanding that I had for fading colors and fading scent.”

Hirmul On Suured Simlad [Fear Has Big Eyes], brooches, repurposed plastic, aluminum

“In Estonia, the saying “fear has big eyes,”has a few different meanings. The main meaning is really, those that are fearful or need to be scared see everything as a threat, therefore their eyes are big. The other meaning of it is, when you're scared you want everything, you need everything, you’re greedy. You hold onto things because you're worried about yourself and your family and those you care about.

I wanted it to be fluctuating between anxiety, fear, anger, and even hatred. I drew inspiration from early American animation, specifically, a lot of rubber-hose animation, looking at characters, some of them very specific, and chosen because they may have played to racial character types, or because they played characters that used to be the anxious klutz or other character types that are cast into these animated characters.”

Cancel Culture, necklace/banner, repurposed plastic, aluminum, brass

Vote, Vote!
Veto, Veto!, banner/necklace, repurposed plastic, aluminum, brass
“Vote, Vote! Veto,Veto!’ came from the 2020 election cycle. It was an aspect of the idea of what it means to be a member of a free society, where even a vote is a form of veto.”
- Timothy Veske-McMahon

Signs of Acknowledgement I, necklace, acrylic beads, glass beads, acrylic, silk

Signs of Acknowledgement II, necklace, acrylic beads, glass beads, acrylic, silk

Signs of Acknowledgement III, necklace, acrylic beads, glass beads, acrylic, silk

Pearls For The Mother, necklace, pearls, silk, acrylic, mother of pearl, glass beads

“I started really thinking more about wearing these trees as a possible way for the jewelry format to be a sign of acknowledgement, as a way to physically say: my history, our history, my body, something stinks, something is faded, old; it’s not perfect. I might not have certain experiences, but I’m still able to mark myself.”

Aunt Ponytail’s Pearls, necklace, mother of pearl, plastic, pearls

Timothy Veske-McMahon

Timothy Veske-McMahon divides his time between Providence, Rhode Island and Haapsalu, Estonia. He received a MFA in metalsmithing (2013) from Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he also served as assistant to department head Iris Eichenberg, and BFA in sculpture, with honors (2004, concentration in jewelry), from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, where he later taught. In 2015 he was appointed Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt, before leaving to assume a position at Rhode Island School of Design, where he is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director for Jewelry and Metalsmithing. VeskeMcMahon has won numerous awards and received several grants. He has shown in many solo and group exhibitions in the U.S.A. and was the subject of one-person exhibitions and has been included in group shows in Beijing, Seoul, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bratislava, Stockholm, Tbilisi, and Toronto, among others. In 2011 he participated in the prestigious Talente exhibition at the Internationale Handwerksmesse, Munich. Veske-McMahon was featured in a cover article in Metalsmith magazine in 2016. His works are included in many prominent private collections, as well as the Yale University Art Gallery and RISD Museum.

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