Don’t miss John McRae’s “Jewels of Dresden” trunk show Saturday, November 8th.
Based in San Francisco for nearly three decades, artist John McRae was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and grew up in rural California. He remembers a childhood of constant creative activity—making, doing, and exploring.
“My family always knew I’d be an artist,” says McRae. “We couldn’t afford traditional art supplies, but I would use whatever I found. Odds and ends … house paint … whatever. Now there’s an entire industry around found-object art, but as a kid I was just putting things together in ways I thought were interesting. I was curious about the world, and I learned that something doesn’t have to be a diamond or a ruby to have value. I could never pass a dumpster without looking in. I had a magpie mentality. Pretty! Shiny!”
This inquisitive approach to art stayed with McRae into adulthood, and led to his discovering Dresden trim while hunting for art materials at Bay Area flea markets. The foil-coated paper fascinated him, and he started using it to decorate boxes and other projects. When McRae realized the material was from Germany, he traveled there to learn more. “I found it and ordered it all,” he says. “I had to have some of every design I could find.”
Further research into the history of Dresden trim, and his own experimentations with the paper, led McRae to see it less as something purely for ornamentation but as a foundational art material.
“It acts almost like metal,” he says. “You can bend it and twist it and it doesn’t break. After a while I could look at the pieces and imagine how I would cut them up and remake them.”
“Seeing Dresden ornaments for the first time inspired me to make this jewelry,” says McRae, who acknowledges further similarities between his work and ornate jewelry of Renaissance and Victorian Europe. “Dresden decorations are the holy grail of Christmas ornaments. My work is a progression of that idea. I always try to push my own work further than what I’ve seen or previously done.”
Over-the-top displays inside Every Day’s a Holiday took decorating to new heights. McRae and Bentley brought back wonders from across Europe and reimagined them for a hungry American audience. In one of the shop’s best-loved displays, hundreds of glass ornaments turned into a vegetable stand—a farmers’ market for the imagination.
A riotous cavalcade of tiny gnome figurines filled another display; McRae made the miniature men using vintage paper doll faces. The gnomes caught the eye of a visiting shopkeeper, Castle in the Air’s Karima Cammell.
“She bought a bushel of them,” recalls McRae. When Every Day’s a Holiday closed in 2002, McRae and much of the store’s stock—including the rest of his gnomes—migrated to Castle in the Air. He and his collection have been an integral part of the shop’s look ever since.
Get your Jewels of Dresden souvenir catalog when you visit Castle in the Air.