Artist Robert Thomas Mullen looks to nature to inspire work in jewelry.
By Mitch Schneider
Photography by Colin Miller/Strauss Peyton
Artist and teacher Robert Thomas Mullen has a multifaceted experience in art that includes photography and metalsmithing, but it is creating jewelry that has been the backbone of his career, which has been influenced by a love of nature and an introduction to art in his childhood.
“My work is inspired by my need for collecting and love of nature. I don’t sketch in the traditional sense; I spread out my materials on a table and base each piece on interactions I see. Then, I work on creating the settings to hold each piece together,” says Mullen, a native of southern Illinois, who now lives in the Dutchtown area of St. Louis.
Mullen uses a variety of natural materials in his work, including hair, flowers, bone and petrified wood, in addition to flower petals, butterfly wings and leaves.
While he does some larger pieces, much of Mullen’s work focuses on small batch jewelry. “All of my work includes hand-fabricated and cast elements. I mainly make earrings, brooches and rings. I find that my ideas translate well in this format. I try to have a wide range of work that can be approached by anyone,” Mullen says. “My background in metalsmithing directs my current work. I use these skills to create.”
Mullen says his love of art began in his childhood, when he was surrounded by family members who introduced him to various art forms. They included his father who was a musician and an aunt who took him to the St. Louis Art Museum and other galleries.
“She helped me understand the works that I saw and created a space for my thoughts. I started making jewelry when I was very young,” says Mullen. “My cousin taught me how to braid hemp jewelry, and I read every Klutz book I could get my hands on. I always wanted to push the boundaries.”
Eventually, Mullen earned a B.F.A. in metalsmithing/photography from SIUE and an M.F.A. from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. He moved to St. Louis in 2014 to become an Artist-in-Residence at Craft Alliance. He continues to teach classes in metalsmithing and casting at the Craft Alliance. He has also taught workshops at other craft centers and museums including the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and the St. Louis Art Museum.