When Meteorites and Dinosaur Bones Are Art Materials

“I wish you were here in person so I could put the joint bone in your hand.” The artist and designer Monique Péan and I are on a Zoom call, and she’s sitting at the worktable of her Manhattan studio cradling a softball-size hunk of what, on first glance, looks like an ordinary rock. In fact, it is from an Ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile that lived during the Mesozoic Era, which means it could be as much as 250 million years old. “I got this as a 35th birthday present to myself,” says Péan, now 39. As the image on my screen resolves, one end of the fossil, polished to a mirror finish, reveals flecks of white, peach, bright red and blue. Up close, they resemble stars against the night sky. “It’s almost like a world unto itself,” she says.

Péan, whose practice moves fluidly between jewelry, furniture and sculpture, is drawn to materials that collapse time and space: She might pair cosmic obsidian found on Chile’s Easter Island, sulfurized meteorite collected from digs on the Colorado Plateau and fossilized walrus tusk from an island just south of the Arctic with recycled gold, platinum, bronze or steel. Reflecting her fascination with naturally occurring geometries, Péan’s jewelry centers and mimics natural phenomena. A platinum necklace frames a slice of meteorite within interlocking trapezoids that echo fragmenting icebergs, and a series of hexagonal-cut rings recalls basalt columns the artist observed on a trip to Northern Ireland. Her knack for placing these otherworldly objects and references in approachable settings has earned her fans including Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Jill Biden, who wore custom Monique Péan earrings to January’s inauguration.

Raised outside of Washington D.C. by an artist mother and a Haitian father who worked on global infrastructure projects for the U.N., Péan's education came partly in the form of visits to the Smithsonian (the Air and Space Museum was a particular favorite) and travel to far-off locales. She credits family trips down the Nile and through the Chinese countryside with teaching her to keep her eyes “wide open.”

But art might not have been her path if not for a fateful tragedy in her mid-20s. In 2005, Péan was working as an analyst for Goldman Sachs, arriving at the office at 4 a.m. every day and leaving at midnight. “I had seven computer screens,” she says. But, when she was 25, her 16-year-old sister, Vanessa, was killed in a car accident, an event that halted life as she knew it. “You think about time, existence — what does it all mean? I did a complete 180,” says Péan, who left her job and returned to travel, at one point receiving an invitation from a friend who worked with the Alaska Native Arts Foundation to visit the Arctic Circle. Welcomed into the igloos of members of the Iñupiat and Yupik peoples, Péan witnessed firsthand their care for nature and how they used every part of the animals they hunted. The artist’s first brush with what she calls “deep time” came when her hosts showed her walrus tusk fossils that were hundreds of thousands of years old, with changes in hues that conveyed age and experiences, almost like a photograph. “It made me want to go further back,” says Péan.

And so, Péan does not approach the existential questions that ground her practice lightly. Still, she’s able to maintain an almost childlike wonder when talking about her search for materials. “I spend a lot of time cold-calling scientists,” she says with a laugh. Research trips to the mountains of southeast Russia and the Muonio River in northern Scandinavia, near the border between Finland and Sweden, have led to her acquisition of 4.6-billion-year-old meteorite fragments. Though it’s possible to purchase these at auction, Péan prefers to work directly with researchers, partially on account of the context and insight they’re able to provide. “These materials help scientists understand how the solar system was formed,” she says, “They’re one of the few insights we have into our origins.” The artist is also drawn to these forms for ecological reasons, in addition to intellectual ones — the fossils and meteorites are acquired sustainably, and she works only with recycled metals.

Though Péan is best known for her jewelry pieces, which she calls “small sculptures,” and often uses her earrings and necklaces as maquettes for larger works, she’s felt, over the past year, an urge to scale up. This month, three works of Péan’s are featured in “Objects: USA 2020,” a revisiting of 1969’s seminal exhibition of the century’s best craft that’s currently on view at R & Company in New York. These vessels, as she calls them — steel and bronze boxes that Péan produced in collaboration with a fabricator who worked with Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt — house meteorite specimens freed from their settings and meant to be picked up, turned over and held in the hand of the viewer. Glenn Adamson, one of the curators of the “Objects” show, says that the sheer, almost theatrical extraordinariness of Péan’s medium is tempered by the sort of humble interaction she offers with the work. “She’s trying to connect you to these basic conditions of existence,” he says. “It’s about contact. It’s an invitation.”

In a year marked by isolation, this feels like an especially generous gesture. It’s also a testament to the various ways that Péan is always pushing herself to make her practice more intentional and in tune with the world around her. Last summer, as she watched protests over racial injustice swell along Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, she found particular comfort in working with materials that evoke our shared humanity. “We’re having a reckoning of consciousness,” she says. “I try to bring it back to our origins and where we come from — not just divisions but the ways we’re interconnected.”

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