Follow up interview reveals more to the artist’s story
In March of 2020, artists the world over, including me, watched our income streams run dry as the global Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Regional Arts Council of St. Louis (RAC), our community’s largest arts funder, in partnership with St. Louis Community Foundation, rallied quickly to establish a pool of $100K to distribute in the form of grants to impacted artists.
My income is derived substantially from my art making activities, so I applied for the grant. Just days later I was informed that I had been awarded one. The check arrived before the week was out.
We in St. Louis are so fortunate to have a vibrant art community that is recognized for its contribution to our local economy, in addition to our culture. When Jay Scherder, Communications Senior Manager at RAC, followed up with me recently to ask about the impact of the grant, I was happy to share my story.
What’s home base?
My home base is Kirkwood, Missouri. I live in a house with my two boys and a dog.
Tell me a little bit about your craft.
I make jewelry and other wearable objects. I work in silver, gold and sometimes bronze. People know my work for the hand-crocheted surfaces I apply onto shapes I make at the torch. My jewelry is predominantly metal, but I add diamonds, pearls, or colored stones when it suits the design.
I consider myself variously a jewelry designer, jewelry artist, or jeweler. The nomenclature varies depending on whether I’m doing work that I plan to introduce to my Collections, groups of work designed around a theme or design motif I intend to reproduce for a market; one-of-a-kind pieces that might be more experimental in material or form; or jobs where I assemble pieces from sourced parts.
I fabricate my pieces. Fabrication means I use a torch to solder pieces of metal together. I have a studio full of metal wire in different gauges, all of which can be turned into any of my designs on demand. For my style of work, which consists of shapes built of wire, fabrication is the way to go.
Casting is another great way to reproduce multiples efficiently, and a lot of artists cast. But it’s not the best way to reproduce my fine lines of wire. From a business perspective, the process ties up resources on the front end- time for making models, paying for molds and castings before orders come in. I made a conscious business decision many years ago to stick to fabricating for most of my work and only investigate casting if it suited the design.
How long have you been going?
I’ve been in business since 1991. I am like the Energizer Bunny, “going and going and going…”
I should point out, however, that like many artists or people in today’s gig economy, I have not made every penny of my living solely from my business since it began. In fact, it took me thirteen years of W-2 employment before I felt confident that I could work successfully for myself full-time. During those years I was careful, as much as I could be, to use that time working in environments that allowed me to continue pursuing my artwork off the clock (and sometimes on!) and where I would learn skills I could apply to my business.
A couple of retail jobs really fit the bill. I managed a Banana Republic store for a few years, which I loved. Then I had the great privilege of working as the Buyer/Manager of the Shop at Craft Alliance. Craft Alliance is one of the oldest contemporary craft organizations in the US, the other being Society of Arts & Crafts, Boston (which has carried my work for two decades).
In my work at Craft Alliance, I felt very much a part of the contemporary craft movement. Defined loosely, the movement includes artists who work in clay, glass, metal, fiber and wood- media that come from a tradition of function, but which are now used as vehicles for artistic self-expression. As a craft artist myself, I was familiar with the field’s history and defining ideas. I had a vision for how to represent it through the product I purchased for the store. I think I did it well because we met or exceeded our sales goals every year.
I continued to build my business knowledge by operating the store. I took care of my artists, making sure they got paid on time. I learned how to manage relationships with people involved in the organization who had differing perspectives on how it should serve the community, like Board members and students. I grew so much there.
That was a great job. My role at Craft Alliance allowed me to live in absolute alignment with my values, artistic and personal.
How did you get “into” jewelry?
I was going to school at Parsons School of Design in New York. Parsons is known for its excellent fashion program, which is the department I originally thought I would go into. The program is known for its competitiveness and, to be honest, I was intimidated. Some students arrived at school with sewing experience already under their belts or knew how to draw well-developed fashion illustrations.
My background at the time was more of a fine art, conceptual thing: I’d taken some painting classes at Wash U on Saturdays in high school and later spent a summer at Carnegie Mellon University studying studio art. That’s where I took my first figure drawing class.
My art felt tender and emotional. I wasn’t in a place where I could expose it to the criticism I expected in fighting for a spot in the Fashion program. I went for Plan B. I’d made jewelry pieces and sold them to friends in high school. I knew I liked how that felt, so I thought “hey, this could work.” That’s how I got into jewelry.
I knew I made a good decision for myself at the time: I couldn’t have handled the cutthroat atmosphere of the fashion program right then. But I carried the weight of that decision around with me for the next thirty years.
In 2018, I started working toward my Master’s degree in Fashion Business and Entrepreneurship at Lindenwood University, in Saint Charles, MO. I finished in December 2019. For my thesis, I executed my first fashion collection and sent it down the runway. It was glorious: I was finally a fashion designer.
Images from my Graduate Thesis Fashion Collection. Click here, and those people cou to see expanded slideshow.
Ironically, working toward the degree strengthened my commitment to my jewelry business. It allowed me to put that old story to bed. Presenting the fashion collection taught me that an artist, especially in this day and age, can make whatever she needs to make. Technology allows us to connect with our audiences anywhere.
I know you have a subsequent question for me: “Why is art so rewarding to you?” I can answer it now: making art fulfills a need. It’s like eating or sleeping. Every person needs to express his or her interior life. We just do it in different ways, or with varying proportions of ourselves. This is just my story. I wrote some of it, and some of it was written for me through personal experiences and people I’ve encountered along the way.
How has RAC supported you?
Obviously, there’s a financial component to that answer. My RAC grant came through at a time when my studio bills were due. Receiving the grant meant that I could support other businesses by paying them on time. I know I’m a small fish, but when lockdown hit, I became acutely aware of the interdependent nature of small businesses. Because of the grant, I was able to stay current on my bills, which meant that other small businesses could pay their staffs, and those people could eat. My dad taught me that. That really helped me sleep at night.
The RAC grant also had a psychological effect on me: I felt my artistic community had lined up behind me. Artists and our artmaking were being recognized as the powerful agents of financial and social contribution we actually are.
We tell stories of the human condition. We offer beauty to transport us all from the everyday to the sublime. We communicate from heart to heart. These functions are critical to the experience of being human. Rather than feeling adrift, the RAC Artist Relief grant made me feel hope during a really uncertain time.
Why do you believe expressing yourself though art is so important?
I keep a quote by the playwright, Thornton Wilder, taped to my refrigerator that answers this question. He said, “Art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time.” I guess I have secrets to tell…
What do people get “wrong” about art and creative businesses?
I think what people get wrong is how strongly the arts contribute to a healthy economy. Many people are employed by art and creative businesses, contributing payroll taxes just like any other business. Art venues, public art, art events- all draw visitors to a city, encouraging hotel visits, restaurant and coffee sales, and positive buzz. Creative businesses are powerhouses!
Why is art so rewarding to you?
Art is a satisfying way to communicate. It’s rewarding emotionally- and sometimes financially- when the connection gets made.
Do you feel people think of St. Louis as an “artistic city”? Why or why not? (if not, why should they?!)
Yes, I think we St Louisans know how creative our city is. We have art and artists in every corner of the city and county. We have painters, sculptors, theater, fashion! And we have many supporters, audiences and buyers.
I think the movement toward valuing the local has really helped draw attention to what’s been here all along. Also, social media connectivity allows us to see what’s in our backyard as well as what’s happening in, say, Omaha. If you make even a tiny effort to look, it’s easy to see that artmaking is everywhere. Big cities, small towns… the need to make art is primal.
St. Louisans who aren’t involved in the art scene or don’t think it exists need only visit RAC’s Experience the Arts page to get a quick education. Art is for everyone.
A big Thank You to RAC for the grant and the follow up interview.
It is my pleasure to trumpet the powerful impact of RAC to St. Louis!!