You wouldn’t know it by looking at her intricate jewelry, but Valerie Jo Coulson is a largely self-taught metalsmith and studio jeweler. Her jewelry is informed by her belief in the interconnectedness of everything in nature, which results in detailed, geometric pieces. Valerie joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the path that led her to jewelry making, the process behind some of her masterworks, and how sacred geometry influences her life and art. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Valerie Jo Coulson, a multi-award-winning fine jewelry artist. As an independent studio jeweler, she is recognized for outstanding metalsmithing as well as for her amazing, intricate sewn inlay work. She’ll tell us all about that today on the Jewelry Journey. Welcome to the program.
Valerie: Thank you, Sharon. Thanks for that lovely intro. It’s a privilege to be with you.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. It sounds like your career is—you’ve always been steady, but I know there have been times where you’ve been—anyway, it seems like everything is exploding for you, so that’s great.
Valerie: Oh, thank you.
Sharon: Can you tell us about your jewelry journey?
Valerie: I’ll start by being a little philosophical, but I promise I’ll bring it back down to earth. I think it’s helpful to give a little window into the psyche, and I truly believe in the journey of the soul and that our path is laid out for us or predestined, and it’s only up to us to remain true to it. It sorts of enlightens upon what you just said. My path has taken a lot of turns, but in essence, I have always remained true to it. Of course, how did I get here? My father was an artist and a designer. My mother was a craftswoman. She made all of her own clothing and taught us to sew. They recognized in me as a child that I had a creative, contemplative mind, and I was very fortunate in that they fostered and nurtured this in me in so many different disciplines of the arts, from fine arts to performing arts, literary arts, decorative arts.
Naturally, my path, once I graduated from high school, was to study fine arts, which I did at Millersville University here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from 1974 to 1978. I think in my third year, I was finally able to enroll in a jewelry making class. They were always the first to get filled up. I knew almost immediately that that was the discipline I wanted to pursue, because it allowed me to combine the artistic with the craft work. I had three semesters in jewelry making, knowing this was what I wanted to do. I left the university and got a job in the restaurant business and slowly, bit by bit, bought pieces of equipment to set up my own studio. I joined the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, and I had a lot of learning to do. One of the important things I bought was Oppi Untracht’s jewelry bible “Jewelry Concepts and Technology,” and also Heikki Seppä’s “Form Emphasis for Metal Smiths.” I proceeded to teach myself and practice different forms, different disciplines within the jewelry making field.
One of the eye-opening things was attending my first SNAG conference in 1984, which was in New York City and had a stellar lineup. It was really transformative. I know you’ve had Lisa Berman on talking about Robert Lee Morris and Cara Croninger and, of course, Paloma Picasso and Michael Good. They were all speakers at that conference, so that was a real eye-opener. I also did a couple of shows. I did the AC Craft Show in Baltimore and proceeded through the years to do a number of shows like that. In 1995, I entered some of my pieces into the “Metalsmith” Exhibition in Print and was accepted into that. That was curated by Daniel Jones. That same year, I also had a portfolio show of my work at the Aaron Faber Gallery. Because of the Exhibition in Print article, Libby and JoAnne Cooper of the Mobilia Gallery became aware of my work and contacted me. That set up a number of years of representation and participation in different themed exhibitions. They were also pivotal in the acquisition of two of my pieces, two bracelets, into Daphne Farago’s collection, which is now, of course, in the permanent collection of the MFA in Boston.
As I’ve shared with you, there were periods of time when our son was born, and when we bought an old stone house we were restoring, that work in the studio was not as intense. But it’s something I’ve always come back to because it is my passion. Of course, now with the Covid-19 virus, it has turned everything upside down. I would say I found my “sanctitude” in the garden because my work is so intense. Spring and summer are historically busy times for me, because it’s important for me to live a sustainable life and within that, organic gardening, growing my own food. When the pandemic started to break out, I redoubled my efforts in that. It’s been a salvation because I’ve been grounding myself to the earth, and it’s revealed some phenomenal things to me. It’s also helped me focus on what, I think, my real purpose in this path is. That’s it in a nutshell. I know I’ve left out a lot of things, but that’s a synopsis.
Sharon: I’m amazed that you taught yourself when your work is so intricate and perfect. It’s detailed and so precise. To have taught yourself all that, that is really impressive.
Valerie: Thank you.
Sharon: How do you describe your work to people? How do you describe it when somebody says, “What do you do?”
Valerie: I think I live my life and my work through my philosophy and my beliefs, and that is based in sacred geometry. Simply put, it is the interconnectedness and interrelationship of all things in nature and the cosmos. It’s living in harmony and balance, and obviously geometry plays a very important part in my work. I’m certainly not a mathematician. I’m not a scholar. I might have gone on to study architecture, but for me, this is where I find the harmony and order and balance that informs my life. I would call it maybe a romantic rationalism, part expressionism and part De Stijl.
Sharon: If people say, “What kind of jewelry do you do?” what do you say? Do you have an answer for that, or do you say you’re a metalsmith?
Valerie: Almost everything I do is by hand fabrication. It’s sort of like building an architecture of the jewel with the fabrication. A lot of that stems from the practice of learning how to sew, because basically I’m cutting pattern pieces out of metal and soldering them together to form a three-dimensional structure. Within that structure, I’m creating windows or compartments within which to inlay the stone that furthers a narrative. Not all of my pieces are inlaid, but it was probably more a signature of my work than the constructions themselves.
Sharon: Yeah, I’m seeing pieces without the inlay. By the way, for everybody listening, we’ll have photos on the website so you can see the fabulous jewelry that Valerie makes. But the inlay is really a signature, from what I’ve seen, and it’s flabbergasting. You want to say, “Is that Photoshopped?”
Valerie: One thing I get a lot is—not a lot, but I’ve had people ask me if it’s enamel.
Sharon: That makes sense.
Valerie: It’s a different approach to stonework. I’m paving this skeletal structure with stone.
Sharon: That’s an interesting way to look at it, but that makes sense. You’ve won quite a few awards for your work. Can you tell us about them?
Valerie: I’d be delighted. I’ve been very honored to receive the Saul Bell Design Award though the years—four different awards, most recently in 2019. I had two pieces. My echinacea tea pot won second place in the Hollowware and Art Objects category. That really exemplifies this philosophy of sacred geometry and the seen and unseen order of nature and the cosmos. Then in 2017, my Firenze bracelet was awarded Best of Show. That piece is rather like my love letter to Florence and the Italian Renaissance and the work of the great masters. As a child, most of my readings were books about art history and biographies of artists, because I always wanted to understand the soul of the artist, what were they thinking, what drove them to express themselves in the ways they did. At nine years of age, my parents gave me the book “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Irving Stone’s book of the life of Michelangelo. I proclaimed I was going to live my life as an artist. I dreamed for years to travel to Florence, and finally in 2011, I made that pilgrimage, as I call it. The Firenze bracelet epitomizes the beauty I saw there, the awe, the inspiration I garnered from that, specifically the mosaic ceiling in the Baptistery and, of course, Brunelleschi’s Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore.
I’ve always been interested in construction and building and engineering. With Brunelleschi and reading about his building of the dome, I was fascinated by his genius, in that he developed nine differently shaped bricks that were laid up in an interlocking herringbone fashion, which supported the rising of that huge dome without any wooden centering. It was so high off the ground and so expansive that that wasn’t an option. The bottom part of that bracelet is actually an homage to the bricks he developed, the engineering genius of that. The top represents a tromp l’oeil design, the open basket-weave pattern that runs around the mosaic ceiling in the Baptistery of San Giovanni.
Valerie: Art history has always been very important to me, and the other piece I’d like to talk about is ‘The Gauntlet’ cuff.
Sharon: It’s an amazing piece.
Valerie: Thank you. It’s a story of the integrity of humanity and its struggles. I created a piece, a big collar—it’s very Egyptian-looking, my ‘Chiaroscuro’ necklace—and I think that was in 2000. In the year 2000, I was working on that and looking for opals to inlay. I was looking through Lapidary Journal in their classified ads, and I came across the House of Tibara opal dealers, Tim and Barbara Thomas. I contacted them and they sent me rough opal, which I used. I took pictures of the piece through its progress and sent them to Tim and Barbara along with the finished image. At the time, they would do the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. They were sponsoring the show and the opal seminar, and they asked me if I would be willing to come give a slide presentation on the making of this necklace, to which I said, “Well, of course, I’d love to do that.” Tim and Barbara were sitting in the room listening to my lecture, my slide presentation, and at the end of it they said to me, “Valerie, we would love to provide you with a singular stellar opal with which to create a masterwork for exhibition or competition. We want no remuneration until the piece is sold.” I saw this one Queensland black boulder opal and it was so incredible; it was like looking into the universe. They wanted me to take it with me at the time, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. My husband and our son, we were heading to Sedona to do some hiking and camping. With that, I thanked them and off we went.
We stayed in touch, and it was a period of two years I was thinking about this stone. I knew I wanted to make a bracelet, and it would have to be a cuff because the stone was so sizeable. With such a beautiful stone, I wanted the wearer to be able to appreciate it. At that time, unfortunately, the war in Iraq had broken out, and I was watching in great angst the bombings when our Marines marched into Iraq—I mean Baghdad specifically. Of course, that was when the picture we all know was taken, the fall of the statute of Saddam, and there were no casualties. I got this epiphany that the opal would embody the soldiers as they are running the gauntlet. It signifies the virtue and valor of the warrior in all of us. Tim and Barbara actually provided another opal that symbolizes the head; the larger opal is the body of the soldier as they’re flanked by opposing forces that are wielding spears. It’s a piece that lives on with every strife, every challenge, every struggle, every triumph that humanity is faced with.
Sharon: Do you exhibit this? How do they showcase this fabulous piece?
Valerie: I did enter the piece in a competition. Sadly, the ship did not sail on that, but I still have it. It’s been my quest ever since to find a forum—a forum is not the word I’m looking for—but exposure for that piece. I’m happy to say it will be featured in an upcoming book, along with the other two pieces I talked about and a few others, called “BBeyond Jewellery: Spectacular and Collectable Pieces,” which is going to be published in November.
Sharon: I’m looking forward to that book.
Valerie: I’m thrilled with that. It’s a stellar lineup of master jewelers: Wallace Chan, Daniel Brush, the collector Lee Siegelson, Mr. Arakawa—let me see; I want to give you his first name. I’m really excited about that as well.
Sharon: Wow! You’re so accomplished. You’re self-taught, but how do you keep growing or enhancing your skills and what you do? I don’t mean this in a negative way, but do you feel like you know everything you need to know? Can you execute on it?
Valerie: We’re always learning. I’m always observing and studying nature specifically. With the pandemic, there have been so many fabulous things online through Instagram, work that people are doing, and I get inspiration through that. I want to start thinking about the stones in a more painterly respect. Of course, I’m a student of art history and always will be, so my heart and soul are constantly nourished and informed by studies in that regard.
Sharon: Where do you want to go from here? Do you want to grow your business? With everything you do, because it’s so intense, there’s only so much you can produce.
Sharon: What are your thoughts about what you’re going to spend the next 20 years doing?
Valerie: I have a couple of pieces in my mind, major pieces. One has come out of this time period and my connection to the earth, and actually working in the garden and building the soil. This is something that has become very important to me in the interim, thanks to my son. Our son opened up my eyes to this because I’ve always practiced organic gardening, and now there’s a push, a new movement, for Regenerative agriculture.
Sharon: Which is? I haven’t heard that term.
Valerie: It’s soil science. It’s building the soil without tilling, without fertilizers, and building the microbiome. Just like the body has a huge microbiome, so does the soil. Years of tilling destroys the microbiome, the fungi, the bacteria, the microbes that are living in the soil. My son is taking a course now with Dr. Elaine Ingham in soil science, so I’m excited about that. A dream of mine, whether it will happen or in what capacity it will happen, would be to turn our property into a working farm and a teaching farm where we can build this knowledge and share it not only with farmers and gardeners, but with children. I think the most important thing one can learn is to grow their own food and sustain themselves in that manner.
Sharon: You converted a barn into a studio. Do I remember that correctly?
Valerie: Yes. This house is 300 years old. It’s a stone house we’ve restored. We don’t have a lot of property, just two acres, but we make use of as much of it as we can. There was a foundation for a barn that had burnt down many years ago, so when we bought the property, we had an Amish crew come and raise a post and beam structure on that foundation. Then we finished it off, insulated it, and turned it into my jewelry studio and our photography studio. Another interesting thing about the post and beam structure, three Amish men in three days had this structure raised, and it was incredible. One day after they had left, I walked out and looked at it. It was open to the sky and it was a gorgeous day. The sky was so blue, and I’m looking at these beams and structures, and it inspired a piece I ended up donating to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston after I’d been to the Daphne Farago Collection. I think that was in 2007. It was a brooch I called “The Barn Raising Yellow Cross,” because I was making reference to Paul Gauguin’s Yellow Christ painting. In the painting he was extolling the piety of the Breton peasant women. In my piece, I was juxtaposing this with my regard and recent reverence for the Amish and their piety. It was funny; when I was at that exhibition and I was walking out, I saw one of my favorite paintings of Gauguin. It’s one of his final masterworks—let me see if I can get this right. It’s “D’où Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous,” which translates to “Where Did We Come From/Who Are We/Where Are We Going.” When I saw that painting the museum has, it was such a moving experience. That’s when I contacted—at the time, it was Kelly L’Ecuyer—and I asked her if they would accept this “Barn Raising Yellow Cross” brooch into their collection, which she did. That is the third piece I have at the museum, and that’s in the Art of the Americas area of the museum.
Sharon: Valerie, thank you so much for being with us today, and for taking the time to tell us about your philosophy and your jewelry. To everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we’ll have photos of Valerie’s amazing work on the website along with the podcast. Tune in next time, when we’ll have another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience and expertise. You can download the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next time.
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