Although Fort Wayne is located in the center of so many big cities with happening art scenes, I really haven’t traveled out as much as I would like for art purposes. I’ve tried to stay up to date and connected by following artists on Instagram. It’s a problem and an addiction that I am working on, because it’s not an accurate picture of what artists are making, how often they are in their studios, or even if they are making at all.
I stumbled onto Sarah Holden’s Instagram in 2017 around the time of SOFA Chicago. I was immediately in awe of her unique style and her support of other artists. In early 2018, I proposed an exhibition of Sarah’s work at Artlink, I think the first ever solo exhibition of jewelry at the gallery. During the installation, we briefly discussed her career path, but I wanted to learn more about what it is she does for a living and how she has developed and continued her practice. Her work is unique from so many other metal and jewelry artists that I follow, as her practice spans many different areas of the metals and jewelry field from production jewelry, conceptual sculptural work, and soot drawings that push the definition of what it means to work in the art of adornment.
About Sarah Holden
Sarah Holden is a studio artist and educator living in Chicago, IL. Sarah received her Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art with a focus in Jewelry and Metalsmithing from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Crafts/Material Studies and Sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University. Sarah has presented as a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, and taught as a Metals Instructor at the Penland School of Crafts and the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center. Sarah exhibits her work nationally as in her recent inclusions in Betwixt & Between at Ball State University, Intersecting Boundaries at Clamplight Gallery in San Antonio, TX, and WEAR/WARE at Pocosin Arts in Columbia, NC. Sarah's work has also been exhibited internationally in WINDOW at the Mother Makers Gallery in Munich, Germany and online in Appropriated Adornment, the most recent SNAG online juried exhibition. Sarah's work is held in several public and private collections including the collection of the Racine Art Museum and the Porter Price and Grubow Private Collections. Sarah currently teaches steel fabrication and metal forming at the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center in Chicago, IL and creates one-of-a-kind work and limited production jewelry in her Chicago studio. Sarah's sculpture and limited production jewelry can be found at galleries across the U.S. See more of her work on her website at www.sarahholdenmetalsmithing.com.
Are you a full-time artist?
This is such an interesting question. Yes? I make limited production jewelry that sell at galleries across the U.S. and I do pretty well with that. I make one-of-a-kind jewelry and sculpture that exhibit at galleries both nationally and internationally, and that sells less frequently, but I still have a few big sales a year. I make engagement and bridal jewelry about six times a year, and that's a big boost to my income. I have been known to do one to three craft shows a year, which are a big investment, but bring a lot of income into the business. I teach steel fabrication twice a week, which is not my most lucrative venture, but it connects me with an amazing community of makers in Chicago.
I have a supportive partner and two children and I never feel like I have to apologize for that. The life that I lead now is probably filled with more things than it would be if I was on my own without kids, but I bust my butt to create my work, engage in my metalsmithing world, and exhibit my work frequently, so I'm very proud of how it all comes together. In that way I would consider myself a full-time artist, even if I'm not making a comfortable living from it.
What were you doing before you became a full-time artist? How did you make the shift to full-time creative work?
I actually used to investigate credit card fraud for Capital One when I lived in Virginia. I had always wanted to go to art school, but my parents were understandably less than supportive about that idea. Both my parents are what I would consider to be "makers," but they consider their woodworking, sewing, and illustration skills to be "a hobby" and not a career. So, when I graduated high school and wanted to go to art school, my parents instead convinced me to go into the corporate world. I started working at Capital One six months out of high school and it was probably the best thing for me at that time. Let's just say I had a few party years in me. I also made more money than I probably ever will, but I had access to other benefits that allowed me do my first two years of college on Capital One's dime. At one point I was working full time and doing my first year of undergrad at VCU and I almost died. Talk about never socializing and being in the studio until 3 a.m. only to go to work six hours later for a full day of work, and again and again. It was too much, but I had built a nice nest egg and was able to finish up my undergrad with very few loans. I was also a very serious student since I started when I was 23 instead of 18. I had already gotten party Sarah out of my system and did everything that I could to get the most out of my education. So for that, I think my parents did the right thing, even if it felt uncool at the time.
Making the shift into full-time creative work started with full-time school. From the time that I started undergrad through postgraduate school, I've either been doing school only or school plus at least one job or working somewhere between three and four jobs to meet the needs of my business and desire to increase my knowledge of my practice.
How do you make your work and studio practice a priority? How do you balance your teaching, kids, and studio practice? How often are you actually in your studio?
This is a big one. I fight for my studio time. It HAS to be scheduled into the week or it just doesn't happen. I have to fight for it, because if I don't, no one will! My first studio in Chicago (I recently moved to a new space) was right next to the train. I would park my car at the studio and ride the train to one of my three jobs at the time—the one that I had the most hours at—so when I rode the train back to Chicago at night it was easier for me to stop and work in my studio than it was for me to go home. I find it smarter for me to set up situations like that to encourage myself to work and not wimp out. My studio is my second home, but it is also my oasis.
Balancing work and life is a moving target. I have three days a week that my youngest babe, Pearl, is at home with a sitter and my oldest, Hazel, is now in school five days a week. So, on the three days that Pearl has care, I bring Hazel to school, and her school is a quick highway ride away from the new shop. I can't really work at home when Pearl is there, because she just wants to hang, so that's a good thing because it makes working in the shop the best option for the day. Monday and Friday are the two days a week that Pearl and I get to hang out, which I need. She is so little and amazing right now and I just have to be around for all those special moments. Saturday and Wednesday mornings I teach and will either work in the shop after class or go to the studio for a few hours. Sundays are family days. I'd say the person that misses out the most in my time is probably my husband! But, we make it a point to put time on the schedule for us, too, and have date nights every two weeks, which is so needed to even just check in.
Head spinning yet? Ugh, mine sure is. I would say the key is scheduling. Lots and lots of scheduling. Getting something on the schedule before someone else does. I actually hate it. Like really, really hate scheduling every moment of my life, but it's the only way to make sure everything happens. I can't wait to go back to the days of just rolling freely through the day with things just happening as they do. That's going to happen at some point, right?
How did you get started in metals?
I first started in metals in my undergraduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004. I studied in the Crafts/Material Studies program. I had always been interested in jewelry, but the jewelry that I made in high school were macramé hemp necklaces that I sold to other students off my purse. When I started at the Crafts program at VCU, I was required to study at least two of the five materials (metal, fiber, clay, hot glass, and wood). I was most interested in textiles but quickly found an obsession with metals, and that I was pretty good at it.
Much of your work includes fiber or references lace and textiles. What inspired the use of these materials and references in your work? Had you worked with fiber/textiles prior to your metal work?
Absolutely. I've worked in some form of textile for my entire career. My mom taught me how to sew when I was ten. For a long time it was the material that I was most comfortable with. I used quilting techniques, embroidery, and nylon stockings in my graduate work, and my current work is deep into lace making. I am inspired by its connection to femininity and I am working to have textiles reconsidered as something strong and not just decorative. Which is what I believe women are also trying to achieve in culture right now.
How long did it take for you to develop your production line? I’m curious to learn about how that process works and how you determine if it is worthwhile, because I would imagine that is a large part of the process, balancing the value with time and cost of materials.
Yes, the production line took a surprisingly long time. I made jewelry as part of my academic training at VCU. However, I only made sculpture while I was at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee investigating theory for my graduate degree. I thought after graduating from UWM that I would naturally, and easily, slide into a production line, but it was remarkably hard. It was like I had forgotten how to make small precise work. I would say it took me about three years to make work, do shows to see what clients were buying, rework the line, retest, and so on. I determined that it was worthwhile probably less because of the actual profit that I made, but more because of how it informed my sculptural work and therefore my entire practice. Sculptural objects, especially big and intricate ones like mine, take a LONG time to finish. It’s hard to stay motivated and excited about work that takes two years to finish. Having the production line allows me to create smaller works—that in turn inform the larger sculptural work—which create smaller, more frequent successes in the studio. And selling the work is another measure of success for me, so it really keeps the entire practice moving forward.
How do you feel your work has been received by the jewelry/metals community and/or the art community as a whole? You have a very contemporary approach, specifically with your soot drawings that expand what it means to work within metals and adornment.
I believe that the jewelry/metals community is curious about my work. Not necessarily signed onto it yet, but definitely curious. The good thing is that I make jewelry, so they are on board with me because of the jewelry, and currently curious about the other work. It has actually been pretty exciting to connect with new communities to give my work more mileage. I've had a few opportunities now to show all jewelry pieces and one or two soot drawings, so I know the more they see it, the more it will be accepted. I'm not going away.
I do have to say, for as much as the community says they like to support and promote all the kinds of work that makers in our field make, I have a hard time getting my sculpture or soot drawings into survey exhibitions of the field. I'd like to change that, so I continue to make and exhibit, and I think eventually they'll get it. My work is based in the same concepts of power, beauty, fraternity, and aesthetics that jewelry is, but some of it just doesn't engage with the function of jewelry—to be worn—and I think that throws people, makes them uncomfortable, and question its connection to the field. I do love existing in that uncomfortable space, though. But it takes a while to catch on.
I love following you on Instagram for all of the artists you post as you travel. I lived vicariously through you during NYCJW and SOFA . What artists are most inspiring you now?
I'm so glad to hear you say that! I love connecting with other artists in the field virtually, as well as in person. I would say up to 60% of the people that I meet in person these days I have met online first. Our community is small and it’s so nice to see what people are up to online, but even sweeter when you see it in person. And really, I would love it if people would post my work more online. I don't always get to go to an exhibition where my work is being presented and would love to see other people's perspectives. I know some galleries disagree, but, nothing but good things can come of the world seeing the work you present online. In reality, MOST of the time your work will be seen online before, if ever, it is seen in person. All the more reason to make sure you and your work are represented how you want it to be online.
There are a few jewelry artists that I came to know of early on through academia, they are mentors to me, or I am just overwhelmed with the amazingness of their work and will always follow, like Lola Brooks, Susie Ganch, Jessica Calderwood, and Seth Gould. Art jewelers like me, who are making jewelry and sculpture, like Amelia Toelke and Kat Cole, blacksmiths like Thomas Hynes, Pat Quinn, and forever and always Marc Maiorana (no Instagram, but some of his work can be seen through hashtag #marcmaiorana or his website irondesigncompany.com). I've recently gotten into jewelers who are strictly making jewelry but tend to be on the goth/biker side, like Souvenir Jewelry and Margaret Cross. My favorite is discovering contemporary jewelers that are not connected to me in any way like, Guanlan Lian, Linda Hughes, and Woo Jung Kim. Just to tidy things up, a few makers who are not jewelers at all, but work in textiles or subversive art also inspire me, like Judit Just, Sally Hewett, and Suzanna Scott.
You really are an advocate for your field. Who were your mentors and personal advocates as you were working into your creative career?
My biggest mentor and advocate is Susie Ganch. She was my mentor in my undergraduate program at VCU and she continues to support me today. We connect through her Radical Jewelry Makeover program every year. She will often send me a quick message when she sees a grant or exhibition opportunity that would be a good fit for me, she has been a juror for exhibitions that my emerging artist exhibition project Ornament and Object has done in the past, and she made my wedding set and is redoing it for my ten-year anniversary this year. She doesn't bullshit me and she always supports me. I like that. She's never been afraid to be honest with me and I just need someone like that. It's a relationship that I treasure and I am very honored to have. In addition, Matthew Runfola, the Executive Director of the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center, where I teach twice a week, supports me in my quest for steel fabrication knowledge. He has allowed me to be the face of our little steel working community for advertising and workshops being presented for the 2019 SNAG conference. Finally, Yevgeniya Kaganovich, who was my mentor in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, taught me how to the develop the theories that support my work, for which I am forever grateful.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a series of one-of-a-kind jewelry, sculptural objects, and works on paper, that investigate my interest in Queen Elizabeth I as image maker, cultural producer, and historical female rebel. I wrap, weave, and weld steel wire into tatted lace patterns to create original and limited production jewelry or sheets of textile patterns that are then hammered and shaped into hollow formed sculptural objects. My soot drawings are either representations of unique jewelry pieces and sculptures or recreations of the portraiture of Queen Elizabeth I with her objects of power strangely missing, which are then formed and fabricated in steel lace.
I cannot say thank you enough to Sarah for sharing. It is refreshing to hear the reality of another artists studio practice. Online, we only show off the good finished work, in our beautiful clean studio spaces, but it’s not the reality for most of us. It’s messy and difficult to make work. I really value Sarah’s work ethic and the way she is able to balance and prioritize her practice. If you are in the Baltimore area, visit the Baltimore Jewelry Center to see her exhibition, Pearls, Ruff, Lace, Power, on view February 23 through April 5, 2019.