Stillness Collection Twigs

Delicate Branch Necklaces, from the “Stillness Collection” || Image courtesy of Sara Thompson

…with a young Island Jeweler

by Simone McCarthy

June 2016

Sara Thompson is a 19-year old metal smith, entrepreneur, science geek and a nature lover—four traits that combine forces in her jewelry company. Founded when Thompson was only fifteen, Let It Be Jewelry Design is a mixture of classic and whimsical statement pieces, from one of a kind dainty twig necklaces to colorful gemstone-encrusted cuffs and pendants inspired by the moon. Thompson, who was raised on the Vineyard, and is now in her fourth year at Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, harnesses scientific and artistic technique as she hand-makes each piece with precious metals, enamel and stone. From an internship with Vineyard jeweler Amy Kirkpatrick starting at age 11 to an in-depth study of craft and metalsmithing at OCAC, Thompson has devoted herself to her artistry and her brand, which is constantly evolving.

Dressed MV had the opportunity to speak with Thompson and learn more about what makes her tick, where she draws inspiration from, and what’s next for her and her line.

DMv: You graduated high school a year early to attend Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. Can you tell us about your new(ish) home there?ST Beakers
ST: Portland was one of the best cities I could have moved to. There’s greenery all around the city. My apartment overlooks small two parks. My college’s campus is on 10 acres of donated land. There are trees that are over four feet in diameter. Cherry blossoms bloom in late February. It’s inspiring.

My apartment in Portland is filled with science/geeky things, books, artwork from my college studio classes (including handmade wooden furniture), an array of chemistry beakers for drinking ware. I love science and learning. There are posters of multiple iterations of the periodic table in my home. I find the periodic table absolutely fascinating—¬¬the elegance, the trends found in the elements, the structure of atoms. It’s neat, organized and visually pleasing.

DMv: How has growing up on the Vineyard affected your trajectory as an artist?
ST: I am extremely fortunate to have been in a high school and live in a place where the education is valued and the arts do have respect. The small community of the island didn’t embrace the stereotypes of high schools. The teachers care about their students and their wellbeing. They understood that students are more than test scores. I felt that I could approach a teacher and ask to meet with them after to class to work on a concept that I didn’t fully grasp or work in the crafts and sculpture department.

I do wish that students would have more art education and the chance to work with their hands and create, not just on the island, but throughout the country. Art is more than painting a pretty picture or expressing yourself. Art has the power to help you have the tools to think outside the box, to be creative, to problem solve differently from someone else, and even change your perspective. Think about how different a math problem becomes when you visualize it or see a graph.

Thompson's WorkbenchDMV: How did you get into making jewelry?
ST: Throughout school when they would ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, it was always an artist. I started beading around eight or nine years old and then taught myself wire wrapping. After moving to the island and through a family and friends, Amy [Kirkpatrick of Vineyard Haven] took me on as an apprentice for five years from [ages] 11 to 16. She taught me the ins and outs of running a retail store, having a business partner [Vintage Jewelry], making a living as an artist, and being a bench jeweler. I learned the fundamentals of metalsmith ¬soldering, polishing, making
settings, and so much more. Working with silver and doing metalwork seemed natural to me, looking at how solder flows when it’s nearly 1800 degrees, sanding and filing metal to get the perfect fit or texture, and setting stones, clicked in my mind from this early age.

DMV: Your jewelry also incorporates enameling, a technique that requires using melted glass. How did you learn that skill?
ST: Mr. Coogan [of the MVRHS crafts and sculpture department] gave me a quick five-minute introduction to enameling when I was a sophomore. Basically, all he said was, “Take a piece of copper, put this liquid flux stuff on it, add the powdered glass onto the flux, and take this torch and heat it from the bottom and watch the glass melt.” From there, I started experimenting with the enamel and began to paint with the molten glass. I began decoding all the randomly numbered enamel bags and seeing what colors of glass they made. Soon, I combined my enameling and metalsmithing skills. I started to set my enamel work in handmade sterling silver setting for jewelry

DMV: When did you begin selling your work?
ST: I started an Etsy store, Let it Be Jewelry Design, when I was 15. The following summer of 2013, I applied and became an exhibiting artist at the Vineyard Artisans Festival. I had just graduated high school, quit my retail job, and have been self¬-employed ever since.

DMV: How have you evolved as a designer from your first internship to the present day?
ST: I struggle with calling myself a designer. You know how some people really don’t like the word moist? That’s how I feel about the word designer. I am a designer, but I’m a jeweler and a metalsmith. When it comes down to it, I can make the pieces I design from start to finish, including mechanisms like clasps and hinges all from scratch. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them, “I am a metalsmith.” Towards the end of my apprenticeship, I was thinking about working bigger. Amy made jewelry and I wanted to do more. I needed to build upon what Amy taught me and break away from her style of work. From the very beginning, Amy instilled principles on me to only put out my best work¬¬—clean¬up all the solder seams, polish out of all your sanding
marks, and stand ¬by your work. Don’t just let the piece go. Craftsmanship is important. Quality, not quantity. And now I’m getting a BFA in craft.

Within the three years of starting my degree, I’ve begun to understand what craft is. Craft is not DIY or kitschy flea markets. Before the 17th century, craft and fine art were one and the same thing. Art was valued for the content and the craftsmanship. After, craft became second to fine art. Craft is a mastery of skills; it’s not second to fine art. The easiest way I explain craft to people is, “When you go to a museum and look at piece that someone made and think, ‘How did someone make by hand that 100 or 1000 years ago?’ That’s craft.” That’s what I strive to do.

DMV: How do you incorporate the concept of “craft” into your work?
ST: For my work, I’ve seen a metamorphosis of embracing minimalism, taking away unnecessary elements in a piece and making sure that what is left is of my highest craftsmanship. In a recent piece, What’s hidden? There are five sterling silver bulbous forms that are flat with a sheet of red brass. The forms are similar to weather rocks. When the viewer picks them up, they reveal a chemical patina on the bottom of the forms of all different kinds of colors. This kind of thinking has also lead to a body of wearables that I call my Minimalist Collection.

Twigs2DMV: You are known for your twig pieces from your Stillness Collection—where did the idea come from for these designs?
ST: On my campus, we have Japanese maple trees. There are some that are decades old and some that are only 8 feet tall. As I would walk over to the metal studio, I would look at their branches, their forms, and newly growing branches. Nature has a way of making forms that are compositionally pleasing. I thought, “What if I cast you into silver and put gold on you?” I began to experiment. Casting delicate material, especially organic material from nature, is a complex process. You have to account for the moisture in the branches, the ash, how the molten metal will flow when the branch is burnt out. The following spring semester, I was taking a production design class with six other students. I spent the rest of the semester problem solving casting organic materials and making on one of kind production line of work. I taught myself this technique called keum boo, where I was fusing or pressure welding 24k gold to the surfaces of my cast branches. I cast twigs and blossoms directly from nature into recycled sterling silver and fuse them with 24k gold. Each piece captures a moment of nature.

DMV: You also have your Lunar Collection, with pendants and cuffs set with gemstones, and then your Minimalist Collection, which is, well, more minimalist. Where was the inspiration for these two collections and how are they distinct?
ST: For the Lunar Collection, I found inspiration in the lunar surface and [thought] what if there were stones set into the lunar surface? A crater here and a pop of color there. I taught myself how to do a stone setting technique called flush setting where a faceted stone is set flush to the surface of the metal. My second year professor at the time didn’t know how to do that setting and it was quite the learning curve.

Lunar collectionThe Minimalist Collection grew out refining my flush setting abilities and embracing minimalism. I wanted to create a piece that was subtle, durable, and had the option of a little hint of color. Each cuff is 6mm wide and 2mm in depth and varies according to fit. They can be worn individually or stacked in a set. They’re sterling silver and flush set with one 2mm faceted stone. They’re among my most affordable pieces.

DMV: Do you have a favorite quote?
ST: A recent quote I came across from an interview by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He was interviewing musician and deep ¬thinker David Byrne. Byrne said: In order to succeed in the math and the sciences, you have to be able to think outside the box and do creative thinking. The way those disciplines are taught is not totally creative. The creative thinking is in the arts. A certain amount of art education doesn’t mean your ambition is to grow¬ up to be a painter. You can use that kind of creative thinking and apply it to anything else; business, science, engineering….and be better at it.

This quote truly resonated with me. Art and science go hand in hand. They’re not on two different ends of the spectrum. As an artist who’s interested in science, when I’m working with chemicals or doing large-¬scale soldering, having a small education in science has helped me understand the scientific reason why metal does whatever it does when I do something to it. Using reason and logic and the scientific method, what happens when I do x, y, and z. How can I apply that to next time? When I was in a science fair, what happens when I change the design or materials of the blades of a wind turbine?

DMV: What are you working on next?
ST: My next line came into mind a few months ago and will have to wait for the fall as it will be a part of my thesis work. I plan on making casts of bark into silver and forming them into pieces. My first prototype will be a cuff with small gemstones, like rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, set in gold, and the silver lightly oxidized to reveal the texture of the bark. I need to figure out how to make molds of the bark and the negative spaces between pieces of the bark without harming the tree.

You can keep up with Thompson on her Website and Instagram:
Website: sara.thompson.metalsmith.com
Instagram: sara_t_letitbe
And look for her designs at Citrine boutique located in Vineyard Haven and Let It Be Jewelry Design on Etsy.