Valerie jo Coulson

2nd Place Jewelry Collection Couture/FINE

Valerie Jo Coulson has worked as a studio jewelry designer, metalsmith and lapidary for more than 35 years. Her background is in Fine and Decorative Arts with particular interests in art history, architecture and design. This year, Valerie has the distinction of winning two Saul Bell Design Awards. Her “Sunshine and Shadow” collection won 2nd place in the Jewelry Collection Couture category, and her “Echinacea Teapot” won 2nd place in the Hollowware/Art Objects category.

Artist Interview:

How did you come up with the title for this collection?
Living in Lancaster County, I have an affinity for Amish quilt design.  The “Sunshine and Shadow” pattern is particularly evocative. Geometry has always been very strong in my design vocabulary. I’ve long wanted to realize the star pattern and its myriad variations, fully encompassed, in the round. However, it was not really viable until the advancement of CAD/CAM. Ron Finch, of Finch Jewelers, has a great store and state-of-the art-workshop in Lancaster. He was able to reproduce the intricate spherical design through additive manufacturing. The rest of the elements I hand fabricated.

How long did it take to make the pieces?
The tubular links on the necklace and earrings involved a lengthy process. I used silver tubing, cutting patterns on four sides. And then I figured out the method to connect the pieces, as well as proper steps for soldering prior to the stone setting.

What do you plan to do with the pieces?
I have done several other pairs of the earrings set with different stones, such as blue topaz. I could see reproducing them as a limited edition.

How did you feel when you heard?
To have both pieces awarded is hard to describe. It is such an inspiration. I love this competition because it is what the Bell family stands for. It is so inclusive of the artist/maker and individual studio artist. Also, the work is being judged by your peers in the field. It is highly prestigious.

Have you won other awards?
Best of Show, Saul Bell Design Award, 2017.

Describe yourself.
I’m a detail person—too much of a perfectionist. I like to challenge myself to try to create something that is almost too difficult to be made. I strive for perfection, but more important, I believe, is that I am a pragmatist who loves the process of constructing… working things through. I have described the creative process as an orchestration of esthesis (the genesis of an idea), design, engineering and construction. I smile when I think back to when I listened to classical music as a kid. I would go through the motions of being the conductor. I guess I never gave up that role, ha-ha. I love it and consider myself so fortunate for this life.

Of all the arts and crafts, why did you choose jewelry?
I love working with my hands and building and constructing things. It is a perfect combination for the hand, the eye, the mind and the heart.

What was the first thing you ever made?
In art class in high school, I made a nickel silver cuff bracelet. When I got into a jewelry making class in college, I made a sculptural ring in lost wax.

What or who do you think has been the strongest influence or inspiration on your work?
My mother and father were the two most important influences in my life. My father, who was an artist, taught me to stretch and prepare canvas and water color paper, as well as different drawing and printmaking techniques. I had an art education growing up. And my mother, a quilter, showed me the hand-craft path.

In such a competitive industry, what do you credit your longevity to?
I have worked a couple of other jobs while making jewelry. There were a number of years when I didn’t get into the studio very much. This helped support me and my passion, my love for jewelry making to which I now devote all my energies. One piece inspires another. It is a journey that allows you to keep opening doors and going down new roads.

Do you have any advice for those starting out in the jewelry world?
Get the book Jewelry Concepts and Technology by Oppi Untracht. Read it! Much of my design and making has been learned on my own. Study structure and form in your surroundings and in nature.

What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were 20?
With age comes wisdom and reality. I knew I wanted to be an artist at 20, but I didn’t know how to do that in a structured way. I am less anxious now in my work and more methodical. I work with more ease.

What do you want your legacy to be?
That I created works of wearable art that express beauty and inspire in a universal way.

What artist, dead or alive, do you most admire? Why?
The architect, Zaza Hadid. She designed the Morpheus Hotel Tower in Macau and so much more. It is a marvelous jewel-like structure with geometric threads. She is known for “the 89 degrees,” a world without straight angles.  

What is your favorite quote in either business or art?
George Bernard Shaw said, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” And Georgia O’Keefe’s statement that “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.”

What other design awards have you won?
I have won Best in Jewelry at the Philadelphia Museum show and Best in Jewelry at various other retail craft shows.

What is the best advice you would give a beginning designer?
I would say don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and in doing so, be confident that there is a solution to every problem along the process. You can find a solution!

What was your training/academic background in metalsmithing?
I started at Penn State University and then transferred to Millersville University in Lancaster where I continued my Fine Arts major. It was about two years later that I got into a jewelry-making class because it was always filled. I had three semesters of jewelry classes, and I knew immediately this was the medium I wanted to pursue. I learned the fundamentals at school. There was a set-up for stone cutting and polishing, and I began to cut cabochons. From that point on, I am self-taught.

What is your favorite tool?
My trim saw with 6” diamond-cutting blade.

Describe your studio.
I love the architecture of my studio, the post and beam. The space is airy and has good light, and it is out in the country. It is lovely and peaceful. It is my inner-sanctum.

What metals or gemstones are most important to you?
Silver and gold. But if I were to pick a stone, I love to inlay opals and Australian tiger iron because they have such a life to them. These stones have to be carefully cut and oriented to maximize their look.

Define your work?
I seek a purity of design with an aesthetic governed by the principle of Sacred Geometry, present in all manner of living/non-living things, biological and cosmic. It is a thoughtful process, not lending itself to spontaneity but rather an orchestration of aesthetics, design, engineering and construction.  

Interview by Marlene Richey