2nd Place - Hollowware


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 “Echinacea Teapot” won 2nd place in the Hollowware/Art Objects category and her “Sunshine and Shadow” collection won 2nd place in the Jewelry Collection Couture category.

Artist Interview:

Where did you get the title for this piece ?
I made the teapot in 1998. I had read about a Celestial Seasonings teapot competition, and I have long believed in a naturopathic approach to wellness. The echinacea flower came immediately to my mind. Drinking this flower as a tea is one method for boosting the immune system. My drawing was approved by the competition to be taken to the next step. Two-thirds of the way through its construction, there was a family emergency which took over my focus and time. I was not able to complete it for the competition. I did go on to complete it and decided 20 years later to enter it in SBDA, desiring for it the visibility it deserves.

How large is this piece?
The teapot sits on a trivet, the points of the leaves coming up through the flower. This depicts the life of the plant as it goes from beginning to decay.  The mature cone on top illustrates what is left of the structural bones. It is 5-1/2” high, and 6” from the leaves to tip of the spout.

How long did it take to make the piece?
Maybe about 300 hours altogether.

What obstacles did you have to overcome in making this piece?
I wanted it to be functional. I was concerned about heat transfer, so I constructed the stone-inlaid petals to be suspended on the top of the metal core, leaving airspace between. The handle is inlaid on both sides, giving a plique-à-jour effect, and is cold connected to prevent heat from being directly transferred to the handle.

What do you plan to do with the piece?
Pieces like this are hard to part with. I would love for it to go into a teapot collection.

Will this piece inspire other pieces?
Actually, I did make a pair of earrings in deference to the plant—dew drops from an echinacea petal.

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