Olivia Shih is a contemporary jeweler, artist and writer based in Oakland, California. Born in the US and raised in Taiwan, she is interested in the cultural nuances that can be explored through wearable sculpture. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and a BFA in Jewelry and Metal Arts from the California College of the Arts.
A maker with a background in large-scale sculptural work and an avid interest in graphic design, Samantha Skelton was awarded the Halstead Grant in 2015. In this interview, the Pittsburgh-based jewelry designer and artist talks about her career after receiving the grant, and what a day in her life is like.
Olivia Shih: First off, congratulations! You were awarded the 2015 Halstead Grant for having a well-designed, cohesive jewelry collection and excellent business acumen. Could you first talk about your education and background, and how you got to where you are?
Samantha Skelton: Thank you so much! I was honored to be chosen last August!
I grew up on an organic beef and alpaca farm in northwest Pennsylvania. Both my parents have always been small business owners, which I think has had a major impact on my own career choices. I’ve been fiercely independent for as long as I can remember, and at times overly ambitious: I knew when I started school that I wanted to have a business of my own.
I started studying graphic design, thinking I would be a graphic designer, but took a jewelry design course and was hooked. I finished undergrad at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and attended my very first SNAG conference in Philadelphia that spring. This was the first time I was exposed to the art jewelry industry and I remember being really excited realizing that this could actually be a career for me. I started grad school at Miami University in the fall of 2009, which is where I worked with Susan Ewing for three years. Ewing has the combination of a killer aesthetic eye and an entrepreneurial drive, which is exactly what I needed to push me to create a series of sculptures that would later be the basis for the jewelry line that I am still creating.
I graduated from Miami with my MFA in 2012 and it wasn’t until I finished graduate school that I actually started making jewelry again. Because I had been so focused on these large-scale sculptures that were often taking months to complete, going back to making jewelry felt so energizing. During the following year, I was the resident artist at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, where I was able to work with the intention of refining my sculptural aesthetic and create a sellable line of jewelry.
As a small jewelry business owner, you must have many roles to play in a single working day. What is a day in the studio like for you?
Samantha Skelton: It’s almost funny how many different things I could possibly do in a day. I think there is a really glamorous perspective of studio artists just working in their studios, and sometimes that’s true, but not always. I spend more time than I care to admit on my computer updating my website, designing show cards, emailing clients and galleries, and photographing. I’m very thankful that I started that graphic design degree because I’ve been able to really distinguish my work through branding. The style of my jewelry has a very graphic, linear aesthetic that I’ve been able to capture in my logo and website, which I know has helped me advertise and sell work. Along with making and marketing, I also teach workshops and travel for shows, which means I’m usually on the road one to two weeks a month. Time flies in my crazy little world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Can you tell us what the Halstead Grant consisted of, and how your life and business have changed since you were awarded it?
Samantha Skelton: The Halstead Grant rewards an extensive application consisting of business history and goals, as well as a descriptive aesthetic component in which I articulated my designs, branding, and clients. The grant pushed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined and was one of the hardest things I have had to do while building my business. I took every single question really seriously and I realized while applying that some of the questions were things that I had never even thought about. Not only has my businesses changed from the perspective of goals and planning, but the publicity and sales from the grant have been incredible. The $5,000 was an awesome check to get in the mail, but I have always been a fan of the spotlight so it’s also been really fun feeling like a mini jewelry celebrity for a couple months. I can’t thank the Halstead family enough for what this grant does for independent jewelry artists.
Your jewelry features very linear, minimal, and sculptural pieces, alongside almost whimsical pieces, featuring occasional enameled details. Why did you decide to incorporate these elements? Do these different ranges correspond to different clienteles?
Samantha Skelton: I do a lot of drawing, and the wirework corresponds to the linear drawings, which are very architecturally based. While I was in graduate school, I got a lot of responses to the drawings I was doing as sketches for my sculptures, and wanting to work in metal I learned a technique to draw on glass enamel and set the enamel into these large structural sculptures. I have continued that into my jewelry because I love the way the linear drawings play off the wire structures. To me they complement each other and it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Most of my clients are initially drawn to the enameled pieces just because they are larger and a little more striking, but, depending on budget, they end up purchasing a silver wire structured piece. Most of the larger enameled pieces go to collectors.
Where do you live now? How does your environment influence your work?
Samantha Skelton: I currently live in Pittsburgh. I moved there for a residency at the Society for Contemporary Craft in 2013, and during that residency I developed the series of jewelry that I’m still working on. It has a very gritty, industrial feel. Many of the textures come from hammering the softened silver on concrete, and the structures are reminiscent of steel framing and building structures and bridges. Even though I grew up in a very rural area on a farm, I’ve always felt more at home in a city.
Do you have any suggestions, whether in design or business strategy, for emerging jewelry artists?
Samantha Skelton: I don’t know if I have any of my own advice, but I’ll pass on the best advice that was given to me while I was in graduate school: Apply for anything and everything. Don’t worry about your work being a perfect fit or whether you’re advanced enough; you never know what they’re looking for until you apply. I used to save $100 from my monthly assistantship stipend to spend on applications, which felt a little like throwing money away until I actually started getting accepted into shows. I received invaluable feedback about my work and connected with a community of artists and makers that I still have today.
What are your plans for the future?
Samantha Skelton: I am in the process of purchasing a small building for my studio space. Currently my studio is in my basement, but I’ve been needing a space that is independent of my home. The new space will feature a small bridal consultation area because that has been another portion of my business that has been growing. Nothing is finalized yet, but it’s in an exciting area of the city, so you’ll have to keep an eye on my social media for more updates! I am also continuing with shows. I’m excited to be doing all of the American Craft Council Shows as well as CraftBoston this spring.
Have you read anything interesting recently that you would care to share with us?
Samantha Skelton: I’ve always had a really strong sweet tooth, and I got an ice cream maker for Christmas, so I’ve been reading a lot about homemade ice creams. There is a craft ice cream maker, Jeni Britton Bauer, whose shop is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, that I would (obsessively) visit when I was at Miami University. She published a homemade ice cream book called Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home that I’ve been eating my way through.