by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Juli Leonard
An oval necklace of flat silver rectangles is carefully hinged and clasped together. The finish on each link gradually brightens from gunmetal gray to bright silver. Gold accents highlight the curves, and it all comes to a point at a charm inlaid with stingray leather. The box-hinge clasp bears a single citrine.
It’s clear this creation required considerable skill, but its elegance overwhelms any thought of mechanics. The same can be said for all of Clark’s handmade rings, bracelets and earrings, each of which sings a song of its maker, an artist quietly and passionately in love with what she does.
Clark, 31, is a diminutive young woman, and the scale of her work suits her frame. If her lithe, nimble fingers were larger, she might be less adept at hand-cutting the detailed bits of metal that inform her jewelry’s signature look. Her brown eyes are as bright as her gold accents, and her dark bobbed hair curls to frame her delicate jaw line. Though she’s small, she radiates a steeliness that must come from knowing that she can bend metal to suit her imagination. Spider web tattoos accent her slender wrists, and a pair of bird tattoos set off her collarbones.
Nature also informs Clark’s designs. Honeycombs, leopard skins, fish scales, mallard feathers, eyelashes – she translates these natural forms into stripped down, potent versions of themselves that echo the originals.
“I started mimicking nature, but now I’m kind of incorporating it,” Clark says.
She tends to become fascinated with a particular piece of the natural world, then moves on when she feels she has drawn from it all she can. One exception is the beehive-patterned pieces that are among her most popular.
“There’s something really wonderful about their structure. You can do so much with that pattern,” she says. “I haven’t gotten bored with the bees yet.”
Clark hand-draws each of her designs. She cuts out each bit of metal with a tiny saw, and then solders the pieces together seamlessly.
“Nothing ends up being exactly the same,” she says.
Her first-floor studio in Artspace feels like a cross between a dental exam room and a fairy workshop. The small, sharp tools she uses to shape and carve the silver and gold resemble those a hygienist employs to scrape your teeth clean. They sit upright in caddies just like those in a dentist’s office. Like a fairy, she has a vise smaller than a child’s toy version. On the opposite wall, Clark’s creations glimmer in the light.
All the work, from drafting to metalsmithing to selling, is done here. And it’s all done by hand.
“To make things look the way I want, I can’t really take shortcuts,” she says.
While her bread-and-butter items such as earrings and cuff links can be made with templates, Clark likes to keep herself engaged by dreaming up new designs, like the stingray necklace. When she set upon making it in March, she did not realize the extent of the challenges she would have to surmount by the time she finished it in September – the various types of fasteners to bring the links together in a way that would allow the necklace to lie flat on the neck; the box-hinge catch; the overlay.
Beginning a piece like this is not unlike setting off on an unmarked mountain trail. The summit is sure to be beautiful, but the hiker has no idea how hard the climb might be before she gets there. Force of will keeps Clark going on projects like this.
“I’m stubborn,” she says. “I think that is probably the main force.”
Clark has also learned how to keep from getting lost in the woods of a long-term piece – how to say no to the temptation to make it even more intricate than she’d originally planned.
“The hardest lesson is when to walk away – how to quit while you’re ahead,” Clark says.
Her work has won accolades as well as customers. Clark took best in show at last year’s Carolina Designer Crafts Show, which comes again to the Fairgrounds Nov. 29-Dec.1.
“I’m convinced that if you do enough art shows, you’ll win something eventually,” she says modestly.
Not that she’s not grateful. “It’s flattering and encouraging, but at the end of the day I feel like the most important thing is I’m enjoying it, because there are easier ways to make a living,” she says.
Art in her genes
Clark grew up in Durham, the middle child of three, and started taking art classes when she was very young. Her grandmother was an oil painter who let Clark paint with her. Two-dimensional media held her attention until she took a sewing class in high school, and then she went off to Savannah College of Art and Design with plans to become a fashion designer.
But once she got her hands on metal, Clark converted to jewelry.
“It wasn’t so much the jewelry factor,” she said. “It was the material.” And the obsessive attention to detail required by the work, too.
After college she found jobs working for other established artists, and supplemented that income with stints in retail at craft stores and arts and crafts education. When the recession hit, work for other artists became scarce. In the span of six months, she landed and lost three jobs.
“My business started because there really were no bench jobs to be found,” she says. “So I thought, instead of working in retail or at a restaurant, I can give this a shot now. If I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I might as well be making my own work.”
It took a while for Clark figure out how to make it a business.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘I have to make more, and I have to make things faster’,” she says.
But she soon realized that she was wooing customers and collectors with the quality of her labor-intensive craftsmanship and original designs. Plenty of people can make lots of earrings. Few can make earrings that stand out in a crowded market.
Clark knew she had chosen the right course after she was chosen by a jury to participate in Raleigh’s Artsplosure festival in 2009, and her jewelry was a hit.
“I did Artsplosure, and I made money,” she says, her face lighting up with the memory. Still, for a while after that she remained close to home, taking her work only to local art shows to keep expenses low. She’s now selling her work for about $95 for a pair of earrings and $350 for a pendant. Her most elaborate pieces can range as high as $12,500.
As her sales and confidence have grown, she has begun to venture out. “This year I went farther than I ever have,” Clark says. She took her work to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, which she describes as by far the most fun art show yet. She and her boyfriend, Garrett Scales, who is also her apprentice, also traveled to Colorado and Iowa.
“It was a neat way to see the country,” she says
But she doesn’t expect to become a nomadic artist.
“I like my bed and I like my house and I like my cats,” she says.
Clark says she continues to live modestly, even with her growing commercial success. And she is grateful that the recession gave her the boost she needed to start her own business.
“If it hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have done it,” Clarks says. “At the end of the day, it’s allowed me to really create what people like.”