Artist Sarah West fuses metal with an eye for math and geometry.
by Jessie Ammons Rumbley | photography by Taylor McDonald
There’s both grit and grace in Sarah West’s pieces—steel trapezoids and crystals wearable as rings, necklaces, earrings and even brooches. “I don’t do math when I make my work, but I’m inspired by the things that math and engineering have created,” West says. “Bridges and other giant structures are a source of awe. I think about the labor and ideas and engineering that went into building them, and how they are a connection to one place or another, a connection between people.”
Connection is a theme throughout West’s work, which includes mostly jewelry as well as a few large-scale installations in cities across the country. “I cut up all of these little bits of steel and when I join them, that joint is a connection point, the idea of thoughts and people crossing, of memories and dreams, the map of the intangible,” she says. Whether it’s a ring or a huge abstract hanging sculpture, “there are all of these connection points.”
It’s taken a while for West to hone her aesthetic, a combination of minimalism, artfulness and geometric precision. Originally from Massachusetts, she dropped out of college and found her way instead to craft school, where she learned traditional jewelry-making and repair. Then she took some time off—“my life has been a series of jewelry, break, jewelry, break,” West laughs—and found solace in the North Carolina mountains. She eventually found her way back to craft school, this time North Carolina’s celebrated Penland School of Crafts, which spurred her to earn her BFA from East Carolina University. The Artspace Regional Emerging Artist Residency and N.C. Arts Council Fellowship brought her to Raleigh in 2011, and she’s been here ever since.
Making art was not in her original plan, West says. “I was very much interested in having a craft that was not art-related. Doing bench jewelry repair work felt like a need, it was very much trade-oriented.” Nonetheless, she always sketched on the side, “drawn to painting and sculpture and the more abstract,” she says. “There was a disconnect between what I was doing as a jeweler and what I was doing in my sketchbook.” At Penland, she began to connect the dots. Then, when studying metal design at ECU, she had her “aha” moment. “When I started working with steel, I could build my forms very quickly. It felt like I was sketching in a 3-D space.”
By creating geometry-inspired jewelry, West combines the abstract and the practical. She creates art that has a use. But she’s now interested in art for art’s sake, too. Her public installations include a hanging steel-and-linen piece in the AC Hotel Times Square in New York City and a gramophone-esque steel-and-vinyl piece inside the Red Hat lobby downtown. “It’s challenging to get into a large space and that’s really fun,” West says. To tackle the challenge, she breaks each piece down “in a component-based way,” so it becomes an undertaking not unlike making a piece of statement jewelry.
West also teaches classes at Pullen Arts Center, which will reopen from renovations next spring. It’s another way for her to stay connected and inspired. “Raleigh has a great arts community full of opportunities,” she says. Of course, 2020 has changed the way some opportunities look. Like many in the creative industry, “2020 has really thrown me for a loop,” West says. And so she’s taken another break, putting craft on the backburner and focusing on gardening, cooking, beekeeping and learning to play the drums. West had just relocated her studio from Artspace to her home, so she’s equipped to refocus on jewelry whenever the time is right.
And she’s excited for that time; breaks are good. She was set to be part of the Smithsonian Craft Show in the fall, and instead it will take place next fall. Soon she’ll begin to prepare. Meanwhile, “there’s been a growing online art exhibition presence and people are getting more used to that,” West says, and she continues to sell her jewelry online.
“The introvert in me, in some ways, didn’t mind this break,” says West. “There are many things to look forward to. The process is yet unfolding.”