Valerie Jo Coulson: Self-Taught Brilliance

As a studio art jeweler, metalsmith and lapidary, Valerie Jo Coulson designs pieces with deep-rooted meaning behind them. She expresses metaphors, elements of nature, and color composition as an emotional language throughout her work. Below she opens up to us about her experience as a brilliantly self-taught artist.

Can you describe your process when creating new pieces? Is there a part of the process that comes most naturally to you?

An Esthesia…the sensation or feeling, arises from a spark in perception of: an event, a work of art, laws of nature, spirituality and sometimes… a stone itself, as in a Queensland black boulder opal, compelling me to transmute into a tangible object. In translating this through expression in metal and stone, I will sketch, not overly detailed drawings, but different studies referencing space and line from various perspectives. Often and always on more complex pieces, I’ll fashion a full or partial maquette out of card stock to visualize the three-dimensional form for engineering of the construction. The construction comes most naturally, owing significantly to the practices I learned from a young age of pattern making and sewing from my mother and building from my father, who amongst his other artistry, was a set designer for the Fulton Opera House. He created intricate scale models in cardboard including all aspects from walls, windows and staircases to each piece of furniture. I spent many weekends at the opera house observing the building of the sets.

‘The Gauntlet’ Cuff has been described as a “metaphor for challenge, conflict and sacrifice.” Can you discuss how this piece may be reflected on your own challenges, conflicts and sacrifice?

Thank you. It is, I feel, my most impassioned work thus far. Attending to the warrior and the spirit—both contextually and subliminally, important also within the metaphor, is the ultimate end of ‘triumph.’ My self-imposed challenges are…simply put… can I prove worthy of the path lying before me? Conflict, or I should say better…struggle, are inherent in this. As with many branches on a tree, it’s unfeasible to climb them all without running out of strength, so one makes calculated sacrifices in order to attain an end goal.

Has COVID-19 had any effect on your jewelry? How have you stayed inspired?

I have spent much of the last 6 months in pause, with regards creating new work in the studio. I have been listening and learning. Importantly for me was to take this time to ground myself in the terra firma— building the soil, planting, harvesting and preserving food. I am in contemplation and observation while in the garden; it yields analytics and wonders which will inform my work when I soon return to the studio. There is the aspect of the metaphysical in my pieces and last October, while in Milan attending the Artistar Jewels exhibition, I had the opportunity to see the Georgio de Chirico exhibition at the Palazzo Reale. Founder of the scuola metafisica art movement, Chirico’s work deeply resonated with me, in particular his series of ‘Enigma’ paintings. I vowed at that time to deepen the metaphysical element in my work. The pandemic, the social and the civil strife will at some level be woven into the fabric of my expressions.

In your work, you express many elements of nature, do you find an element that is the easiest to work with? Do you have trouble connecting with certain elements found in nature?

The philosophy of Sacred Geometry illuminates much about how and what I perceive and reflect upon. Geometry as the basis of composition in the natural world is an affinity I have had from a very young age. The interrelation, interconnection between the natural world and the cosmos is pure yet very intricate and complex. I could say, the only elements I have trouble connecting with are those adulterated by mankind.

In your work, you utilize color composition of stone as an emotional language. Do you use personal emotion as inspiration for pieces? Do you look at others emotions as inspiration?

Very much so to both questions and most intimately coalesced in this may be my “Red Window/Blue Window” pieces, following the death of my father. Influenced by Matisse’s “Red Studio” and “Blue Studio” paintings, in which he used color as a pure emotional language, my interpretation and usage relates to what is and what once was. There is an autobiographical thread to my work and within the grande oeuvre; the emotions are those shared in our collective consciousness.

With a strong passion for art history, who has been your biggest influence? Can you discuss how this passion started?

Difficult to point to just one person, but I can speak to three sectors of the visual arts and important influences…Painter – Paul Gauguin and ‘Synthetism’ of the Post Impressionists. The style is characterized as…“a radical, expressive style, in which forms and colours were deliberately distorted and exaggerated, their pictures synthesized a number of different elements: the appearance of nature, the artist’s ‘dream’ before it and the formal qualities of form and colour.” Architect – Brunelleschi, his genius of engineering in executing the building of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiori. Sculptor – Michelangelo, his brilliance and mastery of carving life out of marble. It was actually the reading of Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy” about Michelangelo’s life, which ignited my passion for art history at the age of nine.

“The Duomo” was inspired partly by the competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and your desire to study in Florence. Did you study in Florence? Why did Florence inspire your work?

I desired to take a workshop study in Florence in the late 90’s; however at the time, our son was very young and it simply was not possible. I did manage my pilgrimage in 2011 and a visit to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure was a must for me. Established 1588 by Ferdinando I de’Medici as a court laboratory, and now a museum dedicated to the art of semi-precious stone inlay and mosaic, I was spellbound. I stopped at the front desk upon leaving to enquire as I saw that they had a course of study. Unfortunately, one needed to be fluent in Italian to enroll and I was not. For me, the art and architecture of Florence is the epitome of beauty based on the mathematical principle of balance, harmony and perspective. I see the city as the center of what is referred to as “Renaissance Humanism,” which beginning in the 13th century returned to the study of Greek and Roman classical art, literature, and science encouraging people to take interest in nature and value logic and reason as opposed to strictly following a religious plan. This has really been the lightning rod for me.

Which creation have you spent a great deal of time on that you find the deepest connection with? During what point of your life was it created?

This would be “The Gauntlet” cuff. The seed was planted in February 2001 (before the world was forever changed in September). I was invited to make a slide presentation of my “Chiaroscuro’ necklace at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show for an Opal Seminar sponsored by The House of Tibara. Opal miners Tim and Barbara Thomas of the House of Tibara wished to purvey a preeminent opal with which to create a masterwork. The stone could be paid for in time. I was particularly in awe of one Queensland Black Boulder Opal. I didn’t take the stone with me because I wanted time to process an inspiration. Over two years later when we went to war in Iraq, I watched in dread the bombing and the US Marines march on Baghdad. When the statue of Saddam fell and no Marine casualties were reported, I experienced what I can only describe as an epiphany. The opal would embody the soldier signifying their valor and virtue as they ran the gauntlet. In my abhorrence of war, I wanted to honor those who are willing to sacrifice their lives in protection of ours. I completed the piece in 2004 and since that time, the work invokes a new repository of meaning with each trial facing humanity; most poignantly at present: doctors, nurses, health care practitioners…those on the front lines during this pandemic.

After learning the basic fundamentals of jewelry making at Millersville University, you have been self-taught. What has been your biggest obstacle? What do you think has been your biggest advantage from being self-taught?

In the early period, my biggest obstacle may have been overcoming isolation because I did not have association within the academic field, and the biggest advantage I feel was that I developed a style and expression uniquely formulated by what I was self-learning.

With your parents being huge influences on your work, have you reflected on them in any of your pieces?

Definitely, in 2003 I was invited to participate in the Aaron Faber exhibition entitled “Inspired by…Teachers and Mentors.’ I created two brooches… “George” after a silkscreen of my father’s, his “Mexican Chicken” which in later printing he renamed “Nobody’s Perfeckt” and “Vesta,” a facsimile of pattern pieces cut from fabric for a blouse.

Growing up with parents whose skills were artistic and craft related, were you expected to follow in their steps? Why do you think that you also wanted to be creative like them?

Undoubtedly they had expectations that I would follow their footsteps in some capacity. Arts and culture were always center stage growing up. They did suggest to me, when I was a senior in high school and looking at universities, the study of textile arts or fashion design.  My mother, who is now 94, was and still is a trend setter in fashion.  In 1964, she was the first woman in Lancaster to wear a pantsuit in public (of her own making from a Vogue couture pattern, it was gorgeous)  which almost got them denied entrance into their favorite restaurant but after my father’s ‘persuasion’, they were permitted to take seat at the bar.   My father was a Renaissance man in my eyes.  They were mavericks;  I believe this is fundamental to creative expression and I wanted to emulate that.

As a Studio Art Jeweler, Metalsmith and Lapidary creator, Valerie Jo Coulson produces extraordinary designs with beautiful emotion behind every single piece. To find out more about her dazzling work visit valeriejocoulson.com

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