Rebecca Myers. Branching Out From The
For the past two decades, Rebecca Myers has been steadily producing an impressive line of jewelry that has evolved from the clean, minimalist lines of contemporary design toward more open, sinuous and organic forms, many of them derived from motifs in nature. Her path has been one of constant experimentation with materials and techniques, while always striving to keep the essential elements in balance: symmetry and asymmetry, light and dark, abstraction and representation.
In the Baltimore-based artist’s own words, “The collection is about contrasts in texture, color and materials.” Many recent pieces, such as the Pod Earrings, feature a heavily textured surface of oxidized iron on which different alloys of gold have been overlaid. Tiny diamonds, which she calls “fairy dust,” shine from the blackened iron-like stars in a turbulent night sky. “The sparkle of white fairy dust against dark and rough metal is a contrast that is very intriguing to me,” she says. “This yin/yang exists perfectly in nature. Getting that perfect/imperfection in my work is my goal for the collection.”
The earrings, as well as a related seed pod necklace, can be traced directly to a transformative trip that Myers took with her then-fiancé to Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park in 2003. “We hiked through the forest there, and I picked up seed pods and brought them back. Out of a whim, I put them in the kiln and burned them out and cast them.* And I just started experimenting with them.” The success of these early experiments led her to push further in this direction.
In addition to the pods, you will also find butterfly wings, cactus leaves, magnolia buds, and star anise, among many other forms, cleverly integrated into her designs. Some of these elements remain very much what they are, like the tiny bees that appear on many pieces, looking like they have just landed to extract some nectar from the glistening stones and precious metals. Other forms are more abstracted, as in the Monarch Necklace, on which the elegant butterfly-wing patterns are inlaid in twenty-two karat gold into sections of smooth oxidized silver, the contours of their joining accentuated with constellations of small diamonds.
Sometimes a stone takes center stage, as in the Ruby Cuff, which features a bold ruby in an oval frame of lustrous twenty-two karat gold studded with diamonds. This is set atop a cuff of oxidized silver with the abstracted monarch-wing pattern inlaid in eighteen karat gold. A moonstone ring, meanwhile, features a milky-white orb set in a thick, diamond-strewn eighteen karat gold overlay that seems to flow like lava over the grooved patterns in the oxidized silver below.
In the radiant Mexican Fire Opal Necklace, the deep vermilion gem appears to erupt from within its setting, like a glowing sun captured in a delicate frame of silver twigs and flowers. “This piece has more of a Victorian flavor than most of the line,” notes Myers. “I carved the branches. I will often take natural elements, manipulate them, cast them and include them. However, these branches were modeled in wax after bamboo. Oftentimes natural forms are too heavy to be wearable or comfortable. This was the case in this piece.”
The ubiquitous bees in Myers’s recent work seem like an apt mascot for the industrious artist herself. But they also carry a more ecological message: An avid gardener, she is aware of the crucial role these delicate creatures play in our survival. “There would be no garden without bees,” she says. “Beekeeping is a prescient issue these days. I have a client who is a beekeeper. She tells me stories of hives failing and how delicate a balance it is to keep a healthy hive.” For Myers, the bees serve as a reminder of “our need to appreciate and care for the natural world and our connection to/dependence on it.”
Myers credits her deepening appreciation for the natural world with opening her work over the past decade. Before the Corcovado trip, she says, “the work was very tight—it was very geometric, because the inlay process really demanded that. It wouldn’t allow me to be organic in my approach.” These earlier designs often featured alternating bands of gold and silver or platinum, with one metal either overlaid on the other or inlaid into channels cut into the mold, a technique Myers developed on her own. She still deploys these skills to great advantage, but her work has literally branched out in recent years, as she continues to incorporate forms from the natural world into her repertoire.
For Myers, the artistic journey began early and has proceeded without interruption. “I remember my parents and teachers asking me what I wanted to be, and I always said I wanted to be an artist,” she recalls. The family started out in Philadelphia, where her father was a journalist for the Jewelers’ Circular Keystone (a trade publication, and, it turns out, harbinger of her later career) and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even after they relocated to the more rural Lehigh Valley, some sixty miles north of the city, Myers still felt connected to the larger world of art. It was the 1980s, and artists like Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, both of whom hailed from nearby towns, were making a big splash in New York. “There was a connection to people in Pennsylvania who had actually crossed the line into the big art world in New York, and that was a huge inspiration to me,” she says.
While still in junior high school, Myers earned a scholarship to take classes at the Allentown Museum of Art’s Baum School. “I had some really cool teachers there,” she recalls. “They were working artists, and they were also people who let me know what was going on.” She credits them with instilling in her the idea that “just because you don’t live in New York or Philadelphia doesn’t mean that you can’t do this.” She also studied with a local artist named Myron Barnstone. “He has a really intense program for high schoolers and professionals on drafting and rendering. It’s all very classical—the Golden Section,” she says. By the time she graduated high school, Myers had an extensive portfolio of two-dimensional works, on the strength of which she was admitted to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
The shift toward jewelry came during her second year at Tyler. “In sophomore year they make you take something in every medium, and I had to fulfill a craft requirement,” she says. “I picked jewelry—it was kind of the path of least resistance.” Myers quickly discovered that, unlike many fellow students, she had an aptitude for the medium. “People were burning their hair, and setting their clothes on fire, and melting things, and I was making stuff! So I thought, alright, I’ll continue making stuff,” she says. By the time she graduated in 1991, she had already sold her first line of work to
Myers was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but she decided that she did not want to teach—she wanted to launch her own business. She moved to Milwaukee, where her boyfriend had a teaching position, and went to work for the Parkinson Company, a local commercial jeweler. “We did all the custom work for jewelers in the city, so I carved every wax that went through that place for about five years,” she says. “I got a lot of schooling on how business works. I got a lot of stone contacts. The diamond source I got from that position, I still use. There was a lot of hands-on experience that really was helpful. It was kind of graduate school for business.”
Myers remained at Parkinson for five years, even as she worked tirelessly to launch her own line of jewelry. “I worked all day and then I came home and I would take a nap, and I would work for as long as I could,” she recalls. “I would apply to shows, and if I got in I would try to do them.”
One key to Myers’s success is that her passion in pursuing her dreams is wedded to a practical, pragmatic side that has helped her to make the most of opportunities. Her first major venue was the American Craft Council show in Atlanta in 1993. From then on, she aimed to do four shows per year. She also set herself a goal for independence: “In order to quit my job, I wanted to have three months of orders and a schedule filled with shows.”
A breakthrough came in 1996, when Myers was named Best New Talent by the Jewelry Design Council. At the urging of a friend, she had applied at the very last minute. “I remember putting those pieces in the box. I went out to the all-night post office in Milwaukee and got it postmarked, literally, five minutes before midnight!” she recalls. “It was a surprise when I got a letter
from Michael Bondanza, who was head of the Design Council at that point.”
The award helped Myers turn the corner. “It seemed like the floodgates opened after that,” she says. “I got introduced to Cindy Edelstein, Alex Sepkus, and that whole world, which is very different from the commercial, boutique world. Everybody was very encouraging. It made me feel like I could take the leap.” Even so, she waited another six months, quitting her job only after a show in Baltimore later that year put her beyond her goal of three months’ worth of new orders.
Myers moved back east in 1997, setting up shop in Allentown, Pennsylvania, near where she grew up. “I remember thinking, ‘I really wish I was in Philly or New York,” she says. “But I had fantastic clients in the Lehigh Valley. I still have wonderful clients there. It was a really great incubator. It was a great place for me to be able to afford to live and work and make what I wanted without worrying too much about it.”
Myers remained in the Lehigh Valley until 2003. It was there that she met her future husband, Troy Juliar, who was then an editor at the health-and-wellness publisher Rodale Press. When he took a position with Recorded Books, Inc., in Maryland, they moved south and Myers opened a studio and gallery in the quaint village of West Annapolis. In 2005, the couple was married at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore’s spectacular venue for “outsider” art situated just off the Inner Harbor. They now live in Roland Park, just north of the city, and have a son in kindergarten.
Since 2009 Myers’s studio and gallery have been located at Clipper Mill in Baltimore’s Hampden section, nestled between the Johns Hopkins campus and Druid Hill Park. The former site of the Poole & Hunt Iron Works, where steam engines, railroad cars, water-wheels, and other large components of the industrial age were manufactured, Clipper Mill is now home to a dynamic community of artisans and entrepreneurs, including the Corradetti Glass Studio, Gutierrez Studios (custom furniture), Mandala Creations (hand-forged metalwork), and Woodberry Kitchen, rated one of the finest restaurants on the East Coast.
“There’s a lot of great energy here,” says Myers. She points to the “fire pit,” a community hangout just outside the restaurant, where a few glassblowers are taking a break around the funnel-shaped fireplace, some fifteen feet high, welded from large scraps of metal and anchored to a circular platform bolted into the ground. “This was built in honor of the former owner of Gutierrez, John Gutierrez, who died,” she says. “Everybody in the community pitched in.” Across the street, in a sunken area adjacent to the massive old foundry building that now serves as an indoor parking lot, white marble steps lead to a swimming pool surrounded by tall classical columns. “In the summertime, this looks like Vegas,” says Myers. “The lanterns at the top of the columns light up, so there’s fire coming out of them.” If there’s such thing as a post-industrial paradise, this comes pretty close to the mark.
Her studio, a high-ceilinged space with exposed beams and ducts, is subdivided into three sections. In the front is a gallery with glass cases displaying perhaps a hundred examples of Myers’s works across a range of styles. Behind the gallery, separated by a six-foot-high divider wall, is a fabrication room with three benches at which Myers and her two assistants assemble pieces, as well as a computer station and a laser welder. The third compartment houses the raw materials for casting (seeds, rocks, shells, branches, a nest with a robin’s egg still in it) and equipment for wax-injection molding, sand-blasting, and electroplating. Each space has windows that look out over the narrow walkway to an embankment covered with dense foliage.
Except for some pavé setting, which she sends out, everything is done here in the studio. “It’s not for puritanical reasons,” says Myers. “It’s because I really like to experiment. We change our work all the time. And the only reason that happens as quickly and efficiently as it does is because we do our own casting. So if we want to try something new, we try it.”
When not in the studio, Myers is generally on the road, keeping up a busy show schedule that, in a given year, might include Art Palm Beach, SOFA in Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, and American Craft Council shows in Baltimore,
San Francisco, and other cities, as well as numerous trunk shows and other smaller events.
When asked about her influences, Myers cites a few familiar names in the jewelry world who have impacted her work at different times, including Michael Zobel and Steven Kretchmer, along with some lesser-known figures, such as metalsmith and fellow Tyler graduate Robert Farrell. But as her personal role model she cites Peggy Guggenheim, whose collection of modern art she first came across on a trip to Venice in 2000, and whose autobiography Out of This Century she rereads every few years. “I love her story,” says Myers. “She just was really self-possessed and did her own thing. She did not conform in the least.” Words to live by, as this artist clearly does.
*Editorial comment: The seed pod is invested in plaster; when it is burned into ashes in the kiln, the resulting mold is filled with wax. These are used to cast metal replicas of the pod.