BY JASON CAMPBELL
I’ve known Penfield native Erica Bello for a couple of years now, but in that time I had never seen her so animated and talkative as she was during our interview session. I think during the entire hour or so we met over coffee I asked three questions, maybe. It was like she had bottled up years of jewelry making conversation and let it all out at once! I was rather expecting this interview to be difficult because Erica is the first artist I’ve interviewed with whom I had any familiarity. To the contrary, the only difficulty I had during our chat was keeping up with the flow of information.
I asked Erica what her thoughts were on the negative connotation of “craft” and what the word means to her. She relayed her definition as “something hand-made, of a certain quality, using skills acquired through education and experience.” It’s “making a technique or medium their own”, and likened it to the “difference between a career vs a hobby.” Erica believes that the term “craft” doesn’t have to be negative, and the fact is that craft is a broad term that can be applied to any number of delineations. Erica does feel that the growth of arts and crafts websites have skewed craft towards the low value, poor-quality end of the spectrum. Even within its own parameters, young jewelers face a bit of an uphill climb. Many of the established studio jewelers started when materials were inexpensive, education was inexpensive, and competition was scarce. Today’s younger artists, if college educated, face mounds of debt from exorbitant tuition costs to go along with the highest recorded prices of precious metals and stones. Thus, when the older, established group sees the prices that the newbies are asking, they react negatively and tend to dismiss the work of the new generation.
So then how does a young jeweler earn that respect? One of the ways is to exhibit at large national fine craft shows. These shows are highly competitive to get into because they attract the best and the brightest. On the down side, they tend to be expensive for the exhibitors for these same reasons. Also, Erica told me how new artists have to establish their presence at these shows by attending for a few years consecutively before buyers trust enough to purchase. These jewelry pieces tend to be a bit more expensive and customers want to feel secure that the jeweler from whom they buy is going to be around for awhile just in case something happens to their purchase. After all, jewelry sold at these types of shows is meant to be worn, and it stands to reason that some breakage will occur. Despite some of these drawbacks of the larger shows, Erica feels that they are imperative for an up-and-coming artist to try to attend. Even if your work isn’t selling, you meet all of these other artists and see their work first hand. Jewelry is obviously a very tactile product – you need to feel its weight, and observe directly the quality of the soldering and the materials themselves. Erica said that when she first started getting into and attending these shows, besides actually selling product, the compliments from her peers were what really urged her to continue honing her craft.
Hone her craft she has! Erica is the 2014 winner of the Halstead Grant which began in 2006. Halstead is a huge jewelry supplier that started this award to propel the emerging careers of promising fine jewelry makers. One winner per year is awarded $5000 cash to use any way he or she chooses and $1000 worth of supplies. One of the things that separates the Halstead from other grants is that the winner does not have to repay their winnings. The application for the grant is a questionnaire consisting of ten questions which Erica responded to in approximately twenty pages. In essence, the questions and answers are a business plan. The idea is to determine who has a grasp of their market, process, and their product to the point that they can effectively formulate a strategy to be successful. Erica told me that she still refers to her answers if she feels that she’s spinning her wheels a bit. To have the appropriate solutions written down at her disposal is a huge asset in running a one- person studio business.
While at RIT, Erica learned all about traditional metalsmithing, fabricating, and casting to create her jewelry. This is also where she fell in love with silver as the main component of her work. Erica made the most of her time at RIT, where a professor told her “school is the only place where you can make any type of jewelry you want to make,” so she did. Often Erica would make twice as much work as required by the assignment and really explored how she wanted to make her pieces look. She had learned the basics in high school, where she became one of those art kids that is always hanging around the art rooms. She was a self described art “junkie” and continued on to MCC where she was only offered the usual drawing and painting classes. They did not have any of the 3-D art classes like sculpture, jewelry making, pottery, etc. Erica didn’t feel at home there and after completing the degree requirements decided to take a year off and find a job. She began working at Jared’s doing mostly clerical and quality control tasks. Although not what she had envisioned as a jeweler, Erica said that the experience with the business end of things really helped her in starting her own business. Quality control and pricing are absolutely two of the more important areas of running a successful business.
Erica’s work is designed to be worn. While this sounds obvious, there is a segment of the jewelry making world that strives to create work that resides in display cases – beautiful pieces in every regard, but absolutely unwearable. Part of Erica’s design plan is factoring how the piece will age – durability, patina, weight and comfort, and its overall functionality. She describes this as “kinetic jewelry” – as it is designed to move with the wearer. Another way to describe her work is “functional sculpture”, again, referring to the fact that her jewelry is going to be abused in normal day-to-day activity. Erica described her work as traditional jewelry silhouettes, referring to many of the pieces not containing stones. Essentially, that makes them hollow settings, or a metaphor for some people’s desires for enormous precious stones, and the image that that portrays. Erica creates her minimalist work mostly by taking two-dimensional components and soldering them together to create 3-D shapes. This is a painstaking process requiring an amazing attention to detail and lots and lots of time. This process is getting easier with the use of 3-D printers. These printers allow for intricate and delicate components to be made more accurately and quickly than can be accomplished by hand. Erica approximates that 30% of her work is done using these printers now, and any jeweler needs to have at least some working knowledge of them to move designs forward. The fine details of this advancement allows for the more traditional styles to be made again, which tend to feature really small complex components.
Although Erica has spent several years developing her own style of jewelry, she describes herself as being at the beginning stages of her evolution as a fine jeweler. This idea of “implied volume” by creating hollow structures is nearly limitless in its scope, so she feels she hasn’t come close to exhausting her possibilities. Currently in the process of moving to Baltimore, Erica is excited about her proximity to The Baltimore Jewelry Center. This is a state-of-the-art off-shoot of the Maryland Institute College of Art, or M.I.C.A., focusing on the art of making jewelry. Serving as a possible look into the future of arts and crafts education, M.I.C.A. dropped its jewelry making curriculum due to small class sizes and high costs to operate. Students aren’t lining up to attend craft programs at major institutions because they are cost prohibitive. The Baltimore Jewelry Center may be the wave of the future for prospective arts and craft students as it is a not-for-profit, community based education center with brand new high caliber facilities. Students can take one class or a series of classes taught by professionals in their fields of expertise and not bury themselves in student loans in the process. Although the thought of colleges and universities dropping art programs sounds awfully scary, it may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise by promoting the regrowth of lesser know fine arts and crafts.
“Craft” or “Fine Craft” as its best self, blurs the line between art and craft. At its worst, it is a poorly constructed glob of whimsy selling on Etsy. However, as we all know, art is in the eye of the beholder, and even that glob is fantastic to someone. Jewelry making is one of the reasons that line is blurred because the level of designs, quality of the materials, skills of execution, and practicality of the pieces can vary so dramatically. Erica is doing her best to help jewelry making uphold its value by using precious metals to create functional, well-made, hand-crafted jewelry pieces. Though we will surely miss her locally, we should be very excited to see one of Rochester’s own take her work to another level. Also, if you happen to be in the area, here’s a list of national shows at which Erica will be exhibiting:
December 4-5 – Society for Contemporary Craft
Pittsburgh, PA (Jewelry EDITION)
February 19 – 21, 2016 – American Craft Council Show
May 25- 29, 2016 – UWM Art History Gallery