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Nicole Ringgold

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I have always dreamed of being an artist. People regularly told me, however, that to make a living as an artist, I would have to teach art or have a second, more prominent job to generate income until my art was discovered. Even when I was discovered, however, there was no guarantee a salary would be consistent or sustainable, so it was a risky profession. As a result, I earned my undergraduate degree in sociology and studio art, anticipating a lifetime of balancing both.

Throughout my life, I traveled extensively, volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger and West Africa and returned to the US to earn my graduate degree in art therapy and mental health counseling. I worked for almost 15 years managing social service programs and directing non-profit organizations, all the while dabbling in a variety of art forms and doing what I could to feed my thirst for a creative outlet, hoping to solve the puzzle of becoming a successful and thriving full-time artist.

Nicole Ringgold Portrait
Photograph by Sol Gutierrez.

Every day I enter my studio to find new inspiration: a dragonfly, butterfly, croaking frog, ladybug or one of my plethora of plants.

When we built our home in 2009, my husband and I incorporated art throughout including glass and stone mosaics, an elaborate mural in my daughter’s bedroom and another one on our pantry door. I drilled holes through river rocks I had collected to create all of our cabinet knobs. When the house was complete, I continued to drill (much smaller) rocks and taught myself how to wire wrap jewelry. My daily life balance included being a wife, mother, non-profit director, homeowner, gardener, outdoor enthusiast, and suddenly, a determined yet entirely naïve jewelry artist.

In 2011, I opened an Etsy store, my first step in online sales. For the next three years, I sold jewelry through Etsy and local galleries. I slowly expanded gallery support from my small town, from eastern to western Washington, and surrounding states. With the income from my jewelry sales, I purchased my first torch and eventually managed to furnish a studio with basic silversmithing tools and equipment. Every day after work, dinner and debriefing with my family, I would retreat to my studio to work late into the evening, teaching myself new techniques with the torch and tools I had acquired. Without any instruction, I learned through making mistakes and giving myself personal challenges, such as 100 hand-fabricated chains.

By 2014, I was optimistic that over the next three years, I could continue working full-time as the director of a non-profit organization and save one year’s worth of salary from my jewelry sales, so that I could quit my job in 2017 with a year’s worth of income to fall back on (should my artist venture take time to generate any sort of substantial income). However, in August of that year, we lost our home and my art studio to a wildfire. We were overwhelmed with grief. Faced with the reality that we owned only what we were wearing that day, we realized that we could reinvent our wheel entirely, or we could take the opportunity to shrink our lifestyle and leap forward to grasp any opportunity that we’d previously bypassed because our lives were already too full. It was then that my husband encouraged me to quit my day job and finally pursue my dream of becoming an artist.

“Sunflowers end up facing the sun, but they go through a lot of dirt to find their way there.” – J.R. Rim

Completely bewildered, I knew it was important for me to find an inspiring, nurturing space filled with life and color. The vibrant YardFood greenhouse in Twisp, Washington was an obvious choice, but I wasn’t sure if the owner, Tess Hoke, would be open to the endless banging, sawing, grinding and pounding that would inevitably come from having a silversmithing studio in her serene space. I asked and, to my delight, she merely said, “Why don’t you swing by tomorrow, and we can talk about it.” And thank that rising phoenix, she said “yes.”

The greenhouse is an ideal space for my silversmithing studio. With abundant natural light and year-round plants growing in all corners, I have never experienced a lack of inspiration. The heated concrete floor complete with drain offers easy cleanup. I have garden access, so not only can I grow greens year-round, but I am able to recycle my gray water. Ventilation is excellent, which is a concern for most silversmiths setting up a studio. The construction is a work of art in itself, designed and built by Doug Potter of Shakitecture, using almost entirely recycled materials.

After the fire, my husband and I purchased a small home and, thankfully, I received a grant from CERF+ to help with the reinvestment in tools and equipment. I quit my job and dove headfirst into silversmithing. To say it was a challenging first year is an understatement. While juggling the logistics of home insurance, renewing passports, birth certificates, repurchasing clothes, home furnishings and getting ourselves back on our feet, I was struggling to find my voice as an artist. I couldn’t figure out how to set myself apart from the millions of other jewelry artists selling online, sharing their work on Etsy and Pinterest. We all seemed to be making similar pieces and pursuing the same market. Even though my work was selling, I went into debt. I entertained the idea of building a wholesale business but was daunted by the world of wholesale shows and bulk orders. I reached an impasse, and in the fall of 2015, I shut down my Etsy shop and Pinterest account and took several days off to hike, breathe and collect my thoughts.

While I was trail running it came to me—I was going to create botanicals out of silver. I had seen countless cast plants incorporated into jewelry designs but never had I seen hand-fabricated plant jewelry. To build the skill set required, I challenged myself to make 30 botanicals. I spent the next three months dissecting 30 different plants and recreating them in silver. By doing so, I improved my soldering skills, learned how to form and manipulate metal and discovered so many unconventional techniques, that my work caught the attention it needed to finally establish myself as an internationally recognized artist.

I have now been a full-time silversmith for five years. My dreams have grown to study and recreate unusual and endangered plant species in silver, allowing me to join the movement to educate others of their existence and the impact on our ecosystem. In addition, I hope to continue traveling widely to teach and inspire aspiring silversmiths, sharing the message that it is, in fact, possible to make a comfortable living as an artist.

I have always dreamed of being an artist. People regularly told me, however, that to make a living as an artist, I would have to teach art or have a second, more prominent job to generate income until my art was discovered. Even when I was discovered, however, there was no guarantee a salary would be consistent or sustainable, so it was a risky profession. As a result, I earned my undergraduate degree in sociology and studio art, anticipating a lifetime of balancing both.

Throughout my life, I traveled extensively, volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger and West Africa and returned to the US to earn my graduate degree in art therapy and mental health counseling. I worked for almost 15 years managing social service programs and directing non-profit organizations, all the while dabbling in a variety of art forms and doing what I could to feed my thirst for a creative outlet, hoping to solve the puzzle of becoming a successful and thriving full-time artist.

Nicole Ringgold Portrait
Photograph by Sol Gutierrez.

Every day I enter my studio to find new inspiration: a dragonfly, butterfly, croaking frog, ladybug or one of my plethora of plants.

When we built our home in 2009, my husband and I incorporated art throughout including glass and stone mosaics, an elaborate mural in my daughter’s bedroom and another one on our pantry door. I drilled holes through river rocks I had collected to create all of our cabinet knobs. When the house was complete, I continued to drill (much smaller) rocks and taught myself how to wire wrap jewelry. My daily life balance included being a wife, mother, non-profit director, homeowner, gardener, outdoor enthusiast, and suddenly, a determined yet entirely naïve jewelry artist.

In 2011, I opened an Etsy store, my first step in online sales. For the next three years, I sold jewelry through Etsy and local galleries. I slowly expanded gallery support from my small town, from eastern to western Washington, and surrounding states. With the income from my jewelry sales, I purchased my first torch and eventually managed to furnish a studio with basic silversmithing tools and equipment. Every day after work, dinner and debriefing with my family, I would retreat to my studio to work late into the evening, teaching myself new techniques with the torch and tools I had acquired. Without any instruction, I learned through making mistakes and giving myself personal challenges, such as 100 hand-fabricated chains.

By 2014, I was optimistic that over the next three years, I could continue working full-time as the director of a non-profit organization and save one year’s worth of salary from my jewelry sales, so that I could quit my job in 2017 with a year’s worth of income to fall back on (should my artist venture take time to generate any sort of substantial income). However, in August of that year, we lost our home and my art studio to a wildfire. We were overwhelmed with grief. Faced with the reality that we owned only what we were wearing that day, we realized that we could reinvent our wheel entirely, or we could take the opportunity to shrink our lifestyle and leap forward to grasp any opportunity that we’d previously bypassed because our lives were already too full. It was then that my husband encouraged me to quit my day job and finally pursue my dream of becoming an artist.

“Sunflowers end up facing the sun, but they go through a lot of dirt to find their way there.” – J.R. Rim

Completely bewildered, I knew it was important for me to find an inspiring, nurturing space filled with life and color. The vibrant YardFood greenhouse in Twisp, Washington was an obvious choice, but I wasn’t sure if the owner, Tess Hoke, would be open to the endless banging, sawing, grinding and pounding that would inevitably come from having a silversmithing studio in her serene space. I asked and, to my delight, she merely said, “Why don’t you swing by tomorrow, and we can talk about it.” And thank that rising phoenix, she said “yes.”

The greenhouse is an ideal space for my silversmithing studio. With abundant natural light and year-round plants growing in all corners, I have never experienced a lack of inspiration. The heated concrete floor complete with drain offers easy cleanup. I have garden access, so not only can I grow greens year-round, but I am able to recycle my gray water. Ventilation is excellent, which is a concern for most silversmiths setting up a studio. The construction is a work of art in itself, designed and built by Doug Potter of Shakitecture, using almost entirely recycled materials.

After the fire, my husband and I purchased a small home and, thankfully, I received a grant from CERF+ to help with the reinvestment in tools and equipment. I quit my job and dove headfirst into silversmithing. To say it was a challenging first year is an understatement. While juggling the logistics of home insurance, renewing passports, birth certificates, repurchasing clothes, home furnishings and getting ourselves back on our feet, I was struggling to find my voice as an artist. I couldn’t figure out how to set myself apart from the millions of other jewelry artists selling online, sharing their work on Etsy and Pinterest. We all seemed to be making similar pieces and pursuing the same market. Even though my work was selling, I went into debt. I entertained the idea of building a wholesale business but was daunted by the world of wholesale shows and bulk orders. I reached an impasse, and in the fall of 2015, I shut down my Etsy shop and Pinterest account and took several days off to hike, breathe and collect my thoughts.

While I was trail running it came to me—I was going to create botanicals out of silver. I had seen countless cast plants incorporated into jewelry designs but never had I seen hand-fabricated plant jewelry. To build the skill set required, I challenged myself to make 30 botanicals. I spent the next three months dissecting 30 different plants and recreating them in silver. By doing so, I improved my soldering skills, learned how to form and manipulate metal and discovered so many unconventional techniques, that my work caught the attention it needed to finally establish myself as an internationally recognized artist.

I have now been a full-time silversmith for five years. My dreams have grown to study and recreate unusual and endangered plant species in silver, allowing me to join the movement to educate others of their existence and the impact on our ecosystem. In addition, I hope to continue traveling widely to teach and inspire aspiring silversmiths, sharing the message that it is, in fact, possible to make a comfortable living as an artist.