Heidi Abrahamson is the owner and metalsmith at Heidi Abrahamson Modern Jewelry
Heidi, In your digital life, you tie together a lot of modern furniture, fashion, jewelry and amazing other finds…along with an impressive amount of cat images. Your jewelry though stands out. I suppose that is because that is at your core. Why do you do what you do?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve had the drive to make things, to create. Whether it was sitting in my room endless hours working with beads and wires, making flowers, mini perfume atomizers, necklaces, tiaras or working in my father’s wood shop making boats and, later working in my mother’s dental lab…I was always busy. Back in those days when children could be left alone, it’s what I did. Every weekend, I rearrange my room. I wanted to be a painter and studied art at Indiana University, along with dance and music. I went three years, failed miserably at painting and was so intimidated by the math credits I still had to earn that I quit. I was even told by a therapist that I was ‘math phobic”. I don’t sleep, I lay awake trying to figure out how things would go together. Is that the left brain or the right? For over twenty years I worked in Visual Merchandising and Display in fashion. I was a stylist for fashion shows, as well and it was the same thought process. I miss that. It was when I screwed up my cervical spine that I had to figure out what to to next.
Wow! What was the impetus of it all?
My parents were antique dealers, on the side along with their other full time jobs. I suppose I had to find ways to keep myself busy and I certainly did. My mother specialized in jewelry and textiles and my father in hard goods and glass. They would travel on weekends searching every corner in the midwest, from Illinois to Tennessee. They did antique shows in Chicago to Nashville and in between. There, of course was no internet at the time, so free time was spent researching books and talking to other dealers. I went with them everywhere. They liked art and architecture. I remember driving along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and my father would point out the Mies Van der Rohe building and I would think “Can’t we stop and look?!”. They were always in a hurry. We did get to cruise by all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park, though. Oh, and growing up near Columbus, Indiana, the one place in the world where so many architects represent their work!
The things I got to see! Silk oriental rugs, gold chalices, there are so many beautiful things in the world. I drank it all in. At the shows of upward to 250 dealers, I had free range to wander and admire. I was well behaved, I have to say, in my wanderings, dealers would explain things to me, I’d get to draw on their tissue paper that was used for wrapping the next item sold, I was given little gifts of coins, demitasse cups that I collected. I had so much fun. It was a lot of hard work for my parents, searching and researching, pricing and packing, unpacking and displaying. They even won awards for having the best display. They even had a couple of shops, I got to help with waiting on customers, displaying and cleaning.
With all the antiques came a never ending supply of stuff, like broken jewelry to play with. I still have some of those pieces. Like I said, I had plenty to keep myself occupied and out of trouble.
It took some time to realize how lucky I am to have been able to experience all that I had. No schooling could have taught me all that. In the early 70’s, my mother started collecting and selling modernist jewelry. That’s when it all really began. After my neck surgery, I was pouring over pieces that I had collected, Ed Levin, designers for Georg Jensen, Kalo, all the Scandinavian pieces were the best, I thought to myself “Why can’t I do this?”. It was then that I decided to take a basic jewelry making class for $50.00 at the Mining Museum in Phoenix. That was the start of it all.
That’s quite a journey! You’ve created a wonderful career doing something that, for your entire lifetime, you are passionate about. Not so much a question, more of an observation. Thoughts?
Can I just tell you first, how grateful I am that I can do this?!
I started ten years ago, I’ll be 60 the end of next month, so I consider myself a late bloomer. I can’t even tell you how fortunate I feel. I never would have guessed I’d come this far. I certainly didn’t expect it. I was just following my heart and what I love to do. Luck? Perhaps, but I’m sure not going to question it. I suppose, yes, it was familial, growing up with it and all.
10 years and you’re such an inspiration to so many people. That is humbling. Your talent and eye for design are really impeccable. What would you say is your most powerful tool in coming up with design ideas? How did you identify that technique or tool?
I don’t know if I have identified it. My sight, seeing inspiration everywhere. Insomnia? It never stops. Sometimes I’ll see a new design in lighting and I think, “That shape would look good around my neck.”. I have a love for Industrial furniture, say Warren McArthur, all that tubing. It’s wonderful. I love Architecture, when the phrase “Architecture for the Body” was coined by Brigitte and Andre of Flow Modern Design Gallery in Palm Springs, well, I’m still so humbled and flattered by that. That is the ultimate compliment!
I push myself in developing new designs. I’ve pretty much stopped working with stones. When I work with a stone, it’s the focus, the piece has to be then, built around that stone. I feel limited. I’ve always wanted to do sculpture and concentrating on just metal, achieves that goal for me. The possibilities are endless. I find, too, if I over think, the design goes wrong. I have to walk away, I have to trust myself, which has been difficult. I love my mother, but she was extremely critical, nothing I did was good enough. It’s been a lifetime of trying to please, it’s still a struggle. When I would get a compliment on a piece, I’d point out a mistake or some sort of self deprecation would fall out of my mouth. It’s been difficult just to shut up and say “Thank you!”. I’m still learning, not only to deal with that, but in my work. There is still so much to learn. I love that process. My books are a tremendous inspiration, like Marbeth Schon’s “Modernist Jewelry 1930 – 1960″ and ” Form and Function American Modernist Jewelry, 1940 – 1970″. Marbeth was an incredible woman. I met her at the show she curated in tandem with her book “Form and Function”. It was then she started carrying my work in her gallery. THAT was the ultimate compliment of my work. I mean, this woman has seen it all! I learned so much from her website modernsilver.com. She wrote an article about me that was published on that website, it made me cry. To be included in the category of some of the great metal Modernists, it was almost too much for me. Marbeth passed away last year, a huge loss. She was a mentor and a driving force.
I collect vintage books and magazines from the 40’s through the 60’s. When I have a creative block, I can always count on Marbeth’s words of encouragement and my books to push me forward.
I’m really sorry for your loss of a mentor. That can be a devastating experience. Here’s your chance to mentor all of us: If someone were to come up to you and ask you how to get started in creating amazing things, what advice would you give them?
Be true and kind to yourself. Mistakes are a part of the learning and creative process. Be inspired and don’t plagiarize. Take constructive criticism. Take a look at the source of criticism….analyze that criticism carefully. Then take it to heart.
Open your eyes and be observant of everything.
Don’t over complicate, but challenge yourself. Sometimes you just have to walk away a bit and revisit with fresh eyes.
All the equipment and supplies needed can be overwhelming, it doesn’t need to be. I started with the bare minimum, a saw and a plumber’s torch. Don’t be intimidated.
What sort of things do you look at to gather inspiration? Your recent Instagram posting of those earrings are amazing!
Thank you, very much!
All my books, etc. Working with metal, I wanted a contrast to the the silver, I went to the hardware store, which I love doing, and saw the brass tubes. I bought every size I could get my hands on, round, square and now, I find that limited. I’m going to have to make my own. Which I did in silver. I just found 7mm square silver tubing in the UK. I can’t even begin to tell you how exciting that is! I use to go with my dad to the hardware store. Already then I built little things. At Indiana University, I did go back to school for Interior Design and the best part of it for me was building models. I made miniature light fixtures out of a frosted beads and black rubber washers. I enjoyed building the models more than anything else. I’d be happy doing that for a living, if I could.
The earrings came accidentally when I had a small piece of tubing laying there. I guess that’s what I mean about not over thinking….keep it simple.
Having a hands on approach certainly works for you. Do you have a project or two that stand out among the rest that speak to you louder than the rest? Why those? Is there a special personal insight?
I’m working on a pair of wedding bands that will be cast 18kt gold with tiny black diamonds. When I first started silversmithing, I thought that I would be doing more casting, it was what I was most familiar with because of my mother’s dental lab. She used to do casting for a goldsmith in Brown County, Indiana an artist colony that we use to visit quite often. There were lots of antique shops there, as well as galleries. I found that fabrication was more conducive to clean and architectural designs. My clients wanted something more organic. Working in wax is such a different process compared to the immediate gratification of fabricating. It takes time and a steady hand, a calm careful hand. I found it to be somewhat of a ‘zenful’ experience. I made the wax, had it cast in sterling as a prototype. I then did some more finishing and refining. I’m inspired to do more work in this way, working in wax. I think it would be good for me, being rather nervous and neurotic.
What is you design maxim or mantra?
I know, I know…sorry to spring that on you.
“You can do this.” I don’t know, I’ve not given thought to that. If I can get to the studio and sit at my workbench, that’s an accomplishment just on it’s own. Having spinal issues, I couldn’t have picked a dumber profession. It’s hard on my neck. Working for myself I’m lucky to be in charge and pace myself. Some days, after a long time at the bench, I have to stop and take a day off. I hate that part, it’s frustrating. So, yeah, “You can do this!” is the best I’ve got. My need to create is my kick in the a*s.
What sort of cool projects are you working on these days that you can share that you are particularly proud of that reflects this maxim?
Palm Springs Modernism Week is in mid February. I’ve got to get pieces done for the gallery there and for my 1st dibs rep, The Lisa Cliff Collection, who always has a booth at the Modernism Show at the convention center. Also, locally, Phoenix General is opening March 1st, they’ll be expecting a collection of my work. If I stop and think about it, it makes me nervous, but I work well under pressure and I can do this.
Lisa Cliff is an amazing woman who knows more about the Modernists and her collection is museum worthy. I’m her first contemporary artist to be added to that monumental collection.
Thanks so so much for taking some time today to talk with us today Heidi!
Are you a professional 3D artist or designer? I’d love to talk with you about your work! Reach out to me here and maybe you, too, will be featured in the ProTalk!