By Leah MatzkeFeatured in Make It Minnesota's Fall 2014 issue.
Just as the mythical Phoenix is given new life when enveloped in a burning flame, so is the copper jewelry of Phoenix Designs, created by artist Pamela Smith and springing to life with an array of stunning, naturally occurring colors.
Smith, who calls herself “the copper jewelry lady” is self-taught. She explains, “I just got myself some copper and played around until I came up with a method that works for me. I don’t know if my method is the same as others – probably similar. I do know that my stuff looks different from others I have seen.”
The unique nature of Smith’s work has been perfected over the years. “I’ve been making copper jewelry for over 18 years. The first pieces I produced we pretty ugly, but over time I improved.” she explained with a laugh. “You learn what works.”
Smith had worked with other mediums in the past, including leather and silver, but soon found copper to be an ideal medium for her jewelry.
“I love working with copper” Smith explained. “I love the heat aspect that creates such pretty colors…colors that are natural.”
Smith creates the basic form for her jewelry starting with copper and shaping it, either with a die cut or by hammering it to shape herself. When asked how she choose what shapes to make, Smith replied, “I like nature and so I just do what I like – picking shapes that are available. I am always looking for new shapes and also for what people ask me for. “
Smith’s favorite pieces are the leaves she makes. “Most of these are ones that I hammer and take all the way through the process myself,” said Smith.
Once the shape is created, she brings it to life with the touch of a flame from her jewelers torch. Smith explained her process like this, “It is like a painter choosing a different brush, I adjust the flame size by adjusting the gas mixture (oxygen & propane) which changes how the colors are created on the piece.”
When asked what the most challenging part of her process is Smith answered, “To get distinct colors – you need to be careful so you don’t end up with a muddy mix but with patterns that are bright and clear.”
Her work not only provides a challenge, but some nice rewards too, which Pamela pointed out by saying, “I just really enjoy making them. It is rewarding when customers come back year after year to a certain show and tell me about the number of compliments they have received. I love the feedback. It is good to make something that people actually can use and wear.”
Smith spends a good amount of time on the road selling her jewelry. “I travel to lots of craft shows and Renaissance Festivals throughout the year.” One of Smith’s favorite places to set up shop is at the Minnesota Renaissance festival in Shakopee, MN. “I like selling at the Renaissance fair because it gives me a break from all the travel. I have the same shop in a building for the full fair length. It is fun to be in character as well. Everyone at the fair is kind of playful.”
In addition to making colorful copper jewelry, Smith enjoys other metal arts. “I have a new technique I am working on involving both copper and bronze – I melt bronze on the copper and it creates a lichen on a rock like look. Smith added with a laugh, “I also do Bronze sculpture, it is my mental therapy and a whole different process.”
Smith also enjoys playing the drums, something she used to make and sell.
Smith’s closing thoughts encourage others to try new things and have fun, saying, “Even if you haven’t taken a class just get the materials and play around and see what happens. Just keep things playful and have fun.”