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JoAnn Graham : The Art of a Silversmith

story by Emily Burgess     photos by Susan DeLoach

There are piles of things all around. Sticks covered in dried moss, branches of ferns, wax, hammers and pieces of jewelry in their beginning stages of development in a makeshift garage studio. “Organized chaos” is what she calls it and it is indicative of the artist’s mind that she possesses. She knows where each thing is and over time works to bring them to life as wearable art. JoAnn Graham, an unlikely silversmith, but one who is making her name known in the lowcountry.

     Graham began her art in silversmithing in 2004. She works with sterling, fine, and argentium silver, gold and steel to create unique and individual wearable art jewelry. All of her pieces are hand-fabricated, form-folded, forged and texturized.

     She received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro in 1988.  Modeling the dance programs that had been so successful in North Carolina schools, Graham helped implement dance programs across the state of South Carolina as the first dance consultant for the State Department of Education of South Carolina.

     After years of serving, a hip replacement and back injury forced her to retire on disability. Graham had no intention of sitting idly once she healed and knew that she had to find a creative outlet.

     A friend gave her a brochure, which spurred her to attend the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Penland School of Arts and Crafts, Joseph Campbell, Sawtooth School for the Visual Arts in 2005. She later received her welding certification from the Technical College of the Lowcountry in 2011 where she studied with Michael Goode, Betty Helen Longhi, Ben Dyer and Chris Nelson.

     Everything she makes starts as flat pieces of sterling silver or wire. Graham finds inspiration from things she discovers in nature. With equipment like a crucible and kiln, she casts a mold of an object and eventually turns it into a piece of jewelry. Each and every piece she makes is truly a one-of-a-kind piece that can’t be exactly replicated making her collection unique.

     In true organized chaos form, Graham is working on anywhere from five to six pieces at one time. She creates a mold for one and hammers another, while placing the finishing touches on an additional piece. She will spend four or five days doing this before completing each distinct piece.

     Pins, bangles, cuffs with bamboo etched into the shiny metal, necklaces fired and manipulated into intricate links, earrings cast from the resurrection fern leaves found in downtown Beaufort. Graham’s jewelry is stunning to see in person and even more so after you understand the intense process it takes to create.

     “I choreograph in sterling silver,” says Graham. Her pieces are very abstract and she doesn’t like symmetry. She brings movement and fluidity to her work that stems from her dance background.  “It’s art. I made sure that was on my website. It’s wearable art.”

     Graham claims to be a terrible salesperson when it comes to marketing her jewelry, but she is passionate that those viewing or purchasing her pieces understand and feel the depth of what her pieces express in their own art form. She may have started out in dance and her medium may now be different, but it is all connected; it is all a creative expression of the person doing it.

     Making jewelry may have begun as a creative outlet that was meant to keep her mind and body agile in retirement, but as she learned, and fabricated jewelry it was evident that it could morph into more. Five years ago is when she says she got serious about her work and serious about making JoAnn Graham Collections successful.

     A huge aspect of making her collection successful includes more medial tasks such as creating and updating a website, marketing, ordering materials, keeping books and doing taxes. As exciting as these are in showing her success, it is also this that causes her the greatest obstacle. These tasks that are necessary for further accomplishment in her field, also take her away from time in her studio, her time creating and making and expressing herself through her art. Graham says that two-thirds of her time is spent on the behind the scenes tasks and only a third, actually spent constructing jewelry.

     “It is me, myself, and I,” Graham said. She is solely responsible for all things JoAnn Graham Collections including traveling to art shows and exhibitions throughout North and South Carolina and a few select shows in Georgia. She travels to between 7 and 15 shows a year and has had great success at them including placing first at Art in the Park in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2011 and again taking third place in 2013, as well as second place at Piccolo Spoleto last year.

     Her most recent show was the American Craft Show put on by the American Craft Council in Atlanta, Georgia, which is the biggest show she has done to date. Her next show is The Art Market at Historic Honey Horn in Hilton Head, South Carolina Saturday, April 30th through Sunday, May 1st.  Graham says that at every show she manages to find some connection back to Beaufort and the lowcountry. Whether it’s a person who resides in Beaufort or someone who knows someone in the lowcountry, she says it is so rewarding to continually find ties back to this place she loves.

     Graham originally moved to Beaufort County almost 24 years ago because she said it is where the best dance education programs were. Even after retirement, when she realized she could move anywhere, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the lowcountry.

     “I’m really lucky. I love the beach,” said Graham. Although, much of her inspiration for her pieces derives from nature, she says the nature specific to Beaufort and the lowcountry is what inspires her most. “I don’t find inspiration elsewhere like I do here. I’m always looking at different things, the shells, all sorts of things. You begin to view things with a different perspective which is why we have art.”

     Pieces from JoAnn Graham Collections can be purchased through her website, but Graham also offers private fittings and consultations in her home for those interested in her work. Additionally, her pieces will now be available at LaPetit Gallerie in Bluffton, South Carolina, as one of seven artists displayed.

     Graham is so passionate about creating and sharing her art of silversmithing that she will also be teaching classes at La Petit as a beginner’s introduction. Classes will begin April 1st and will be held the first Wednesday of each month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Additional days and times will be available upon request. Graham says ideal class sizes are anywhere from three to ten people. The class fee is $50 and each attendee leaves with the product they make.

     As for the future of JoAnn Graham Collections, Graham has no intention of stopping anytime soon. Despite the workload that is solely hers, the artist inside of her can’t retire.  She plans to ride this out as long as possible, even if that means quitting the shows and exhibitions and exclusively working on fabricating jewelry.

     She has big plans for her pieces. She desires to move her collection in a more abstract direction and combine the individual techniques she has learned over the years into single pieces. Mixing metals that have been forged with something that has been cast, she hopes to have more constructed pieces available, as well as trying new techniques such as tap and die to finish off her pieces.

     JoAnn Graham is an artist through and through. The end of her dance career was not the end of her art. Her hard work and desire to find a unique niche in the world of art has led to a beautiful and exquisite collection of jewelry that others can enjoy again and again. It is clear that Graham is making a name for herself as a silversmith in the lowcountry.

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