The State of Metalsmiths

Wilmington is home to some of North Carolina’s most acclaimed metal crafts people — a tradition that now spans the state        

By Emily Colin

North Carolina is known for its deep-rooted “maker” tradition, where crafting has risen from a traditional way of life to a finely honed art form. This is certainly true of metalsmithing, a field where an incredible community of designers has emerged over the past century — all dedicated to creating original, inspired personal adornment. The art has evolved, even as the tools of the trade — torches, hammers, pliers, anvils, files and roll mills — remain constant.

“One of the reasons that there’s such a rich tradition in the western part of the state is the craft movement that took place in the early 1900s,” says Melissa Manley, Wilmington metalsmith and Cape Fear Community College professor. Driven by economic initiatives, schools like “Arrowmont in Tennessee and Penland in the (N.C.) Blue Ridge supported local people by educating children and giving trades to adults, like jewelry making,” explains Manley. Penland School of Crafts (est. 1929) — northwest of Asheville — was at the epicenter. “(Students) wanted to learn from the finest people in the field, and (Penland) kept those fires stoked.”

Penland still thrives today, offering multidisciplinary workshops led by a rotating faculty. Asheville metalsmith Joanna Gollberg took her first-ever class at Penland, which “really changed the course of my life.” She is now an instructor there. “It’s a small community and everyone’s making something. Everyone’s supportive, and it’s a beautiful environment in terms of learning and sharing.” Though an anchor for the state’s tradition, Penland doesn’t offer a degree program.

North Carolina’s eastern stronghold, East Carolina University’s School of Art and Design, was forged in 1962, bringing the state’s tradition to the coast and refining it. ECU offers both B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs. Celebrated instructors and internationally acclaimed artists Linda Darty and Robert Ebendorf helped shape an entire generation of metalsmiths, many of whom settled south in Wilmington post graduation. Ebendorf has retired, but Darty founded and directs ECU’s study abroad intensive in Certaldo, Italy.

Another ECU professor, the late John Satterfield, played a seminal role in teaching several of the metalsmiths featured in this piece, such as Wilmington’s Will Olney. “He intrigued me,” says Olney. “He had technical knowledge about everything. The way he constructed pieces, with mechanical, moving parts — it was steampunk before steampunk was cool.”

Goldsmith and designer Mary Ann Scherr’s role in shaping the metalsmithing scene — not just in North Carolina but in the field as a whole — cannot be overstated. Scherr passed away just last year, but lived in Raleigh and was a highly sought-after instructor, teaching at Penland, Raleigh Fine Arts and many others. A treasure beyond the Triangle, her work has been displayed in the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

Raleigh metalsmith Sarah Tector served as one of Scherr’s studio assistants and later helped to found a Triangle metalsmithing group in her honor. “It was just such a gift to know her. She was an inspiration as a woman and as a creative person,” says Tector. “And it wasn’t just metals. She was the first female designer at Ford Motor Company, she did extensive work in commercials and graphics, she designed clothing — some of her cookie jars wound up being things Andy Warhol loved. To be doing this, as a female, in times when it was such a struggle to get recognition was amazing.”

This small but formidable group of instructors blazed the trail for the thriving and diverse community of metalsmiths that calls our state home today. From seasoned metalsmiths to emerging artisans, gallery owners to college professors, here is a glimpse into the world of North Carolina’s metalsmiths — from our backyard to the hills.

Melissa Manley, Wilmington

Author of Jewelry Lab: 52 Experiments, Investigations and Explorations in Metal

Melissa Manley hails from ECU. She earned her M.F.A. in metal design and studied under Bob Ebendorf. “He influenced a generation,” she says. “He was one of five people that started the studio metalsmith movement in the U.S. . .  . He was one of the first people to take junk and make jewelry out of it.

“I’ve always been obsessed with personal adornment and collected jewelry,” says Manley, who was inspired to expand her artistic repertoire to metalsmithing at the suggestion of local pottery instructor Hiroshi Sueyoshi and fellow artist Michael Van Hout. One class at Tennessee’s Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts — and she was hooked.

“I’m just kind of a frustrated anthropologist or archaeologist. Pattern plays a big role in what I do, and rich surface designs just make me drool,” Manley says. “I want my work to look like contemporary artifacts of unknown origin.”

She believes purchasing a piece of jewelry in person forges a bond between artist and client. “Jewelry is so intimate, that’s why it’s so interesting. We’re obsessed with expressing ourselves, finding ourselves, obsessing again . . . I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

Will Olney, Wilmington

Will Olney travels the art festival circuit, selling work at 30 festivals per year. North Carolina festivals may include Cary Spring Daze in Bond Park, Raleigh’s Artsplosure, Blowing Rock Art in the Park and Biltmore Village Art Show.

“The lifestyle is the most appealing thing,” says Olney, who specializes in a technique called cloisonné enameling. “With the art festival circuit, you get to meet so many different people from different communities and backgrounds. It’s a good way to get a concentrated customer base.”

Olney’s interest in metalsmithing has its roots in his childhood. His grandfather was a ship fitter, and his father inherited a huge metal toolbox, full of oversized tools meant to build and repair World War II vessels. “When I was a kid, before video games or even cable, you did things outdoors and in sheds and garages,” Olney says. “And part of my entertainment was this toolbox of metalsmithing paraphernalia.”

Olney experimented with his grandfather’s tools, melting metal and creating pendants that he gave away to friends. His high school guidance counselor took note and suggested that he take a metalsmithing class at a nearby community college. Years later, undecided on a career, Olney would remember how much he loved this class and go on to earn his B.F.A. in metal design from ECU. Today, the color palette he prefers incorporates blues and greens, inspired by the coastal setting he calls home.

Mitzy Jonkheer, Wilmington

Jonkheer Jewelry & Cicada Metals, 4410 Wrightsville Ave.

Metalsmith Mitzy Jonkheer intended to be an English major. While a freshman at ECU, she wanted to melt down a gold necklace to have a ring made for her mother as a Christmas present. She turned to the phone book. “I thought I was going to a jeweler, but when I got to the shop, I discovered the woman was actually a metalsmith . . . I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Jonkheer studied under both Darty and Satterfield. In 1993, after graduation, she opened the Bauhaus gallery in downtown Wilmington with fellow metalsmith Sarah Tector. Since then, she has run her own studios, sold work to galleries across the state, and taught emerging metalsmiths of all ages, including students at DREAMS of Wilmington, an arts program dedicated to serving youth in need. Her business grew alongside Wilmington’s burgeoning movie industry, and over the years her pieces were featured in One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, The Secret Life of Bees, and Safe Haven.

Today, Jonkheer finds inspiration in poetry, literature and nature. From beautiful turns of phrase inscribed on the back of a poetry cuff to delicately carved bird pendants and the intricate impressions of a cicada wing pressed in silver, Jonkheer’s work is, in her own words, “classic, timeless and earthy.”

For Jonkheer, the personal connection with her clients is paramount, especially for custom work like wedding rings. “The ring is worn on the finger that goes straight to the heart,” she says. Her work often has a heart hidden on the back of it. “I keep up with what’s in style, but the things I create come from my head and my heart.”

Hsiang-Ting Yen, Raleigh

Hsiang-Ting Yen was an undergraduate business administration student in Taiwan when inspiration struck. “My parents were afraid ‘you’ll starve yourself if you become an artist.’ I studied business, so I’d definitely have a job when I graduated. But I wasn’t happy,” Yen says. Then, an end-of-semester metalsmithing show at her university transformed her perspective.

Yen went on to attend Savannah College of Art and Design, graduating with an M.A. in metals and jewelry and an M.F.A. in jewelry and objects in 2012. Now living in Raleigh, she participates in the Triangle’s monthly get-togethers founded in honor of Mary Ann Scherr.

“Right now, my business’s main strengths are custom designs, craft shows and wholesale,” Yen says. She loves revealing the end result of a custom design — it’s “like a kid opening a candy box.”

In a departure from earlier nature-inspired influences, today Yen leans “more toward geometric and sculptural forms. I love Art Deco, the Art Nouveau era — I like how they interpret the design and the color.”

Ndidi Kowalczyk, Raleigh

Ndidi Kowalczyk earns her living as a metalsmith, but her formal education wasn’t in metalsmithing — it was in textile design. “I marry what I know about textiles, how fabric and colors work, to create really beautiful pieces of art,” she says. “I’ve taken a lot of extension classes with people like Mary Ann Scherr and at the Pullen Arts Center.”

The supportive nature of the all-walks-of-life Triangle metalsmithing scene has been instrumental in Kowalczyk’s success. “Sometimes you’ll feel that if you’re in a particular field but haven’t learned in proscribed ways, they won’t accept you. But the metalsmithing community in the Triangle is very open and welcoming.”

Most recently, Kowalczyk has been focused on the technique of enameling. “I love the aspect of being able to paint with powder. The enamel is so varied in what it can do and be.”

Today, Kowalczyk’s career is a blend of online and in-store sales (locally at Cicada Metals), teaching at The Crafts Center at NC State University, and a growing body of custom work. “I’ve just started a pendant series where I layer enameled pieces together and build them so that they’re more three-dimensional,” she says. “They bring me a lot of joy.”

Sarah Tector, Raleigh

Raleigh-based metalsmith Sarah Tector lived and worked in Wilmington for about 15 years, founding a gallery with Jonkheer. “When Mitzy and I were first out of school, it was a hustle and a scramble,” says Tector. The two attended ECU together, where Tector graduated with a B.F.A. in art education, concentrating in metal design. At first enrolled in the sculpture program, Tector happened into a metal design class by accident — one that would shape her career. 

Tector’s livelihood incorporates craft shows, in-store sales, teaching and creating custom pieces.

“All my income comes from being an artist. I love working with clean, geometric and architectural forms — lots of circles, squares, ovals, triangles, playing with negative space. There’s a modern, minimalist look. Right now, I’m working with bold red and yellow pieces, mostly out of aluminum sheet metal, scoring, folding and shaping it into a three-dimensional shape.”

Joanna Gollberg, Asheville

Joanna Gollberg, a self-described “gemstone addict,” has been making jewelry since she was 13 years old. “My grandmother (a former enamellist) used to organize a sale at her church, and she was always in charge of the jewelry,” Gollberg says. “She would get donations from people and if there was a bunch of stuff that was unsalvageable, she would take it apart and I’d make it into things.” When Gollberg was 19, she inherited all of her grandmother’s enameling supplies and signed up for a class at Penland. “I had never spent so much time doing one thing I enjoyed.”

Over the course of her career, Gollberg has experimented with many different approaches. After graduating from Warren Wilson College, she enrolled in a technique-based two-year jewelry design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Since then, she has published several books on metalsmithing techniques, including Making Metal Jewelry (Lark Books), has taught at Penland and elsewhere. “It’s immensely meaningful and satisfying for me to share what I know,” she says. “I’ve finally settled into doing what I want to do.” Her current line is driven by “gemstones — their colors and shapes,” and handcrafting the settings in which they sit.

Emily Colin is the author of The New York Times best-selling novel The Memory Thief and is former associate director of DREAMS of Wilmington. Her new novel, The Dream Keeper’s Daughter, debuts this summer from Ballantine Books.

Where to Learn

Cape Fear Community College, Wilmington.

East Carolina University*, Greenville.

Pocosin Arts, Columbia.

Cary Arts Center, Cary.

Pullen Arts Center, Raleigh.

The Crafts Center at NC State University, Raleigh.

Sawtooth School for Visual Art, Winston-Salem.

Haywood Community College*, Clyde.

John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown.

Penland School of Crafts

*degree program

Where to Shop in Wilmington

Blue Moon Gift Shops

203 Racine Drive,

Cameron Art Museum Gift Shop

3201 South 17th St.,

Edge of Urge

18 Market St.,

Jonkheer Jewelry & Cicada Metals

4410 Wrightsville Ave.,

Spectrum Fine Jewelry, 1125 Military Cutoff Road, Suite J

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