Precious Mettle

Precious Mettle

Tara Locklear portrait

Locklear’s Raleigh, North Carolina, home reflects her adventurous sense of style – plus her allegiance to tattoo and skateboard culture. With the artist are pals Leah and Roxanne. Photo: Bruce DeBoer

Forget gold and gems. Tara Locklear’s materials are on the fringe –  her jewelry, on the cutting edge.

The skateboarders who hang out at the Backdoor Skate Shop in Greenville, North Carolina, all know Tara Locklear. If they don’t know her name, they know what she does, which is turn fragments of skateboard into audacious jewelry: brooches and necklaces and earrings and bracelets that radiate the free-spirited soulfulness and in-your-face attitude of skater life.  

So they give her their spent or broken boards to use for her raw material. Maybe it’s the first board they ever owned, the one they were riding when they won that competition, or one they covered with angry, nihilistic scrawls at a painful time. More than a piece of sports gear or a means of transportation, these are deeply personal items. Locklear gets that, and it’s why the skaters entrust these precious objects to her, to break up and compose into unique sculptural adornments. Just do something cool with it, they’ll say. 

“A board holds so much history for each individual rider,” says the artist, who now lives and works in Raleigh. “They can tell you the time and place they first bought it, why the graphic is special to them. It’s part of their history, like your grandmother’s ring, or your mother’s gold chain, or your father’s cuff link.” 

Seven layers of maple make up a skateboard, which typically is black on top where the rider stands, with screen-printed or sometimes handpainted decoration on the underside. Over its lifetime a board will collect scuffs, dents, and scratches, which to Locklear represent layers of memory and meaning.

“When skaters are riding on a ramp or sidewalk, or over a bench, or they’re kicking flips down to the end of the street, that surface is getting marked up, which creates this history,” she says. As beautiful as many of the original graphic designs are, she adds, the marks give them a singular character. “You couldn’t replicate it by hand if you tried. It’s natural street graffiti, all by the way they ride that board. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. And it is stunningly cool.”

“Street” maybe best describes Locklear’s jewelry, in more ways than one. Cement, the stuff of pavements, is her other favorite material (it’s surprisingly lightweight), and she often combines it with skateboard – a natural pairing. Using traditional jewelry methods such as casting, metal fabrication, and enameling, she gives all manner of non-precious materials (steel, cubic zirconia, glass bits) the precious treatment, transforming them into luxury items. She also uses exotic hardwoods with the skateboards “to tell a color story or combine textures.”

One of her inspirations is the cheap but inventive and “amazingly well-engineered” costume jewelry of the 1940s and ’50s. Another is the flash and grandeur of hip-hop music videos of the 1980s and ’90s, starring the likes of Missy Elliott, Monie Love, and Eric B. and Rakim. “It had such power,” she says of their over-the-top, bling’ed-out style. “Queen Latifah always had this vibrant, colorful, fun, political presence – like, bam!” 

Locklear is 43 but seems younger – and not just because of her tattoos and playfully edgy fashion sense, which tends toward loose, modern cuts, funky shoes, and of course, rad jewelry. There’s a youthful energy and enthusiasm about her, especially when she talks about materials and making, passions that only recently became her full-time occupation after years working in the corporate world. As she puts it, “I’m constantly saying I found joy later in life.” 

Not that her childhood wasn’t, as she says, “great and normal.” The daughter of a machinist and a schoolteacher, Locklear grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and is a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe. Her huge extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins would get together several times a week – for supper on Wednesday, go-kart racing at the dirt track on Saturday night, and dinner on Sunday after church. 

Every summer, Locklear would spend two weeks on her grandparents’ farm, gathering eggs, shelling peas, and tying tobacco bundles, among other chores. She became keenly attuned to the way things looked and felt, like how corn silk had to be a certain color for the corn to be ripe. (Now, as an artist, “I’m constantly looking at those little nuances of material,” she says.) In the kitchen, she learned tactile sensitivity by cooking with her grandmother, who was partially blind. “She’d say, ‘Tara, this doesn’t feel right, you have to knead that dough a little more.’ Her recipes were a handful of this, a fingerful of that. It was all about a sense of touch.” 

At home, she picked up similar cues from her father, a builder and fixer. “He did everything with his hands,” she says. “I’d watch my dad feel around to where the bolts were, to know exactly which one he had to unscrew to change the oil.” She liked hanging out with him in his backyard workshop. “He’d hand me a hammer, some nails, and wood, and be like, entertain yourself. I’d make a stool or a lamp.” 

After high school, Locklear attended East Carolina University, in Greenville, but left after 18 months. From waiting tables, she worked her way up to management positions with several corporations in the hospitality industry. She blossomed as an event planner and loved creating an experience through a visual aesthetic, with candles, flowers, and color. She enjoyed thinking outside the box: Instead of a banquet hall, why not a boat cruise, with a chef and fine wines? “I was never afraid to push boundaries,” she says. “My job was to make things happen. I loved bringing a vision to life.” 

After more than a decade, though, she was no longer happy in a corporate environment. So she quit and re-enrolled at East Carolina University in the School of Art and Design, intent on pursuing some sort of design career, ideally one that involved handwork. Jewelry clicked for her. “I started cutting metal and making cool things. It opened up something inside of me.”

In her 30s by then and eager to experiment, Locklear quickly established herself as that student who always wanted to try something different. It was in a jewelry class that she first got the urge to cast cement in a mold. “I thought, if you can cast metal, what else can you cast in a liquid form? That’s where my brain goes.” 

One of her professors was Robert Ebendorf, a neighbor she’d known casually, unaware of his renown as a metalsmith and jeweler. (“I had no idea. I remember going home and looking Bob up on the internet and being blown away.”)

“Tara was a wild card, very forward-thinking,” Ebendorf recalls. “She had this spark, an insightful curiosity about material culture. Whether it was wood or wire or feathers or sparkles, she would think how to creatively bring an idea into form.”

Her early work was “bold and loud,” Locklear says, expressions of her lingering disillusionment with corporate culture. “It became my therapy, for understanding why I was so angry.” While in school, she started getting tattoos, and, to pay the bills, took a job managing a tattoo parlor. A few doors down was the skate shop, whose denizens regularly mixed with the tattoo crowd. “I was discovering this world and community of people outside of the corporate norm,” she says, and she liked it. In the skater underground, she found a metaphor for freedom and nonconformity – and a breakthrough for her art. “It resonated with a lot of ways I felt about jewelry. Instead of using a diamond or ruby or sapphire, I could make the biggest faceted skateboard gem and set it on a ring.”

While she’s feeling pretty content these days, Locklear continues to push herself creatively. For a recent show at Reinstein/Ross exploring the crossover of street art and art jewelry, Locklear collaborated with Vexta, a self-taught artist from Australia. After phototransferring Vexta’s paintings onto enameled steel plates, they paired them with Locklear’s skateboard pieces and designs to create bold earrings, brooches, and neckpieces.

When not in her studio at the townhouse she shares with her husband and their two dogs, Locklear is often out in the field, taking part in professional events such as the Society of North American Goldsmiths conference and American Craft Council shows. Ever the organizer, she has co-curated several group shows, among them 2013’s well-received “Monochrome Noir” at the San Francisco gallery Velvet da Vinci.

“Tara is excited to bring everybody into the spotlight,” observes Ebendorf, who is glad to see her using her considerable charisma and people skills to promote art jewelry. “She’s kind of this new rock star, giving service to our field, one of those up-and-coming voices we hope will carry the movement forward,” he says. “She’s fresh, and she’s a leader.” For Locklear, engaging with fellow makers is not only fun, it’s essential. “You’re part of this beautiful community of fine craft that is more far-reaching than just the object you make.”  

If her work shows us anything, it’s that jewelry can be unorthodox and still valuable, street yet glamorous. Skateboards, a girl’s new best friend?  

“You don’t have to wear Harry Winston, even though Harry Winston is beautiful,” Locklear says. “There is another option, for that person who wants to say something different.”