As a graduate student in metal at Arizona State University, Katie Poterala found herself questioning the meaning of value – including the value of her own making.
“I wanted to reject the traditional notions of jewelry, like carats and precious metals,” says Poterala, 28, who returned to her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, to establish a studio after she graduated in 2012. “I wanted the pieces to look like they were in a state of decay." She wanted stones to “seem like growths or parasites instead of the focal point.” To achieve that look, she tapped into childhood memories of outdoor explorations, family snorkeling trips, and a fascination with sunken artifacts.
“In my mind I had all these images of fungus and lichen and underwater scenes, especially from shipwrecks.”
Indeed, her earrings, necklaces, and rings appear as if they could have been unearthed from a steamer trunk resting on the bottom of an ocean floor, their oxidized copper surfaces hinting at a former life of glamour. Many are empty vessels, giving the impression that stones once inside have tumbled out, while others contain a seemingly scattershot array of misshapen gems, as if they’ve broken loose over time.
Poterala achieves her surface effects by combining patina and powder coating, the latter a technique she learned from metal artist Michael Dale Bernard at a workshop at Arizona State.
It’s usually sprayed on using static electricity for a very industrial look, she says, but she has devised her own process and instead applies it in stages and layers. “I realized I could be very intuitive with it. I started experimenting with how thick I could get it on and how I could even make it drip.”
She adds to the distressed look by melting down some of the edges, sometimes combining that with cutting and etching.
“I’ll make these perfect bezels and spend more time making them look not perfect,” she says with a laugh. “In a way I’m making things look badly crafted. There’s such a delicate line there. I have to have enough parts that feel perfectly done and look just right. Otherwise, it’s either a big, sloppy mess or it looks too clean.”
Poterala works out of an industrial office trailer across from her father’s metal fabrication shop, but she didn’t start out following him into metal. She originally was interested in drawing and attended a visual arts high school.
“I’d never done anything three-dimensional and became really drawn to that, mostly in ceramics. When my teachers encouraged me to try metalwork, at first I wasn’t interested because it seemed so normal to me. But I thought, OK, I’ll try it. And as soon as I did, I felt so comfortable working with the materials, and I was just hooked.”
As demand for Poterala’s jewelry grows, she struggles to find a balance between production work and one-off pieces.
“I’ve had to take my more sculptural concepts and make them more salable,” says Poterala, whose work is carried in several contemporary art galleries. “Since I’ve been out of college, my main goal was to set up the studio, be able to produce, and be able to make a living. My end goal is to find time to make one-of-a-kind conceptual pieces.”
One of her memorable creations, part of her master’s thesis show, were “jewelry mirrors,” which featured strategically affixed sculptural adornments.
“When you walk up to the mirror, it looks like you’re wearing the necklace,” she explains. “People loved doing it. I constantly think of it, so I don’t think I’m finished with that.”