Erin Johnson’s passion for art and design came early and honestly. Her mother, an art education major at East Carolina University, taught her to sew and encouraged her creative streak.
Johnson doodled fashion designs as a child, sketching clothing lines starting around age 9. By age 12, she had a side business selling hair accessories she created using her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine.
She eventually took classes in costume design, design and draping, and accessories design through the theater department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She graduated with a degree in history, a nod to another of her passions, but art and design continued to call her.
After some research and thought, Johnson chose to pursue metalsmithing and jewelry design. Classes were accessible and less expensive, and the field was not as fiercely competitive as the fashion world.
“You hear a lot of negative feedback from it and very, very few actually succeeded,” says the 37-year-old Manteo native.
After years of study and practice, Johnson now crafts pieces under the moniker Erin Nicole Jewelry and has begun to gain recognition for her work.
But Johnson hasn’t forsaken fashion design, or history. One has to have an understanding of design basics to create jewelry, as well as clothing, and her love of history – personal, local, national and global – shows in her work. Having grown up in a natural wonderland reflects in her jewelry. Johnson is aware of the Native American history of her hometown, and Native American designs are stamped on cuffs she crafts. And, though labor intensive, she is drawn to old world metalsmithing techniques.
“I like to do things the hard way,” she says with a laugh. “I have always enjoyed the oldest, most classical jewelry techniques, such as forging and hammer work, stone setting and cold connections with rivets and wraps.”
Johnson, who currently lives in South Nags Head, has even made some of her tools. Notably, she made what are called chasing tools. Chasing is the method of striking an imprint with a tool on metal surfaces, which is featured in jewelry making in many cultures. She routinely uses a chasing hammer, a forming hammer and a goldsmith hammer. She primarily works with silver, but also with 14-karat gold fill. She has created designs and patterns such as a Native American sun and southwestern-style imprints.
Johnson insists on fashioning every piece of a jewelry design, even earring wires for a set of earrings, which easily could be purchased to save time.
“Some people use prefab pieces and assemble them,” she says. “I like to make the components myself.” Her way allows her to perfectly match those earring wires to the earrings so they are an integral part of the design. “I like to put my hands on everything,” she says.
Johnson handcrafts earrings, rings, necklaces and bracelets using sterling silver, rose gold fill and gold fill. She prefers the organic shapes of natural stones to faceted stones. Turquoise is one of her favorites, as it reminds her of the ocean. She soaks in the textures, shapes and color patterns of the coastline and local flora and fauna. Her designs are not literal translations, but more a feeling related to nature and space – the shapes she forms and the special properties of the stones she uses. She also pays homage to her inspirations by naming her pieces, such as “Lasso the Moon” for a pair of circular earrings with dangling golden strips that playfully move as the wearer does.
“I guess for me a lot of times there is a feeling, an essence of spirituality and astronomy in my work,” she says.
As a fan of modern American sculptor Alexander Calder, a master of mobiles, this makes sense, as many of his sculptures were kinetic and formed by a lot of hammering and forging. Johnson appreciates how he used shapes and colors to lend a feeling. “I want it to have presence like his work,” she says of her creations.
Johnson began her jewelry journey beading at Cloud Nine in Nags Head with Ginny Flowers. “But I always wanted to control the process more and create the components I needed for my designs, which makes so much sense as to why I still love the classic jewelry techniques that enable you to transform the metal and create the parts and pieces,” she says. She found a mentor when she enrolled in a metals boot camp at Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft in Columbia, which was taught by Marlene True.
“We dove into jewelry making, and I was hooked immediately with the jeweler’s saw and the hammers,” she says. “She brought in several artists from around the country, and we were exposed to so much in such a short amount of time. With Marlene, impossible wasn’t a word, until you had at least tried to make it work a couple of different ways.”
Having caught the metalsmithing bug, Johnson went on to achieve an associate degree in applied science in professional crafts: jewelry, from the College of The Albemarle, taught by Kathryn Osgood.
“We called her ‘sensei,’” Johnson says, referring to Osgood’s calm manner and ability to find solutions.
Osgood specializes in enameling, which is applying fine particles of glass to metal to add color, but she exposed Johnson to many artists and techniques.
“She strongly encouraged us to push the envelope and push ourselves to try things outside of our comfort zone,” Johnson says.
A year-and-a-half stint as a bench jeweler at Silver Bonsai Gallery in Manteo played a role in her education, as well. Working for Kathryn and Ben Stewart, who she greatly admires, found her hammering primarily wire at an anvil.
Johnson’s resume also includes doing gala fundraising and helping plan First Friday events at the Dare County Arts Council before going full-time as a metalsmith. The former bartender received a boost when she inherited a mass of tools after local artist Bonnie Morrill retired from making jewelry, including a kiln that’s needed in the enameling process.
Operating today as Erin Nicole Jewelry, Johnson looks forward to carving time to create fine art metalwork. She achieved an excellence award for her piece, “Sanctuary,” in one of the annual Mollie Fearing Memorial Art Shows hosted by the arts council. It was for a bird’s nest she fashioned out of brass and copper that held pearl bird’s eggs and a sterling silver heart.
“I hope I can make more detailed pieces,” she says. “I’d like to create one-of-a-kind (pieces) to display in a gallery like Marlene and Kathryn.”