Salem Artist Spotlight: Jeff Bowie, Steampunk Artist

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Jeff Bowie is a jewelry artist living in Salem with her husband and two teenage sons (“they help me do all the heavy lifting at craft shows”). Her unique, signature pieces composed of tiny mechanical watch parts, caught my eye at a recent opening at the Scarlett Letter Press. First, I was drawn to the “Steampunk” look– I’ve always liked that kind of Industrial-Revolution-meets-fantasy type aesthetic. Secondly, I loved the idea of deconstructing, and re-constructing into something beautiful and different. As a counselor, I particular liked the metaphor in her heart-shaped pendants: of looking at the “inner-workings” of the heart.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff in her studio and talk more about her work and motivations as a jewelry artist.

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Steampunk heart pendants

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Steampunk circle pendants

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Steampunk rectangular pendant

A little about Jeff’s background and history:

Someone once told Jeff: “While you make pretty jewelry and you are a good jewelry smith, what you really do best is build communities. You introduce people.” Judging from all the work she has done in the Salem arts community, I don’t doubt it.

Born “Jennifer”, her older sister, who was a toddler at the time, called her “Jeffiner” — soon everyone was calling her “Jeff” for short!

Originally from Western New York, Jeff got her degree in art history from the University of Rochester and then moved to Massachusetts to work for “corporate America” at a think tank in Cambridge. “At age 26 I was making more money than anyone else in my family.” She started taking continuing education classes in metal smithing to help her “get out” the stress of her job, and finally decided to quit and study metal smithing full time at Mass Art. After graduating, she moved to Waltham and started the jewelry school, Metal Werx in 1998, now a 501(c)3 non-profit. In 2000, she moved to Salem for her husband’s “other woman”–a 32 ft sailboat. “She was the love of his life, I was merely the mother of his children!”

In July 2002, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and decided to step away from Metal Werx, to focus on her own jewelry making. While she was living in Salem, however, she noticed a need for a place where local artists could sell their craft. She decided to open The Picklepot, where she and other local artists could display and sell their work. She also collaborated with local artists and officials to create the Salem Arts Association, of which she is still a board member. After running the award-winning art gallery and shop for 7 years, she decided to focus again on her own jewelry smithing, and gave the store to her husband, David Bowie, who now runs it as a spice and kitchen gadget shop. You can also find Jeff’s jewelry for sale there and on her online shop.

She currently works from her own studio in her garage, and sells at multiple craft fairs and shows in the area. Her work is also featured in many galleries in Salem.

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Jeff in her studio

About her process:

“The devil is in the details,” Jeff told me. “You have to be a little OCD to be a jewelry designer–exactitude is required in your design, process, and everything you do–it is inherent in jewelry work. I build sculpture the size of a thimble.” First Jeff specialty orders the pendant and earring shapes from another jewelry artist (If she made them herself, they would be of sterling silver and gold, and way too expensive for the average person to buy) Then she paints the insides of the forms black to hold the various watch parts: Each form gets a hand-picked selection of gears, cogs, and various other watch pieces, including some signature “Steampunk” shapes: moonfaces, moon dials, date or time wheels cut in half. Some of the parts she orders online and the rest she disassembles herself. “I reuse everything– if I can scavenge them in any shape or form, I will.”

“There are two things people can’t throw away: a broken mechanical watch and an old key. I am the place where people can drop these off guilt-free. Often I will come home and find a plastic bag full of old watches dropped through my mail slot. I’ve become the place where old watches go to die and become reborn.”

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Filling the forms

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Bracelet forms

Hardening the resin using ultraviolet light

Hardening the resin using ultraviolet light

Why use watch parts?

“I’ve always been a little goth, but not in the Marilyn Manson type. In terms of my art, my taste and visuals have always been more Edwardian, 1880’s, Industrial Revolution.” Watches became part of her work almost 4 years ago. “I just wanted to play with them. I liked the form, shape and Edwardian aesthetic. I didn’t realize there was a word for it until later. I was building these pieces before I even knew what Steampunk was.”

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What is Steampunk exactly?

“Steampunk is the world the way it would be if Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had been right about the future. We were promised a world where the wheels would turn, the gears would shift, we would see the inner workings of our world. There would be a satisfaction both physically and viscerally in the world. Instead, we get plastic circuits made in China. If you drop your phone, and it breaks open, how many of us could identify a single working part? The technology that drives our world today is invisible, unfathomable, and inaccessible. Steampunk is a nostalgia for the world we were promised but never given.”

The difference between a battery-- or quartz-- operated watch (left) and a mechanical watch (right). Jeff only works with mechanical watches--see the difference?

The difference between a battery– or quartz– operated watch (left) and a mechanical watch (right). Jeff only works with mechanical watches because they contain the gears and tiny moving parts–no battery required. Which one do you like more?

Can you tell me anything else about your work?

[My work has a Steampunk aesthetic] but I am not trying to make a political statement. I draw pictures with watch parts and I have fun doing it. That there is a community out there that likes it is an added bonus. I make things that are pretty and shiny and make people smile. I believe we were all magpies in a former life.

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“Time in a bottle”

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How has your MS impacted your jewelry-making?

“The biggest impact has been on my gross motor skills, and thankfully my jewelry-making involves very little gross motor skills–just fine motor skills”

Jeff told me that when she was first diagnosed, it was difficult. She had known for a while that something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. She turned to her craft to help her process all her emotions. Ultimately she created two pieces that helped her reconcile her feelings with what was going on with her body, and to accept all parts of herself “cracks and all”. “These helped me to accept things the way they were.”

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“Self Portrait with Scars and Spare Parts”

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“Gifts of the Garden: Digging myself out of deep karmic debt one vegetable at a time”

What are your thoughts about the Salem arts community:

“I’ve always said that if you put two artists in a room, you’ll get three opinions! But in general, we like each other, and we work together. The Salem arts community has been very good to me. In Salem there are places to see art in the most unexpected locations. The Salem arts community is doing well because we live in a community that supports music and the arts–they want to see the arts here. Of course the economy has impacted the arts, but in Salem, we have built things where things didn’t exist. We are working with the Chamber of Commerce to keep on raising the bar.”

Any final thoughts or advice to aspiring artists?

“Don’t strive to be famous, don’t strive to be rich, strive to be good at what you do. Be mercilessly good at what you do. Be good in the ways that only you can be.”

And this quote from Franz Kafka: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” 

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You can find more information about Jeff’s work and where to buy it at her online shop.

— Madelene

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