Madelyn Smoak — Jewelry and Metal Artist
Hunter, Gatherer, Metal worker
Madelyn Smoak has always been drawn to the art scene. She grew up in a small town in South Carolina, but moved to North Carolina in 1965 after taking a summer school class at UNC. Her passion for creating has caused her to have what she calls a “checkered career.” Smoak explains that she was “always looking for the job that could make it possible for me to do this [create jewelry].” She taught elementary art for a number of years.
In 1998, Smoak made her first beaded necklace as a way to remember a close friend that had passed away. “I remember a distinctive piece [my friend] had worn. It was turquoise with a big metal disc in it…The necklace was emblematic of our friendship, so I went to one of the beading stores and bought some beads.” People repeatedly showed interest in Smoak’s necklace, which made her decide to pursue beaded jewelry further. “I did beaded jewelry for about two years and then I really felt like I was running out of being able to find the distinctive pieces that were being used in beaded jewelry,” Smoak says. She had been using her “hunter/gatherer skills” to search out new pieces for her jewelry before deciding that she could make her own distinctive pieces. “I thought, if I take a metals class, I could make stuff and it wouldn’t be like the other stuff.”
Her first metals class, Smoak admits, frustrated her. The instructor wanted her to draw and plan out all of her pieces, and that wasn’t Smoak’s style. “I actually almost gave up because I was frustrated with the class, but then I took another class and the lady took a much more pragmatic approach,” Smoak says. In this second metals class, Smoak was able to experiment more. In addition, she also learned how to use the various metal working tools needed, such as saws, hammers, and soldering tools. Although, Smoak had only intended on learning a few things about metals, she admits working with metals grabbed her. “I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums fiber, paint, two-dimensional collage, but metal has by far the most interesting problems to solve,” Smoak says.
Smoak enjoys creating jewelry out of things that people don’t generally associate with jewelry. “Each thing I make presents me with a different list of challenges and problems that make it intellectually intriguing to solve so that piece can happen,” she explains. One her pieces was just published in Metalsmith Magazine. The magazine featured a necklace Smoak made from a straight edge razor. She cut the blade off, dulled it, added a red resin to look like blood, and had the razor hang like a pendant. The necklace also utilized the handle of the straight edge razor cut into four pieces. “When you are using this stiff element, you have to account for the fact that people have clavicles,” Smoak explains. “It became a matter of where do I interrupt it to create that articulation to come up over the collar bone and make it attractive.”
In addition to making pieces, Smoak still uses her hunter/gatherer skills to utilize “found objects.” She frequents the Raleigh Flea Market, searches on Ebay, and shops in antique stores and hardware stores. Friends also bring her trinkets to use. On a trip to New York, she found metal cicadas. “And I bought them!” Smoak says. “I buy what the back of my head tells me to buy. I don’t question it—I just buy it.” She admits she didn’t know what she would do with these “crazy cicadas,” so they sat around for a while until she thought, “Wouldn’t it be crazy to make a ring out of one?” She thought she might sell a few here and there, but they have become huge for Smoak. She has sold them all over the world, and now buys metal cicadas by the bag full. She puts a patina on each of them and then makes them into rings, bracelets, and embellishments for tiaras and other projects.
She has also been working on precious metals clay. “The Japanese came up with the technique of binding powder, metal, and clay and…you work it like clay. The paper or clay binder burns off and the metal coalesces,” Smoak explains. By using molds, he is able to now make her own “found objects.”
Between her skills in metalworking and finding objects, Smoak feels like she is ready to take a big step forward in her work. She has been doing projects with fabrications and projects with found objects, and now she wants to explore melding the two skill sets together.
“My goal is to continue to have a career in the arts and see how far I can go in the time I have left,” Smoak says.
You can find Madelyn Smoak at her studio at Golden Belt in Durham, or you can find her work on Etsy and on her website. Her work scales anywhere from $30 for rings to $7,000 for a cicada helmet.