The Joy of Jewelry Making
Teaching artist Amy Cousin finds inspiration in beautiful and everyday objects
Sometimes even the smallest piece of our personal history can resonate in a long-lasting way. Teaching artist and jewelry maker Amy Cousin, of Minneapolis, has seen this happen during her own lifetime in the brightest and most colorful fashion.
From a piece of coral procured by her mother during a trip to Hawaii in 1959 to Mardi Gras beads that her grandparents in Louisiana collected over the years to a small, red gemstone heart discovered in a bowl at the counter of a favorite bookshop when Cousin was 13, these – and many more – pieces have made their way into the 59-year-old artist's creations.
"There are so many things in life that have a really long thread of memory," said Cousin. "When you use something meaningful in a piece of jewelry, the memory is carried along."
Cousin, who is the mother of five, first began a true exploration of what she calls a lifelong "creative bent" after having her first two children.
"When you use something meaningful in a piece of jewelry, the memory is carried along."
"I'd always loved dance and pottery, so I started to sneak over to a local art center in Minneapolis for a pottery class," she said. "But then, a third child came along, and that stopped that for a while," Cousin added with a laugh.
But then, her husband, who had always been supportive of her artistic leanings (more on that later) suggested that Cousin try another class – even if they did have three small children.
"I decided to enroll in a jewelry-making class at [the adult education program] Open U. As soon as my hand touched that wire, and my other hand touched the tool, I thought 'This is it,'" Cousin said. "It just really resonated with me."
As Cousin was becoming more and more immersed in the world of jewelry making, the couple opened a small gift store in Minneapolis where they sold tumbled gemstones, among other items. Seeing Cousin behind the counter working on her jewelry projects, customers asked if she could make a piece for them, using one of the gemstones.
"Not long after that, we moved to South Carolina to be near family, and opened another shop there. And that's when I really started making jewelry as a sideline for the store," Cousin said, adding that her necklaces and bracelets began growing in popularity.
A conversation overheard in a local grocery store reinforced her goal to explore an artistic path:
"There were two women, standing with their carts, and one complimented the other on her necklace. The woman said, 'Oh, I love it. That's an Amy necklace,'" said Cousin.
"I was with my kids and they heard her mention my name, and asked if I was going to talk to her. And I said, 'No, I'm just going to listen and lurk,'" she laughed.
In 2012, the family returned to Minnesota, which marked a turning point for Cousin: "It was time for me to embrace being an artist."
From Ball Bearings to Beads
Working with found items became a particular source of inspiration for Cousin, and that chapter began with a ball bearing and a challenge.
"My husband had been working on his car and came into the house with a donut-shaped ball bearing. He said, 'I challenge you to make something out of this,'" Cousin said. She popped a piece of onyx in and came up with an asymetrical pendant – that's a shape she favors.
As the price of silver started rising, Cousin started digging – while visiting relatives in Louisiana, she came across a stash of colorful Mardi Gras glass beads.
"My family has always been very expressive and creative – they love jewelry and all kinds of adornments," she said. So with the beads, she set about making a gorgeous necklace (shown at the top of the story) upcycling even further by using a broken piece of a necklace.
An Upcycled Necklace Earns Accolades
A piece that Cousin created in early 2020 was not only imbued with multiple memory threads, but was selected by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) to be included in its prestigious "Foot in the Door" exhibit in November-December 2020, an open exhibition offered once a decade at the museum (held virtually this time).
For the piece, which also includes a small segment of a computer motherboard, Cousin used some of the coral her mother brought back from Hawaii. "She had held onto it for so many years, gave it to me, and I held on to it," said Cousin.
The origin of the motherboard piece had altogether different memories for Cousin's daughter. "She worked in IT and was getting rid of an old computer," said Cousin. "We took out the motherboard and safely broke it apart."
Her daughter was thrilled. "She said, 'I want you to make something good out of it because it totally failed me,'" said Cousin with a laugh. "I love using things that were once detritus."
Cousin's penchant for working with found items strikes her youngest son in a different way. "I'll find a piece of glass, or a piece of metal, and I'll say, 'I can make something out of that,'" she said. "And he says, 'Or you can just throw it out!'"
Sharing in the Process
Teaching jewelry making on a virtual platform is an exciting opportunity, said Cousin, who will be leading an upcoming Next Avenue Arts Learning Course called "Making and Sharing Memory Through Original Jewelry," beginning on July 12.
"I love the idea that even though there will be different skill levels, people will be able to come together, but still stay and work in their own space," she said, adding that she will have a computer and camera trained on her hands so students can easily see her process.
"We'll start with some 'show and tell' when I show them what I've made," Cousin said.
And that includes tools. While a simple pair of pliers is nice to have, Cousin said, "I've created all kinds of jewelry-making tools in the past – I made a dowel out of a Chapstick, and used sticks to make a framework to weave wire. People can get creative not only with making jewelry, but also with simple tools they can make themselves."
'Appreciating Art From the Inside Out'
Cousin recently launched a brand new website, which now includes her middle initial.
"It is partially a statement of reclaiming my life (my middle name is Althea, thus the second A) as well as a reflection of moving into this next stage," said Cousin, who's also preparing to take up residence in an art studio/loft space in North Minneapolis.
Creating a piece of jewelry, whether one that has special meaning or one that comes to life from a ball bearing, is about tapping into energy, or as Cousin said, "appreciating art from the inside out."
"What I love about jewelry is that it's personal, but it's also public," Cousin said. "I really claim wearable art as a conversation starter. 'What is the story behind that necklace, that bracelet?' It's like the story about the 'Amy' necklace in the store. Art needs to be spread in all places!"