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Ashley Lohr - a journey from painting to handcrafted jewelry

Petersburg, AK | United States

Ashley Lohr is an artist and art educator who earned her Master's in painting in 2015. In 2019, the art form of enameling for jewelry was introduced to Ashley, which she turned into a daily practice. Ashley's jewelry can be found in shops and galleries sprinkled in the United States. Alaska is her home state, and her handcrafted jewelry can be found in 10+ establishments supporting Alaskan artists. In the last five years, Ashley has been hosted as a solo exhibitor in five shows and has been selected for ten juried exhibitions. She uses social media to share her work process and new work; sells her jewelry via her website and Etsy. Ashley is married to a commercial fisherman, has two children and has been teaching since 2008.

How did you transition from being a painter to discovering enameling for jewelry, and what inspired you to make it a daily practice?

I earned my BA in Painting and Art Education in 2007 from The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. My intentions were to start teaching but continue my art practice with dreams of positioning my art as my career in the future. I accepted a full-time art teacher position for grades 7-12 on a little island in Alaska: Petersburg. Petersburg is a lovely little fishing village with strong support for the arts. I was able to prioritize my painting in my free time and be hosted in a solo artist exhibition annually at the local museum: The Clausen Museum. The courses I offered over the years as an art teacher really varied; and included torch work silversmithing. I’m a huge fan of dangle earrings and definitely enjoyed working alongside my students through demonstrating. In 2018, I was approached about budgets needing to be cut, and I was proactive about keeping all the art classes I offered. So I requested some professional leave in the fall of 2019 to go and learn enameling to bring it back to our classroom. It seemed like a good addition to the silversmith class I was teaching because we already had most of the enamel tools/ equipment in our classroom already. And with the price of silver always going up, powder enamel on copper was a great way to cut our budget and still be able to offer jewelry classes for grades 9-12.

Following the amazing enameling 101 class I took at the Silvera Jewelry School in Berkeley, California, I was able to add enameling to my jewelry curriculum. Color, shape and composition are all the elements I’ve focused on for years within my painting, the same elements that can be practiced through enameling. I was hooked! I talked to my husband, and we carved out some space for me in our cold, damp shop under our home, found a big metal office desk for free, hung a halogen light, and I had my own little studio corner!

Being a full-time teacher, a mother of two, and a wife to a commercial fisherman with the ambition to make art: I had to sacrifice a couple of hours of sleep. Mornings are my favorite time to work! My alarm goes off at 5 am, and I’m excited to start my day by making art. So, between 5 - 7 am, I’d accomplish the following: walk the dog, get dressed for a day of teaching, get the kids gear for the day ready and work in the shop and create through torching powder enamel on copper blanks. This has become a daily practice because the compositions are limitless to me. Like painting, once you have all the supplies in front of you, creativity can flow in any direction, and that’s so exciting to me. From my excitement, ambition and production as wholesale orders blossomed, acceptances into art exhibitions and retail orders through my website and Etsy shop. I’ve found a way to support my passion for creating, and I couldn’t be more excited!

Could you share some insights into the process of creating your handcrafted jewelry using enameling techniques? How do you incorporate the natural and man-made items you collect during your walks into your artistic process?

My jewelry begins as blank copper (I buy pre-cut copper blanks, so I don’t need to hand-cut my shapes). I use powder enamel, and I torch fire through a handheld butane torch. I begin with prep work: backing my copper blanks with “counter enamel,” which is just a variety of sifted enamels. After sifting on counter enamel, I carefully move the powder-covered copper pieces up to stainless steel trivets; I work two at a time since 95% of the time, I create earrings. The trivets sit on top of kiln bricks, and the kiln bricks sit on top of a large ceramic tile (I’m working with some serious heat, and I need to work on top of surfaces that can absorb heat). I start my butane torch, which spits out two blue flames. I position my torch under (which is another reason why my workstation is tiered), so the smaller of the two blue flames can connect with the bottom of my copper blanks. I watch (in awe) the powder enamel on top of the copper blank melt to a smooth surface within 20 seconds or less. After 30+ seconds of cooling, I move the hot counter enameled copper pieces down to my tile to fully cool (2 mins). Once cool to the touch, I clean the side of the copper blank that’s built up with the fire scale (the opposite of the counter enameled side). To clean, I use either a pickling solution (AKA jewelry acid) or a copper cookware cleaner in paste form. We don’t have a sink in our shop, so I use a tall yogurt cup filled halfway with water to rinse the blanks after the fire scale is removed. The pickling solution can develop a layer of ice when I’m working in the winter, so I fill my yogurt cup with hot water and nestle the pickling solution container to warm it up.

Once rinsed and dried, the fun begins! I have over 40 enamel colors of transparent and opaques to work with, a grand supply of found, cut and purchased stencils and a medium and a small sifter that capture my imagination immediately. Sometimes I wonder, “How can I return to the same desk every morning, use the same supplies and still create new designs?” And the answer simply is the options are limitless. I can ombre, layer, stencil, sgraffito, add frit and continue to come up with designs I’ve never done before. I’m inspired by nature and the walks I take. I find natural ombres in fall leaves, sunsets, contrasts in fresh snow on the surrounding mountains, and the iridescent scales on the fish we catch. One stencil I often find out walking is the flat metal washer. I love working with washers: they create the perfect circle, and you can use the inner and/or outer circle in a composition. I always seem to find different sizes. The circle is a great starter shape to reference so many things found in nature.

Your jewelry can be found in various shops and galleries across the United States. How does it feel to see your work appreciated and supported by establishments that promote Alaskan artists?

It’s been an exciting snowball effect, creating inventory to sell. In Alaska, so many connections happen by word of mouth. Since the fall of 2020, I went from selling strictly online through Etsy, my website and my annual local solo show to listing my work with about 20 different galleries and shops (most in Alaska). It’s at a steady 13 locations currently. In some locations, my jewelry just didn’t work well, and we discontinued, or they had to close down. Either way, it’s been thrilling receiving messages with a request to carry my jewelry work and feeling someone believes in my work so much they want to make it available in their shop.

Being hosted as a solo exhibitor in five shows and selected into 10 juried exhibitions in the past five years is impressive. Can you discuss some memorable experiences from these exhibitions and how they have contributed to your artistic journey?

In the fall of 2021, I was accepted into the “Andy Warhol” juried exhibition strictly for jewelry that married well with the artwork of Andy Warhol. I submitted eight pieces, and six were accepted. I was excited and knew I wanted to be there to see it in person! The show was at the Lighthouse Art Center in Tequesta, Florida. I made it happen! I put in personal leave from my teaching job and was able to go see the show with my best friend and my parents. My earrings were hanging on the wall, 3’ away from a Red Hot Chili Peppers photo by Andy Warhol. It was surreal, to say the least. My work up on the wall, inches away from one of the most well-known artists. This experience created great momentum in my work, my confidence in my work and an understanding of the strength of my work. It created a boost for sure.

Social media plays a significant role in sharing your work and connecting with your audience. How do you leverage platforms like Instagram and Etsy to showcase your jewelry and reach potential customers?

I was pretty anti-social media for a long time. I was not interested in Instagram at all until I started making jewelry. My process is magical to watch: melting powder with a torch until it’s smooth. I wanted an outlet to share the process, to share the magic. My sister and brother-in-law (who are younger than me) encouraged and helped me set up Instagram in 2020. Suddenly, I became pretty serious about documenting and sharing through Instagram stories and posts about my process. And with each day creating something new to wear on ears and listing it as available on Etsy or my website, I naturally posted the completed pairs.

It’s been a great platform for all the things I just mentioned AND for connecting with other artists and teachers. There’s a “know and trust” that gets built that helps people I’ve never met, but they’ve bought my jewelry, and they watch my stories / posts / reels, and they share my name and sites with others. It’s taken time, consistency and care to get to the point where some of my Instagram followers can trust my work. Etsy has been a great platform to keep alive because, naturally, Etsy is a search-and-buy site. So, I’ll get connected with new buyers there for sure. I started a website through Shopify to sell my jewelry after solely selling online through Etsy during the summer of 2020.

As an artist and art educator, how do you find a balance between teaching and creating your own jewelry? How does your teaching experience influence your artistic practice?

Great question. I’ve been an artist all my teaching career. In 2008, I started teaching full-time. In 2009, I had a spring solo show. Same for the spring (or fall) of 2010- 2022. And I have a solo show set for November of 2023. And I spend most of my days teaching art and thinking about art. My teaching experience has taught me time management. 20 mins, 30 mins, or two hours, whatever amount of time you have to work on your art, you can get something done. Being a mother has also taught me this same lesson: if it’s 20 minutes here and there, that adds up. And that’s how I find the balance: I give myself the early morning hour (before the kids are up and before we have to do the morning rush to get out the door for school). I also use my lunchtime to photograph the new earrings of the day and list and post them on Instagram and Facebook. It’s during those little chunks of time that build up the bigger picture of my ambition to push my artistic career.

Living in Alaska, surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and abundant natural beauty, must be inspiring. How does your environment influence the composition and color palettes of your jewelry designs?

Being surrounded by Southeast Alaska's natural beauty AND living in a small community where most things feel simple keeps my mind on making art. I grew up in New Jersey. I went to school in Albany, New York and my Master's in studio art from MICA in Baltimore, Maryland. We visit family in Philadelphia and Milwaukee at least once a year. There's a contrast between the natural surroundings but also the intensity of being around so many other people, cars, and sounds; everything seems to move faster. The slower pace of life on a little island in Alaska with less than 3,000 people naturally gives me the headspace to act on my creativity.

Can you elaborate on the significance of using copper surfaces as the canvas for your enamel jewelry? How does it contribute to the overall aesthetic and engagement with the audience?

Copper has the gift of being an inexpensive metal AND having a high heat tolerance. Yes, you can enamel on silver, BUT there’s a heat limit, and if you pass that heat limit, your work will begin to shred. Copper is like a canvas to paint on: you prim it with counter enamel (as you would gesso on a canvas), you clean it (as you would sand the gesso slightly to give it a smooth surface) and instead of painting on color: you sift and torch to set the color. And like a canvas being painted: torching and setting colors multiple times through design tools to layer and create a composition. I relate enameling so much to painting, so much so that I title each pair of earrings as if they are each a painting. At my solo shows, I hang them on the wall, side-by-side, as if they are paintings being hung on the wall. Each pair is one-of-a-kind, and I push that value in my work: I never created a painting and tried to paint it again multiple times. It stays as the only one. With my enamel work, it’s the same disciple: “make and don’t recreate” (unless someone requests, which then becomes a commission). I do believe my audience enjoys this disciple in my work.

The process of torch firing enamels seems fascinating. Could you describe the experience of watching the powder melt and how it adds depth and refinement to your designs?

Torching powder enamel on a copper blank: It’s like watching the snow melt on a “Planet Earth” series where you see winter turn to spring in quick time. The powder melts in 20 seconds. But with each layer, the amount of time it takes to melt takes 5-10 seconds longer than the last layer. The melting process goes through three phases: 1st granulated sugar (when the powder starts to look sweaty, but you can see the texture of the powder), 2nd orange peel (when powder starts to lay down and has a bumpy but smooth-looking surface) and 3rd smooth (when all the lumps and bumps are laying flat together). I enjoy creating in layers, which equals 3-5 torchings. Between each torching: I let my work cool, bring it back to my working surface (which is a magazine page and pennies glued together), sift powder enamel through a stencil or sift on multiple colors and drag my sgraffito tool to create striped lines, torch again, cool, bring back to my work surface, and maybe add a touch of another color but as a transparent so it’s like a glaze.

Your artistic background in painting seems to have a strong influence on your enamel jewelry. How do you incorporate your painting techniques, such as dragging and scratching sgraffito, into the creation of each piece?

My painting practice is in full use when I'm enameling. I actually use a paintbrush, but only as a small broom, to sweep away excess powder from the tools and enamel surfaces I'm working on. I have a painter's precision hand, and everything is like a painting detail with enameling because I'm always working on such a small scale. I use stencils to include clear shapes. I use my rubber-tipped tool to sgraffito lines through dry powder enamel. I use a titanium pick when I'm torching, and I want to drag or pull color that's melted and malleable.


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