NANCY WORDEN is shown teaching children at the Columbia City Farmer’s Market in Seattle, Washington, Summer 2011.

Nancy Worden




For more than thirty years Nancy Worden has been making jewelry that demands our attention. Worden’s bold, big jewelry often looks like ceremonial wear for queens and warriors at the same time that it serves as a lens on contemporary culture. Created with exquisitely honed metalsmithing skills and found objects imbued with meaning and metaphor, Worden’s work is ultimately about human behavior, both personal and communal. Her faith in the ability of art to help us learn about our world and ourselves also has made Worden a passionate promoter of arts education.


The jewelry in your most recent exhibition was inspired by a box of photographs you found at your grandmother’s house after she died in the late 1980s. In fact some of the photographs are literally included in the neckpieces and brooches in the exhibition. Why did you finally decide to use these photographs? And how do the photographs tie in with the themes that have intrigued you throughout your career?

The Museum of Art and Design in New York City is organizing an exhibition of jewelry with photography and they are including a couple of necklaces I made in the 1990s with photos. I wanted to make something new for the show, so I started looking through the box from my grandmother’s estate for ideas. The content of my work has always been about human behavior and the photos provided a gold mine of candid glimpses into the lives of people in early twentieth­century America, when my grandmother was a girl.

Every artist develops their own specific vocabulary with materials and technique. My vocabulary combines found objects with metal and other materials. I only use found objects from the twentieth century, so black and white snapshots fit the criteria perfectly. We didn’t use the original snapshots; they were scanned and in many places enlarged or cleaned up a bit with Photoshop. The people at Panda Labs reprinted them on a sturdy photo paper.


In the several decades that I have been following your career, I have always been impressed by your talent for turning found objects into the architecture of jewelry. Often the objects are such benign domestic things as safety pins, kitchen utensils, shaving brushes, and typewriter parts. Yet they take on talismanic significance in your jewelry. How do you do that? And why?

Found objects are an important part of my vocabulary because they add color, form and a specific chronology and location to my work, that being twentieth-century America. The objects I chose also have to be small enough and light enough to fit into a piece of jewelry and they must communicate my idea. Finding the right objects is the hardest part of my work because each object must enhance and not distract from the idea. The idea reigns supreme. I think scale and the historical sentimentality associated with jewelry can help to create a talismanic significance to my ideas, which tend toward intimate topics like loss, fear and self-esteem. A hair curler is just a hair curler unless you present it in the context of coming of age or hair loss from chemotherapy. The idea makes it into a talisman.


You have described your work as being about your “life as an American woman” and that in your work you explore contemporary culture and traditional and historical jewelry design from around the world. Tell us a bit more about why these subjects interest you. .

What I try to do in my work is describe an incident in my life experience and distill it down into something many people can relate to. In this way I often touch on topics that might be too sensitive to address with words. The goal is to engage the imagination of my audience so that they can recognize themselves in my work. This is what many artists attempt to do in literature, theater, film, dance, and music, as well as the visual arts. The humanities teach us how to be human; that’s why we need them and that’s why they are called the humanities.

I am drawn to the composition of ethnic and historical jewelry as a recognizable structure to hang my ideas on. I try to avoid being influenced by my peers and their design vocabularies. In most human cultures, jewelry is intertwined with customs and rites of passage—the kind of stuff I explore in my content. American design traditions are so new I have turned to older cultures because they have more to draw from.

BRIGANDINE FOR ISHTAR NECKPIECE of riveted street metal, copper, silver, nickel, steel, glass; fabricated; dimensions in front are 15.2 centimeters long, 35.6 centimeters wide and 3.8 centimeters deep; back is 38.1 centimeters long, 40.6 centimeters wide and 10.2 centimeters deep, 2005. Model: Monica Giudici. Photographs: Rex Rystedt. Worden was inspired by hearing that soldiers had to improvise their own armor for their HumVees during the Iraq war. She collected most of the attached found objects from the street.


Curators and others have described your work as forceful, demanding and gripping. You have often dealt with psychological and highly emotional themes in your work, such as your show several years ago called Fear Factor, which among other subjects made direct reference to young women and men going off to war in Iraq. You must have very intense emotions while making such pieces. If so, does that make the work especially difficult for you?

Intense emotion isn’t something I am afraid of and passion can actually aid the sustained effort of the design process. The hard part is letting go of the work, and occasionally I set aside something to keep for myself. Brigandine For Ishtar, the big armor-like neckpiece I made about mothers of my generation sending their daughters off to war, is one of those. My husband says he can’t part with it; I made the mistake of bringing it home and setting it out where it has become a part of our daily lives.


Your work is generally big and often has a ceremonial look to it. What is the relationship between jewelry and sculpture, and do you think about wearability when making your biggest, boldest pieces?

Absolutely everything I make is wearable. I only design in the context of the human body. The big pieces are intended as ceremonial, which is one of the traditional functions of jewelry. Queen Elizabeth has a crown she only wears for the opening of Parliament, but she also has some nice brooches she wears for every day. My studio produces jewelry for everyday that is simple and lightweight as well as the larger pieces.

I designed the display stands for my larger work at the request of my collectors. The big stuff needs a place to live when it’s not being worn; it won’t fit in a drawer. For many years I did exhibition design and installation working with ethnographic artifacts, and I designed and made stands for them. My jewelry has more in common with those artifacts than sculpture, which is why I sometimes refer to my work as modern artifacts. The purpose and art history of jewelry is completely different from the purpose and art history of sculpture. Other than some design influence, they really have very little in common.


How did you become interested in metalsmithing and jewelry?

I was extremely lucky to go to a high school with a good art program that included jewelry. From there I went on to college and graduate school during the years when the American studio craft movement was going strong.  



You have some very strongly held views on how to be a working artist. What do you tell young people contemplating a life as an artist?

Talent isn’t something you are born with. Being an artist or a craftsperson is very hard work with long hours and no guarantee of making a living. I know very few young people with the kind of work ethic my generation has. You have to be very focused and constantly challenge yourself. Professional artists also have to be good business people. The world doesn’t owe you a living and you need formal training combined with the critique process to compete in today’s market. If you don’t wake up in the morning with a fire in your belly for making things, then you had better find another way to support yourself. It’s a tough career.


In the greater Seattle area, where you live, you have been active in promoting arts education. Why?

Arts education is becoming something only rich people can afford. There is all this emphasis now on science and math and the arts are getting axed right and left. When I worked in the public schools, my primary goal was to give students a voice and another way to succeed. I also taught them some tool skills because many kids, rich and poor, come from families where nobody knows how to make anything. Human beings evolved as tool users and makers. If you aren’t making things with your hands you aren’t developing your whole brain. I came from a family of six kids and my parents were teachers so they couldn’t send us to private schools. Without public school art programs I would not have become the artist I am today.


In the last couple of years you have started what you call an atelier, which is a production line you design and have made by other metalsmiths. Why did you decide to add a production line?

I actually started in production in the early 1980s but I had a hard time doing all the work myself, so I switched to one of a kind. When the economy changed in 2008 I needed more products to appeal to a larger audience. It’s really been fun working as part of a team. The big artpieces take a lot out of me and I can’t produce them very fast. I love having more jewelry to wear and spread around.


You have also started a blog in which, among other things, you ruminate on the metalsmithing that was involved in building the Statue of Liberty. Are you enjoying writing the blog? Do you get feedback from other artists? Or those interested in jewelry and art?

You have also started a blog in which, among other things, you ruminate on the metalsmithing that was involved in building the Statue of Liberty. Are you enjoying writing the blog? Do you get feedback from other artists? Or those interested in jewelry and art?







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