JEM alumna Julessa Barnes’ jewelry tells a personal narrative and is receiving plenty of exposure
By Nina Tabios
For Julessa Barnes, School of Jewelry & Metal Arts (JEM) online graduate at the Academy of Art University, making art was a way to tell her story. From the moment she started in metalwork, it has taken almost 15 years for Barnes to become truly confident in her voice. Graduating from the Academy this spring, she said, feels like it’s just the beginning.
“I’ve been in school for a very short period of time but I’ve been honing these skills and working on perfecting these techniques for years,” she mentioned in a phone call from her home in Lincolnton, North Carolina. “They say it takes 10,000 hours to become a master; I certainly don’t know if I am a master, but I know I’ve done more than 10,000 hours for as long as I’ve been doing this.”
Other people are starting to notice too. In her last few semes-ters at school, Barnes’ work has steadily become acknowledged by some major players in the jewelry world. In May 2018, she walked the runway at the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference in Portland bearing her “Heart Armor” chest piece; the following August, SNAG accepted her call-for-en-try into its annual JaMS Jewelry and Metals Survey 2018 which is still awaiting publication. This past March, Barnes received an invitation into her first museum gallery by the Raleigh Fine Arts Society for its North Carolina Artists Exhibition hosted at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) of Raleigh.
To have her work in a museum was always a goal—“the pinnacle” in Barnes’ mind. Being in a museum provided a sense of acknowledgement and recognition of quality and skill, especially from contemporary art stalwarts such as Chad Alligood who was the juror for the Raleigh gallery. To have strangers, industry professionals and the general public look at her work and immediately understand the message was validation.
“You generally go to a museum to see a part of history and that’s the other thing too, I really like the idea of being a part of history in this contemporary art jewelry world,” said Barnes, who was given the exhibition’s student award. “That tells me I’m on the right track. Because some days you have that doubt.”
Doubt, and all other essences and events of life itself, are baked into Barnes’ thesis project called, “Identity.” Most of Barnes’ accepted art pieces came from this highly emotive and intimate collection telling Barnes’ own narrative etched into the fine details of four-finger rings, brooches, chained necklaces and a “Heart Armor” chest plate. Guests of Spring Show got to see a few of these pieces up close—“Misdirection,” a sterling silver brooch; “Abandoned,” a dual neck piece with a framed photo-graph attached to a copper open hand; and “Heart Armor,” the chest shield she wore at 2018 SNAG.
The story behind “Identity” starts with Barnes learning about her father through stories. After reflecting and realizing how stories, and other events, especially negative ones like heartbreak and dis-appointment, have shaped her identity, she was inspired to put those ideas into metal. “For me, exposing these dark, damaged or missing parts of myself helps me grow,” Barnes wrote in her thesis statement. “With each piece, I learn something new and add to the many facets of my own identity in un-expected ways. The telling of my story through narrative jewelry is my way of connecting with the outside world.”
Karen Chesna, JEM online coordinator, worked closely with Barnes throughout her time at the Academy. Chesna describes Barnes’ progression as an artist as “growth went beyond critique,” always going the extra mile and putting exceptional care and attention into everything she did.
“She’s still pushing,” Chesna said. “She’s always going, ‘Let’s learn something new. Let’s embrace more.’”
Barnes said she wants to find a home for her “Identity” pieces in the form of a solo show after graduation. After that, it’s more working, hopefully more call-for-entry exhibitions and galleries. She might build out her thesis collection more, at the encouragement of School of Fine Art—Sculpture instructor Peter Schifrin. Taking notes from her own instructors, Barnes said she would like to teach.
“I think sharing what it is that you’re good at and pas-sionate about is really important. Art for me is very important because it’s healing, it helps me express my feelings that I can’t always get out,” Barnes said. “People always tell me when they see my work and when they see me in the studio, ‘Wow, you really do like what you do.’ I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t, but it’s important to me to share that with others.”
“I feel like she’s on this forward trajectory, school is her launching point,” Chesna said. “We’ve given her this foundation and now she’s pushing off this solid foundation and there’s only farther and farther up to go with her.”