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MFA Alumna's Jewelry-Making Career Launches During Art School

For Julessa Barnes, recent graduate of the Academy’s School of Jewelry & Metal Arts, making art is a way to tell her story. It’s taken her almost 15 years of metalworking to become confident in her artistic voice. But Barnes feels it’s just the beginning.

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Jewelry artist and Academy of Art University MFA graduate Julessa Barnes

“I’ve been in school for a very short period of time,” she admits. “But I’ve been honing these skills and working on perfecting these techniques for years.

“They say it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. I don’t know if I am a master, but I know I’ve done more than 10,000 hours,” says the 2019 online MFA grad and North Carolina resident.

Gaining Attention With Student Work

In her last semesters at school, major players in the jewelry world recognized Barnes’ work.

In May 2018, she walked the runway at the Society of North American Goldsmiths conference in Portland, Oregon. The following August, the same organization accepted her work in its annual JaMS Jewelry and Metals Survey. In March 2019, Barnes was invited to her first museum gallery show by the Raleigh Fine Arts Society for an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh.

Having her work in a museum was always a goal—“the pinnacle” in Barnes’ mind. She says that when strangers, industry professionals and the general public look at her work and immediately understand the message, it’s a validation.

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“Abandoned” by Julessa Barnes

“I really like the idea of being a part of history in the contemporary art jewelry world,” says Barnes, who won the exhibition’s student award. “That tells me I’m on the right track. Because some days you have that doubt.”

Doubt and her life are baked into Barnes’ thesis project, titled Identity. In this highly emotive and intimate collection, Barnes embeds a narrative into the fine details of four-finger rings, brooches, chained necklaces and a “Heart Armor” chest plate.

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“Heart Armor” by Julessa Barnes

Visitors at the Academy’s annual Spring Show got to see a few of these pieces up close. They included “Misdirection,” a sterling silver brooch; “Abandoned,” a dual neck piece with a framed photograph attached to a copper hand; and “Heart Armor,” the chest shield she wore on the runway.

Building a Jewelry Career with Personal Narratives

Identity began with Barnes learning about her father through stories. She thought about how stories and other events—especially negative ones like heartbreak and disappointment—shaped her identity. Then she put her ideas into metal.

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Jewelry by Julessa Barnes

“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 to add to the many facets of my own identity…. Telling my story through narrative jewelry is my way of connecting with the outside world.”

An Artist Encouraged to Embrace Learning

Karen Chesna, Jewelry & Metal Arts online coordinator, worked closely with Barnes throughout her time at the Academy. Chesna describes Barnes’ progression as an artist as “growth went beyond critique.” She says Barnes always went the extra mile and put exceptional care and attention into everything she did.

“She’s still pushing,” Chesna says. “She’s always going, ‘Let’s learn something new. Let’s embrace more.’”

Barnes plans to find a home for her Identity pieces in a solo show now that she’s graduated. And she’ll be working to put her art in more exhibitions and galleries. Taking notes from her instructors, Barnes says she would like to teach.

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“Separation” by Julessa Barnes

“Sharing what…you’re good at and passionate about is 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 says. “People always tell me when they see my work, ‘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 says. “We’ve given her [a] foundation, and now she’s pushing off….there’s only farther and farther up to go with her.”


Original article by Nina Tabios published in Academy Art U News

Photos courtesy of Julessa Barnes

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