"Finding the Spark" - Slice Magazine (October 2013)
Valerie Naifeh wasn’t sure what to expect when she stepped into Ann Garrett’s Designer Jewelry store in 1984. A 20-year-old Tulsa University student with a predilection toward architecture and graphic design, she showed up out of politeness. Her high school art teacher, Otto Duecker, who later became a noted hyperrealist painter, recommended her to Garrett for an apprenticeship. Naifeh thought she’d be filing papers, running errands and was prepared to turn down the job. Garrett liked her, was impressed with her maturity and explained how she would be an apprentice jeweler. On Naifeh’s first day, she sat down at a jeweler’s bench. Garrett showed her three kinds of files used for carving and a jeweler’s saw. She explained a few basics about making a wax model for an 8-millimeter-wide wedding ring. Then she left her alone.
Naifeh spent what she thinks may have been half an hour – she can’t quite remember – spellbound in carving and crafting a simple ring. Then thunder struck.
“I was so happy,” she says. “It was just this enormous, light bulb moment. No. 1, I thought, ‘People get paid to do this?!’ and No. 2 – that I’m supposed to be working with my hands. I’m supposed to be creating things, designing and building things. It was just this huge overwhelming feeling of ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
Her flash of clarity and purpose may have flowed from growing up with a father – Tulsa TV personality Lee Woodward – whose amateur pen-and-ink portraits amazed her and her two brothers. The siblings competed to match his fidelity to people’s faces and animals. Her brothers excelled, but Valerie couldn’t quite capture freehand. Instead, she drew elabo- rate designs alive with squares, triangles, colors and forms.
A tomboy, Naifeh would play with her older brother as they pawed through pieces of erector sets, Lincoln logs, buckets of building blocks ... They constructed imaginary structures and worlds. By high school and college, Naifeh was taking drafting and technical drawing classes and considering archi- tecture as a career.
It’s not surprising, then, that in her personal creative work she grasps for shapes, colors, lines and curves that sing beautifully together. She simultaneously con- structs the jewelry’s technical architecture – the mold- ings, clasps, bails, bezels – with the simple visual beauty of the object she creates.
Only six years after her apprenticeship began, Naifeh won her first design award for a mother-of-pearl, dia- mond and onyx triton-shell brooch; she rose above 600 other North American designers in the De Beers’ Dia- monds Today Awards. She’s the only Oklahoma designer to win it twice – again in 1994 with a hematite, diamonds and platinum beaded bracelet design. She placed in the Japanese International Pearl Design Competition, compet- ing with designers from over 40 countries.
Naifeh’s creative process unfolds best in certain circum- stances. Quiet is a must. No music or other distractions. She most often designs in solitude at home or in-studio. Inspiration can come unexpectedly, too, while jogging, or in the middle of a meeting – even gardening.
“If you’re pulling weeds, you’re trying to figure out where the next weed is and you’re not just sitting in front of a blank piece of paper trying to force yourself,” she says. “You have to be will- ing to allow the process to be organic and take you where it will. I just find when I’m not under pressure to really solve something, is when the resolution just becomes very clear to me.” From life-changing spark to a lifetime of artistic inspiration, Naifeh’s experiences exemplify experts’ advice for anyone craving creative release: Expose yourself to new experiences as often as you can, and let your creativity flow.