Debra Baxter Tells the Surreal, Wonderful Story of How She Became a Jewelry Designer
“This is my new studio, and I’m super excited about it,” Debra Baxter says, ushering us out of the cold and into a well-heated garage space. Debra moved to Santa Fe from Seattle a little over a year ago, and recently got a house in El Dorado. The previous owner was a car collector, and custom-built the garage to house his prized possessions. Now it’s brimming with a very different array of treasures.
We weave through a forest of pedestals with sculptures perched on them and stop beside a table covered in glimmering gems and minerals. Baxter earned her MFA in sculpture from Bard College in 2008, and maintains a robust artistic practice. While she was in graduate school, she had a creative breakthrough and started making jewelry as well. We’ve exhibited her work in form & concept’s gallery shop since our opening last August. We sat down with Baxter to talk about taking the leap from sculpture to jewelry, turning her collectors into superheroes, and other fascinating topics.
Form & Concept: How did you take the leap from sculpture to jewelry?
Debra Baxter: In January of 2007, I had a solo show in New York City at Massimo Audiello. I was purely making sculpture, and starting to cast some things out of bronze. I had a sterling silver tongue that I made. Two years later, I made these crystal brass knuckles. It was kind of supposed to be a joke. It’s something that heals you and could hurt you at the same time. I thought it was this ironic, hilarious thing. When you make something, you don’t think that much other than realizing your vision. The brass knuckles turned into this insane phenomenon on the Internet. There’s still memes going. That was my first piece of jewelry that I made.
After that, I kind of started sliding into this area where I was adding crystals and minerals to my work. I kind of realized with the crystal brass knuckles how potent these things could be when they’re actually on your body. I started making necklaces after that. I made some rings, but mostly big, crystal necklaces.
F&C: It can be difficult to make a big switch like that.
DB: Whenever I’ve made a weird jump or breakthrough in my work, I have to turn off the part of me that’s like, "Why are you doing this? You don’t make jewelry." You just have to start doing it and ignore that voice. That’s one thing I learned from grad school, is to trust your gut, and to go and research different directions that may or may not make sense.
I was spending all day, every day in my studio making jewelry for a while. I thought I was just going to have one sale, and that was it. I wanted to go to New York to see my best friend for her dog’s bar mitzvah. I’m not even kidding. That’s what it was for, to fund this trip. Now I can’t stop, because it’s so fun to make them. Because there’s so much thinking and staring at sculpture, and trying to solve a problem, it’s nice to just make something with my hands and much more easily solve a problem.
F&C: How did you go from experimenting with making jewelry to starting your line, DB/CB?
DB: You start something and say, "Oh, I’m just making a few of these. It’s no big deal." And then at some point I’m like, "I’m opening an online store." I had so many hits on my website from the crystal brass knuckles at the time. People were finding my jewelry when I wasn’t advertising or doing anything. I had magazines from Japan emailing me. It was bizarre. I still don’t understand it, the Internet is fascinating. DB/CB actually stands for Debra Baxter/Crystal Bomb.
F&C: Some of the original brass knuckles you made are in the Smithsonian collection. How did that come about?
DB: A curator, Nora Atkinson, used to live in Seattle, where I used to live. She put together this show called Making Mends at the Bellevue Art Museum, and I had several pieces in the show. She got this job as the Renwick’s curator, which is the Smithsonian’s museum of craft. She emailed me and said, "Do you have any more of those brass knuckles? They’re very un-Smithsonian, and that’s why I like them. They’re very punk rock." That’s how that happened, and it took about a year to get it in there. Now they’re in the permanent collection forever, as far as I know, next to some mind-blowing artists that I can’t even believe I’m anywhere near.
F&C: You’ve referred to making sculptures as “solving a puzzle.” Do you apply the same process to your jewelry?
DB: It’s a little less puzzling, the jewelry. If there’s any puzzle, it’s me building the space around each rock to make it the most interesting and beautiful and highlighted. The jewelry’s more about my obsession with crystals and minerals, and how much I love them, and how astonishing it is that they came from the earth and naturally look like this.
F&C: Are all of your jewelry materials from the natural world?
DB: A couple pieces might have less natural things. This necklace that I’m wearing is plated with titanium, but for the most part they’re natural. That’s part of what gets me very excited. And my husband’s a geologist, so what do you know.
F&C: What are your collectors’ reactions to the jewelry pieces?
DB: I like that when people buy them, they feel empowered by the stone that’s in them. I’ve had several people email me. Maybe they went to a job interview and felt like they nailed it because they wore this large labradorite necklace. Or one did a presentation in Chicago with this huge crystal necklace. They email me later, and say that believing in the power of this necklace made the good thing happen. I think that’s pretty amazing.
A few years ago, this woman who’s a curator from Portland came to my studio. She has synesthesia, which is when your senses are all mixed up. She could hardly be in my studio. There’s so much energy coming out. I thought it was super interesting.
F&C: So they transform people into superheroes!
DB: They’re like mini shields. They have this shape of the Superman insignia. One of my early pieces was a hyperventilation bag made of carved alabaster, with crystals blowing out the side. It was all about having the vulnerability and turning it into power. The crystals all stemmed from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, which was made of crystals. It’s about the power of crystals in this kind of cartoony, comic book way, and then in reality, the various properties that people believe they have. I believe in some of them. It just makes it fascinating to me.
F&C: What are some of your favorite gems?
DB: I like malachite, because sometimes it has this really strange, crystalline structure that looks like feathers. It’s very delicate. Every once in a while, there’s a malachite that’s a totally different shape.
I’m super in love with rose quartz. I really think it has this strong, lovey-gush energy. I sell a lot around Valentine’s Day. Of all the stones that strike me as having a real energy or vibration, rose quartz really is strong for me. So is clear quartz. The clearer the quartz, the better it’s supposed to amplify energy.
A stone that I wear sometimes is angel aura or opal aura. It has a titanium coat on it that was made in a vacuum chamber. It’s a chemistry experiment. They start out natural quartz, and then they get colored.
F&C: How do you pick new gems or minerals to use? Do you envision how they would fit into a piece?
DB: I’m really picky about what I use. I don’t always buy them in person, but it’s more helpful to me if I can see them in person.
There is some practicality to it. It’s helpful if it’s flat, so that it could fit into a necklace. I’m really about finding a really special stone that’s going to make something that is going to make you feel stronger.
F&C: Have you had a “super powered” experience with one of your pieces?
DB: When I was driving across the country, I wore an angel aura necklace every day because I wanted my support system. If I had any angels watching over me, I wanted them to be with me while I was traveling.
I also sometimes wear turquoise when I’m traveling, because it’s supposed to give you luck when you’re on a journey. I just love that, because I think even for me, whether it’s true or not, if I’m wearing it I’ll start believing it. Then I’ll feel better. It could be a placebo, but when people email me and tell me they wear it for something important, that’s awesome.
F&C: Is it hard to let go of the jewelry that you’ve worn on different adventures?
DB: I usually can let things go, but it’s a little harder with the jewelry in some ways. I get really attached to the stone in it, and how it looks. Someone just bought an angel aura piece, and I told her the story of me wearing it on this road trip, and how I thought it gave me power and energy. I think that’s part of what made her want it, because she bought the one that I was wearing. I just wanted her to know that story and what I felt like it had done for me. Sometimes it’s just time to let go of things.
This doesn’t always happen, but I like to know who buys them or to have a personal relationship. That can’t happen always when you have stores, but it’s almost like you can see what the person needs and what might click with them, and help them find the right stone.
F&C: Tell us more about the difference between your jewelry design and sculpting processes.
DB: I like my jewelry because I’m kind of self-taught. There’s certain things I do that a jeweler would be like, ‘Why would you do it that way?’ I think because I don’t know the right way, I take risks that are non-traditional and then discover something more interesting.
For example, I finish my jewelry with an angle grinder, which something that you would normally use to cut metal or stone. I do have to wear protective gloves so I don’t cut my thumb off. It’s true.