When Sonya Coulson Rook told one of her art professors at East Carolina University that she was planning to concentrate on ceramics, his response stung.
He said, maybe you should consider a metals class, Rook recalled. It was quite the crushing critique. Id never even considered metal. I guess he thought the way I worked was more suited to it.
The professor, it turned out, was on to something.
As soon as I took the first class, I knew it was what I wanted to do, said Rook, 34, who graduated with a fine arts degree in 2001. Ceramics had always been a struggle, but metal came naturally. I like to make things organically. Metal lends itself to that. If you do something you dont like, you can go back and change it.
A dozen years later, Rook, who moved to Raleigh in 2004, now designs and makes jewelry full time under the name Metamorphosis Metals, with work ranging from simple rings and necklaces to her trademark narratives that might include critters, clouds and swings in trees.
Last year, when Rook was poised to hire her first assistant, her husband, Jackey Rook, was laid off from his job in retail. Hed already been helping her with packing, shipping and shows, so bringing him on full time was a natural transition. Now he does basic soldering for his wifes jewelry and is working up his own line of leather cuffs for men. They also make supplies, such as forged links and earring components, for other jewelers.
Rooks path to full-time jewelry making wasnt direct. She got sidetracked by a management job at a womens clothing store. She enjoyed the stability but didnt feel inspired. After she and her husband moved to Raleigh, she set up her bench and torch and created a little studio in their one-bedroom apartment.
That reignited everything, she said. She started by making simple but striking earrings and necklaces and incorporating found objects.
Etsy was just beginning, and I put a few things up there and sold them, Rook said of the e-commerce site.
One of her early admirers was handbag designer Holly Aiken, who has carried Rooks jewelry at her Raleigh retail shop, Stitch, for several years.
Sonyas work fits well in my shop because of its uniqueness, Aiken said. I like that shell find something like a little piece of scrap metal and turn it into something distinctive. It doesnt look like other jewelry lines.
In 2010, Rook rented studio space in the Carter Building on Glenwood Avenue. Then came another sting she was put on the wait list for the holiday Handmade Show that year, a competitive event in which shed always been accepted.
That definitely made me step it up, she said. I knew I needed to do something to stand out.
Rook had no firm plan until she walked into a Raleigh antique store and a group of tiny plastic human figures in various stages of action and repose called out to her.
Later I learned they were model train figures. They opened up possibilities of where to go with my work, she said.
Now she bulk-orders plastic people, animals and props for a myriad of settings for her model series.
Once I get them, I lay them out and figure out what sort of scenes I want to make, she said. They kind of speak to me.
A simple version might be a cow perched on an earring hoop. More elaborate images are used in titled pendants, such as Windy Day, where three children are flying a kite with clouds wafting by.
Theyre not everyday pieces, and I dont put them in retail stores, but theyre what keep me inspired. I love them.
So do customers, who sometimes commission pieces that evoke scenes from their own lives.
A new earring and pendant motif is a serendipitous collaboration with Jackey.
Hes been working with copper pipes, and when he cut little slices I thought they looked like honeycombs, she said. I do a lot of cutout silhouettes of animals, so I made bees. The result is an eye-catching honeycomb-and-bee design.
Not only is Rook back on the Handmade Show circuit (Jackey will be minding the booth at Saturdays event while shes at a show in Richmond), but she also expects to attend some two dozen festivals this year, including Artsplosure in Raleigh later this month. Jackey, meanwhile, will focus on growing their wholesale accounts.
Rook has been playing around with some other offerings and recently made a series of animal bottle stoppers, but she doesnt expect to stray far.
Sometimes its nice to make something different, but I love jewelry in general and I love making it. That hasnt changed.
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