When Tracy Jonsson is not flying about town on her bicycle en route between jobs (“I have, like, five”) or holed up at Empire Tea working for Newport Art House, the community arts organization that she founded last year, you might find her walking our shores, picking out rocks for her jewelry line.
The passionate artist, musician, maker, teacher, sailor, and non-profit exec landed in Newport seven years ago – and thank goodness Rhode Island captured her adventuresome heart, because she’s been making waves in the community ever since. Rare is the arts or city planning event where she doesn’t pop up — usually bundled in knitwear and jewelry of her own making — to support fellow creatives or share her opinions on changing our city for the better.
In her dual role as artist and arts advocate, Tracy keeps a finger on the creative pulse of the city, as well as the market opportunities that 3.5 million visitors bring to Newport each year. Her latest jewelry collection, Sages, beautifully reflects the increasing appetite – from locals and tourists alike – for better quality keepsakes that actually relate to the landscape of the city. (It can be purchased locally at Gather and the Newport Art Museum.)
I worked with Tracy to shoot the lookbook for Sages (the photos featured here are from it), part of her namesake Tracy Jonsson Designs line, and found her endlessly inspiring. Here, she talks a little bit more about her creative process, as well as her new pieces.
Newport has always attracted aesthetes, people who are interested in being in beautiful environments. There’s a concentration of skilled artists in town – but there’s loads of room for improvement to make this fact common knowledge, regionally. Part of the idea of Newport Art House is that the city hasn’t really capitalized on the power of art in place making, marketing, and tourism. I hope to create a space where artists are approached as an invaluable resource worthy of investment and celebrated for their contribution to this fair town.
Your jewelry takes inspiration from the local environment. How did you come up with the idea for this collection?
This particular line is very Newport by virtue of being [made from] the rocks that I’ve found here, but if you zoom out a little bit, I think the inspiration is really traveling in general, the tokens that we pick up while visiting particular places. I have an interest in the concept of significance, left over from my historic preservation studies. How do inanimate objects become important to people? They only become important through experience. We love to put facets on stones to add human value, or labor really, and that’s what we pay for, but one of my pieces will remind you that nature creates gorgeous treatments of stone too; you’re wearing something that split off of our shorelines and was buffed by rolling around Narragansett Bay.
So, combing the beach for beautiful rocks — that sounds like a pretty nice way to spend a workday…
It is, exactly! I’m not complaining about that workday, for sure. And sometimes when I have a really bad day I actually go out to the same spot where I gather my rocks and I just lay there and say, “Thank you, Universe, for these beautiful rocks.” No joke. So, you know, they get love back.
We love to put facets on stones to add human value, or labor really, and that’s what we pay for, but one of my pieces will remind you that nature creates gorgeous treatments of stone too.
You are a maker, an artist, a musician, and the director of your own non-profit. Basically, you do a lot of different things. Has jewelry making always been a part of your life?
I’ve always been a maker, always tinkered around with things, and am a constant learner. When I was working as a boat builder in New York City, I had access to a lot of woodworking tools, so I would make jewelry out of wood. I’ve also always been interested in textiles. I’d say sewing and knitting were my first crafts. When I was sailing, I brought a huge knitting bag with me – bulky! During a stop-over in the Bahamas, a man on the boat next to me was casting gold with a mold on the end of a piece of string — a hand-centrifuge system. So I started thinking, if I’m going to travel, what’s something I can make that’s mobile, both in the tools and in the product itself? Similarly, when I visited places I’d want a small souvenir that I’d prize for the association as well as the aesthetic. Jewelry works very well for that.
What sorts of objects and artwork inspire you?
I’ve always loved natural items, so in any sort of museum of natural history, I am in the geology department! I grew up in Sweden and was surrounded by a lot of modernism, simple lines, and the prevalent use of natural materials and motifs, and that Scando influence shows in my design decisions. Then there’s Art Noveau block print wall papers, the Luminists’ works, the Japanese-influenced modernists – not to mention the contemporary abstractions people are coming up with. So much of it hinges on color for me. I actually don’t think about influences that much while making. I just say, “What a nice rock! I’d love to wear it on a long chain.” I think when a woman wears a long necklace, she beams with femininity, power, grace. Is it a goddess thing? I do think it lends itself to, well, maybe a little bit of a shamanistic vibe to have a pendant that stands out.
So what can we expect next from the many facets of Tracy Jonsson Designs?
I’m really excited to be going wholesale this year, and to be connecting to what I’m calling “modern naturalists.” I’m continuing to experiment with different ways to use natural stones, crystals, and wood in my work, while staying consistent with my long chain, simple stone pieces. My collection names are shaping up to a holistic theme: Last year it was Talisman and this year Sages. Both emphasize the wisdom of accepting the beauty in things the way they come, through the power of your own association and an appreciation for the simple things in life.
Photos by Caroline Goddard.