SARA THOMPSON: "Metalhead"
Silversmithing with a Fresh Approach: "Making" Outside the Box (or Vessel)
At age 22, metalsmith Sara Thompson (BFA in Craft, Metals; 2017) is primed to redefine American silversmithing.
The soft-spoken “metalhead” with a penchant for mathematics and science has rocketed to success as a silversmith, sculptor, and jeweler. It’s a career trajectory the American Craft Council describes as nothing short of “meteoric.” And that success has its roots in making on the idyllic campus of Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC).
In 2017, Sara earned a BFA in Craft with a concentration in Metals from OCAC. “I’m telling people at the Smithsonian, at the American Craft Council, that my degree is in Craft,” she says. “What I studied, was high-quality skilled making in metal. That’s what I took away from a BFA in Craft at OCAC…it distinguishes me and sets me apart from other artists.”
Adorned with science-infused tattoos including an astronaut, the planets, and a rocket ship, the contemporary metalsmith is proud of the education in deep materials knowledge she received at OCAC.
"This school is special. It’s like a little Narnia up here,” she says of the 9.5 wooded acres nestled in the Southwest hills of Portland, ORE. “I think that other students should have the opportunity to experience that."
Sara credits OCAC’s mentor–based learning environment and small class size with helping her thrive. “I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today if it wasn’t for Christine (Clark),” she says of the OCAC professor, artist, and former Head of the Metals Department. “She has this amazing ability to see how students learn and structure her curriculum around their needs.”
A self–professed “science nerd,” Sara traces the value of OCAC’s tight–knit community back to a cognitive theory: “There’s this principle by Malcolm Gladwell in which the largest army troops are 150 (in size)…because that’s just about the number of spaces the human mind can retain a familiarity with. And when you look at the size of OCAC, it hovers around there. Quantity doesn’t mean a better quality.”
‘Silver, I found, is like my Goldilocks Metal.’
Sara has already received multiple private commissions for custom work—a rarity for an artist so young. They include a series in the international Foster Art Project Archive of Ivorypress founder Lady Elena Foster (wife of British architect Lord Norman Foster), and original pieces collected by leading philanthropists Edythe and Eli Broad. Since the time of this interview, she earned an Award of Distinction in Metal from the Society of Arts + Crafts.
Sara moved to Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 11 and served as a jeweler’s apprentice for five years. Her introduction to metalsmithing and jewelry making was in sterling silver.
"I kept coming back to wanting to work in silver, as it was the metal I was most familiar with. But also, there was something about it—the properties and the look of it. Silver, I found, is like my Goldilocks metal. It moves easily but retains its form.”
Placed on an accelerated math track at a young age, Sara graduated from high school early. “It was clear that I liked learning,” she said of identifying as an academic throughout childhood. To the dismay of some of her teachers, she chose not to pursue the sciences or mathematics.
“It’s not what would make me happy,” she explains. “I just wanted the arts. I wanted to go and study metals.” And that’s precisely what she did.
Sara gravitated towards OCAC’s focus on haptic intelligence. Her vessels, often described as “made for the hand,” are meant to be interacted with, not simply viewed on a gallery wall or from a pedestal.
“I was taught that if someone is interested in a piece, take it out of the case and show it to them,” says Sara. “It breaks this barrier between the glass and the viewer, so that the viewer can connect what they see to what they feel in their hand.”
She’s the One Who Does the Hammering:
Sara has no interest in becoming “a fancy designer” or a household name. Of the career milestones she’s already achieved, she admits, “It’s really overwhelming….It’s a lot to think about and comprehend.”
But Sara remains focused on the work. In fact, she can recall every single piece made since July of 2016; including which collector and what location each went to.
“66 vessels and 82 silver spoons,” she says, opening a black moleskin journal to reveal a hand–scrawled list.
“Probably within the last two months, I’ve made another 7, no 8, vessels. I’m working on two trays this weekend & hopefully another 15 spoons.”
And that was mid–October of 2018. Despite the impressive scope of her handmade inventory, Sara recently found herself in a unique position. “I don’t have enough work for them,” she says of high–profile clients and upcoming art shows eager for more pieces. “I can’t make it fast enough.”
Even so, the process–driven artist is not interested in quantity. And she’s emphatic about continuing to make her own work:
“That’s very important in my process...I’m the person that does the hammering. And it’s only me who can do the hammering because anyone else would give a different form."
Making Waves as a Metalsmith:
Sara may have chosen her path as maker, but her deep interest in science continues to make waves (and ripples)—in the conceptual meanings behind many of her elegant vessels. From the ratios of layers of the earth, to the calculations of the Golden Spiral, Sara artfully weaves proportions into her pieces.
“For example, the lips of the trays I’m working on right now follow the curvature of waves in the ocean. When you pick them up right here,” she demonstrates, “ the trays curve upwards so you can slip your fingers underneath them.”
Sara’s “silversmithing with a fresh approach” is the epitome of OCAC’s focus on cross–disciplinary learning. As one of her collectors sums it up: “What you’re doing is very special. You’re craft, but you’re sculpture, but you’re design. You’re fine art. You don’t fit into this one little box.” Or, in this case, vessel.
When surveying Sara’s achievements today, it's difficult not to wonder what she may be on the cusp of accomplishing in 5 years, or 10 years, or 30 years. As for what does lie ahead, Sara responds, “Who knows.”
And right now, that’s not entirely important.