Silver Silo: A Collective of Female Silversmiths

A Collective of Female Silversmiths at Silver Silo

Women on the Verge of A Silver Meltdown: the unbreakable bond forged among a collective of female silversmiths.

Photography by Lillian Reitz

On a sunny morning in late spring, five female metalsmiths gathered and conversed among the sounds of birds, frogs and wind chimes filtering throughout a studio space.

That space is the Silver Silo in Rockport, owned by Diane Johnson, and this story is the reason they’re gathered on this particular day. As an observer, it was abundantly clear from the way they interacted with one another that these women are more than just a group of artists all working within the same medium; they’re a sisterhood. Though their art consists of similar materials and techniques, there is no competition. Just community, camaraderie.

The five women — Diane Johnson, Teenya Barnard, Danya de Leon, Lori Fisher and Jennifer Racette, along with an integral part of this story, Kim KnifeChief — have formed a collective with learning from one another and empowering each other at the core of its existence. However, to truly understand this group of talented artists as they are today and the contributions they’ve made to the Rockport art community, we must first look back at the individual roads that led them to one another.

In the Beginning

Our story begins about a decade ago with Diane Johnson and Kim KnifeChief. Johnson had already begun navigating her way through the world of jewelry making, taking any class she could locally. She was looking for ways to continue developing her skillset, and decided the next phase of her artistic journey was waiting in Santa Fe. She connected with a woman who had not only lodging options for her, but a teacher in mind. Johnson and KnifeChief met, connected on the soul kind of level and the rest was history. “Once we met, I knew we’d be friends for life,” Johnson said.

The pair spent every moment of the next two weeks with one another, and Johnson soaked up every bit she could. KnifeChief, a member of the Pawnee Nation and a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts with a degree in silversmithing, imparted traditional Indigenous American metalsmith techniques to Johnson. To this day, once a year, Johnson and KnifeChief spend 30 straight days with one another in a garage studio in Santa Fe, where they easily fall back into that same inspirational flow and create.

Her first trip to Santa Fe lit a fire in Johnson’s mind and soul — she brought back not only newly learned techniques, but an invigorated spirit ready to work. Insert our third woman into the collective: Teenya Barnard. A longtime friend of Johnson’s (who also just so happened to be Johnson’s hairdresser, with a knack for reassembling antique jewelry and a love for studying random things), Barnard helped research etching techniques. It only took Barnard making one pair of earrings for her to realize this was something she was meant to do. The duo worked out of a tiny shack on Johnson’s property, and soon after, Danya de Leon entered the picture.

De Leon, with her intrinsic artistic abilities, had already begun making beaded jewelry, but was interested in diving deeper into the art and begin silversmithing. After complimenting a friend’s piece of jewelry, de Leon was introduced to the lore of Diane Johnson and joined the group.

Four for the Show

At this point, it’s late summer in 2017 and Johnson, KnifeChief, Barnard and de Leon were well-established silversmiths looking for elevated ways to showcase their art. Luis Purón, executive director of the Rockport Center for the Arts (RCA), knew exactly what to do.

“The reality is that their work would never be displayed in a gallery setting, which is the traditional way the RCA shines a light on artists,” Purón said about the inception of the now-annual event. “Though their work was displayed and sold in a gift shop setting, they had to share the space with many other artists.” Purón already had experience with events where models wore pieces from artists, and proposed a fashion and trunk show as a way for the silversmiths to showcase their work. When it came time to name the inaugural event, Purón knew exactly what to call it: Women on the Verge of a Silver Meltdown.

“Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar makes the most elegant films about the modern female narrative,” he said. The filmmaker released Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988, and it became one of Purón’s favorites. “I must have watched that film over 20 times, and because the silversmiths and the people that attended the fashion event were all women, I took the name of Almodóvar’s film and replaced the last two words.” Though Hurricane Harvey ultimately postponed the event until 2018, by the time it finally took place, it was well worth the wait. The name stuck and the show, which finally provided these fine artists a way to exhibit their work in a “fine art” manner, went on to become one of the most talked-about annual events in the Rockport community.

The Silver Six

Lori Fisher, the next silversmith sister to join the collective, was a retired banker looking for her next phase of life to conquer. Always dabbling in artistic endeavors, she had previously worked in paint, ceramics and stained glass, but after moving to Rockport and meeting Johnson, she fell in love with the art of silver. Fisher immediately took a class taught by de Leon and Barnard and fit right in.

Whereas the other women began their silversmith journeys once joining the group, the sixth and most recent addition to the collective, Jennifer Racette, came to the group with a well-established career in metalsmithing. Racette made her own jewelry to pair with the suits she wore for her corporate job. At age 42, she decided she no longer wanted to work a 60-hour workweek while trying to raise a child, and chose to see where her jewelry making talent might take her. After connecting with the Gulf Coast Gem and Mineral Society and taking a silversmithing course, she was hooked. Racette continued making pieces and selling them through her own trunk shows and various events over the years. Word travels when a new female silversmith in the Coastal Bend starts making waves, and Johnson connected with Racette to invite her to join their group.

An entirely separate article could be written about the tactile process and varying techniques these women practice. Metalsmithing isn’t glamorous; it can be painstaking work and involves hazardous energy and chemicals. It’s truly a methodical and fascinating artform in which every step has its own set of possible risks that could force you to start over. Practitioners can spend their entire lives learning new techniques in order to create one-of-a-kind pieces. “When you take a sheet of silver and you start creating a one-of-a-kind piece, not a production run and not 15 of the same rings, but a one-of-a-kind piece you won’t see again, you just really cannot beat that,” Fisher said.

Pieces of a Greater Whole

These women are creating wearable art, and often it’s turned into family heirlooms or timeless treasures. “The idea of you or someone else wearing a piece you’ve made means wearing a piece of our own personal story,” de Leon said. “Every time you send a piece out into the world, it’s an extension of yourself and a little piece of yourself, and your story goes with it to a new family and their story,” Racette added.

However, the cornerstone of this story isn’t the undeniable fact that each of these women create breathtaking, wearable fine art pieces; it’s the idea that this sisterhood transcends the pieces they’re making. So often in life, women are pitted against one another, especially women working within the same field. Yet these six women know nothing of the sort. They inspire one another, they teach each other, they lend materials and tools, they inspire and help workshop ideas when someone is feeling stuck or doubtful.

“I haven’t always been open to sharing my doubts, fears or even success stories with other people, but this group has helped me grow in that area of my life and has given me more confidence,” de Leon shared. “[These women] constantly remind me that we all have doubts and fears.” They are each other’s cheerleaders, confidants, teachers, family — all connected by sheets of glimmering silver and precious stones.

“To be good at this, you have to love it,” Racette said. “And you’ll know from your first moments at a workbench holding a 1,200-degree torch if it’s for you. Given this truth, there will be a relatively small number of people you cross paths with in your life that share your love of this age-old artform.” With that in mind, it seems fair to say that the women who make up this collective were meant to cross paths with one another in the little coastal town of Rockport, Texas. And though they each have their own individual stories, aesthetics and studio spaces, their love for this artform has created a transcendent and lifelong bond. 

Make plans to attend the 2023 Women on the Verge of a Silver Meltdown event Oct. 26 at the Rockport Conference Center. This year’s event will include two new participants: Diana Casabar and Alejandro Sifuentes.

Looking for more Arts + Culture? Check out Oscar “TrillJay” Wheat on His Artistic Identity and Inspiration or Day in the Life: Cheryl Votzmeyer-Rios.