Wearable Art: James-Ben Stockton & Daniel Luther
By Angela Wampler | November 26, 2007James-Ben Stockton grew up in Jamestown, Tenn., on the Cumberland Plateau that splits the middle and eastern divisions of the state. He worked in pottery until his studies at the University of Tennessee exposed him to metalsmithing and jewelry design.
"I admired a ring worn by the metals professor and asked her to make me one," he recalls. "She told me to come take her class and learn how to make it myself. I took enough classes to keep my forestry scholarship, but I knew from that point on that I was a jewelry designer/artisan."
As an artist, Stockton had found his medium. His mastery of technique was so rapid that he was student teaching while still an undergraduate, and his first national design award came during this same period. He also studied at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg and believes to this day that his artistic roots are deep in the mountains of East Tennessee.
In the 1980s, Stockton worked as the Designer/Artisan-in-Residence for the Regional Gallery at the Knoxville World's Fair. During this time he met partner Daniel Luther, who also had metalsmithing in his blood.
Luther says, "When I began working with James-Ben in the jewelry studio, my hands were immediately comfortable with the tools, [perhaps because] my Granddaddy Luther was a foundryman whose backyard workshop was one of my favorite places growing up."
The two have collaborated in jewelry production for more than 20 years. "We use the term 'bottega' to describe our process," Luther says. "The word refers to the Renaissance masters who divided the elements of their commissions among their apprentices according to their talent and skill level."
"From design to final polish, there are many steps to creating jewelry," adds Stockton. "We each do the steps we're best at, which means every finished piece has both sets of hands involved."
For several years, Stockton and Luther operated their jewelry studio within a larger fine craft gallery in Franklin, Tenn. The experience led to the opening of James-Ben: Studio and Gallery in 1992.
After almost 20 years in the gallery and jewelry business, the duo moved to Greeneville, Tenn. in 2002. They were looking for some new place to go, and fell in love with Tennessee's second oldest community and its history. As part of a long-range vision to revitalize the historic downtown area, they were invited to submit a proposal for redevelopment of an old corner drugstore where they were living and working.
The former drugstore now houses James-Ben: Studio & Gallery Art Center, showcasing fine art, master crafts, and contemporary folk art by more than 140 artists, most of them Tennesseans, some with national reputations.
In coming to Greeneville, what they had originally intended as a semi-retirement has become a personal and professional re-invention. Stockton and Luther are artists themselves, not only jewelry designers, but also performers, writers, promoters, and teachers.
They create jewelry of gold, silver, platinum, and gemstones, using hand-made and found beads. Their designs in gold, silver, and platinum have been commissioned, collected, and worn by people in more than 30 states and several foreign countries.
Stockton says, "We specialize in commissions which synergize the client's personal style and preference with our professional skills and technical vocabulary. Working with precious metals is like alchemy. It's based on science, but has a strong element of magic in the creative process."
Stockton continues, "Our awareness of history has a personal application for many of our clients. Within the studio creativity, my favorite experience is a process we call 'Contemporary Heirlooms' for lack of a better term; we recycle a client's legacy gold and stones. This is particularly applicable in the creation of wedding jewelry. Brides and grooms are frequently offered family rings to use for their wedding, which at times can become somewhat awkward. How does the couple choose a personal reflection of themselves while honoring these family gifts? Our contemporary heirloom process recombines all that family history into a set of rings that express the new couple's preferences while celebrating the merging of the families."
After moving to Greeneville, Stockton first taught his "cold-working" jewelry techniques to a group of seniors at the Roby Center. Then the same group of seniors took on the role of mentors and tutors for the Boys and Girls Club as Stockton taught the young people the same techniques. He explains, "We combine beads of all shapes and colors with copper and brass wire to make bracelets, rings and pendants — all without the use of torches or solder."
In laymen's terms, Stockton says, "It's amazing what can be done with just pliers, files, wire cutters and your hands — the best jewelry tool of all." Wire and bead jewelry is a technique that he has successfully taught for many years in a wide variety of venues and age groups.
As producers of wearable art, Stockton and Luther have come a long way from "lost-wax" casting on a kitchen floor in Nashville.
"Our only regret is that we didn't make the move to Greeneville sooner," says Stockton. "It's marvelous to be part of the town's rebirth. We've re-energized ourselves. The addition of teaching facilities to the gallery has expanded us into an art center. But at the heart of it all, James-Ben: Designer/Artisan is still in operation."
"The making of jewelry used to be our sole focus and now it is one among many," says Luther wistfully. "But there is still such joy in doing that process that started it all."
"The jewelry studio is where we go to rekindle the creative fires," concludes Stockton. "And to get our hands dirty."
For more information, call 423-787-0195 or email Stockton@James-Ben.com.
— SIERRA McMILLAN, an 11-year-old from Abingdon, Va., uses beads, turquoise, stones and even found items to create jewelry.
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"Generational Parure" by James-Ben: Designer/Artisans.Three generations of one family are represented in this matching set of jewelry (14 kt. yellow gold and pink jade). Stockton explains, "One uncut stone was given to the wife by her mother-in-law 30 years ago. The husband and wife commissioned the pendant, earrings and rings (below right) for themselves. The pendant with pearls (top right) was created for the couple's granddaughter on the occasion of her first communion.
"Taurus Aligned" by James-Ben Designer/Artisan. An emerald and three rubies are aligned on a two-finger ring (14 kt. yellow gold) created for a client in Switzerland.
"Encircling Hearts," a hand-fabricated, graduated demi parure (jewelry with a common theme), featured in The Tennessean.
"The Belladonna" mask is worn each year by the fund-raising chair of the Middle Tennessee Poison Control Center Masked Ball. In forged sterling silver with onyx beads, the mask fits like a hat atop the head so that, at the unmasking, the chair's hair and make-up were undisturbed. The forms were based on the flowers and leaves of the poisonous belladonna plant, also known as "Deadly Night Shade." "That name, suggesting lunar shapes and curves, was the primary source of my design inspiration and execution," Stockton explains.
James-Ben Stockton with Daniel Luther.