Working Artists: Silly Little Shapes with Devon Simpson (She/Her)

This series highlights working artists currently on staff at the Frye Art Museum. The Frye has a wealth of talented Seattle-based artists working under its roof in many different capacities, each with their own dedicated arts practice outside of their work at the museum. Facilitated and written by Alexis L. Silva, Curatorial Assistant, this series is meant to highlight and celebrate these individuals, showcasing their amazing work and arts practices.  

Photo of Devon Simpson sitting at a jewelry bench looking at the camera and smiling

Photo: Alexis L. Silva

There is nothing like riding down Madrona Drive on a sunny spring day in Seattle. As you meander down the curved hill, Lake Washington slowly begins to grow in size. Small lapping waves hint that summer is just around the corner and remind you why you choose to power through those cold gray months. There is magic in the air when the sun finally shines down on the city. 

On a residential hilltop of this neighborhood sits a quiet house nestled in green foliage and bright tulips. Inside this cozy classic Seattle apartment with a spectacular view of Lake Washington, the air is warm and the golden light showers the room, highlighting each curated object in the space. This is the lovely home of Devon Simpson (She/Her) and her partner, Ramsey Haefner. Devon and Ramsey’s workspace is tucked away at the end of a hallway with small windows that filter in the perfect amount of light. There are perfectly organized coils of wire hanging on hooks, along with a neatly arranged desk with an array of silver jewelry waiting to be admired. 

Devon served as the Frye’s Digital Design and Web Manager through April 21, 2023; a vital member of our Communications team responsible for overseeing the museum’s digital presence. Along with her duties at the museum, she has a silversmithing practice and is an avid fiber enthusiast. We will miss her incredibly as she embarks on her next adventure. As a final hurrah, I spent an afternoon with Devon to talk more about her silversmithing, textile work, and different ideas on how to make work available.  

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about your background and how you got started in jewelry making. 

I'm originally from Southern California, specifically Orange County. I came up here to attend Seattle University, and never left. While I was in school, I got a job at a bead shop called World Beads on Capitol Hill, which closed in 2015. I loved it, it was the funniest job I've ever had. Just slinging beads! As you can imagine, there weren’t a lot of people coming in. I took that time and started teaching myself just basic jewelry making. I started experimenting with beading, but beaded jewelry wasn’t really my vibe. After the store closed, a family friend/mentor, Pat Hawk, taught me the art of soldering and silversmithing. So, I ran with it and bought myself a little kit off Amazon. I really fell in love with it and took off from there.  

What attracted you to silver specifically and what sort of processes come with working with silver? 

I love silver, it is such a fabulous material. It's high end but way more approachable than gold, which is extremely expensive. You can do so much more with silver and if I mess up, it's not going to cost me hundreds of dollars. I can just put it into my scrap pile and do something else with it later. You have so much freedom with silver, and I love how good it looks on everybody. It's super accessible for both the creator and your customer. It’s a win-win on both sides! Silver can take on so many forms too. If you wanted to oxidize it, you could get this darker slate matte look. Or you could put it in a rock tumbler and polish it to get this super shiny reflective quality.

Photo of silver jewelry laid out on a workspace and a piece of chainmail is being laid over a stand
Photos: Alexis L. Silva
Photo looking over Devon Simpson's shoulder while she works at a jewelry bench

What is your process when choosing the shape and composition for each piece? Do you have any direct inspirations?

A lot of the time, I will just sit down and start playing with wire because it all starts out in a spool. I will bend and form it in different ways to see what sticks. I'm very inspired by sculpture, so my designs have been going towards a more sculptural and 3D direction lately. I like to play and sketch as I go. Sometimes I’ll think to myself, "there's no way this blobby cloud shape could be an earring,” and then I try to make it into one! I’m also inspired by fashion. I love what designers like Rachel Comey, Issa Boulder, Sandy Liang, and Collina Strada are doing. When I think about what inspires me these days, I'm just really drawn to silly little shapes. I also love vintage jewelry, designers from the Postmodern, Brutalist, and 1990s Art Deco Revival eras. Other big influences are more modern jewelers like Hannah Jewett, Plutonia Blue, Mondo Mondo, Kaye Blegvad, and Lane Walkup. 

I know that you also have a rich textile/fiber practice. Can you talk about that process and how both mediums talk to each other, or don’t?  

I got into sewing during the pandemic because, well, we all had our own coping mechanisms. I started knitting to stay awake when I'm watching movies. And then, it turned out that I really liked it. When I am knitting, my brain turns off in a weird way.  I'm the kind of person who likes to tinker with things. I love to always be making things with my hands, no matter what. What I would like to do in the future is somehow incorporate fibers and metal. I've recently gotten into chainmail, which is kind of like knitting with metal, so it does kind of bring those two together in a fun way.  

I know you don’t currently have a commerce website where you’re actively selling pieces. Can you express your opinion on selling your jewelry and how it influences your overall process?  

I started a small business selling my jewelry when I was about 21.  I did my first popup at the Urban Outfitters on Broadway (which is now closed). They were starting to do markets and they invited me to be a part of one. I was so bad at running a business—it's hard work and I was also in school and working full time. I just didn’t really love the grind of selling my work. I felt when I was creating work to be sold to the masses, integrity would get lost. I hadn't really nailed down the idea of creating one-off bespoke pieces that I could also sell. I really appreciate my approach now because I create only what I feel like making. Why not make a squiggly little flower or spiral and add it to a more traditional chain design? I actually made an Instagram account this morning to have a central space to put all the work and document it. It will probably have 40 followers in its lifetime, but that's okay! I mostly want it as an archive for myself to look back on. It is a dream of mine to make things for other people, whether it's a custom piece or a collaboration with other artists. It's not really about the money for me because it's not my full-time thing, but I just like seeing people interacting with the work. I also love doing art trades. That is my favorite form of commerce. I've gotten so much cool stuff from other artists through trading—whether it's like a painting or an acupuncture session. I'm not really creating with the idea of production in mind. It's more just I had an idea and I'm making it, and if people buy it that’s great! If no one buys it, that's also great. It helps me create work because I like it, rather than needing to keep in mind a specific style, demographic, or type of customer. 

I know you’re leaving the Frye for California soon but, tell us about your vision for the future of the Seattle arts community. 

Seattle will always be a huge part of me. My most formative years were spent here. It’s where I learned how to be a person in the world and where I developed my artistic style. I really do thank the Seattle art community for helping me develop into who I am today. There is such a rich culture here that is unfortunately at risk in many ways. But I try not to dwell on the negative. Maybe that's just me being kind of an optimist, but I think I found myself getting caught in a negative cycle of, “oh, the art scene is dying, it's too expensive, artists can't survive here,” and forgetting about all the arts that are flourishing in Seattle. Looking at it with a more positive lens is something that I've had to train myself to do. And working at the Frye has been very helpful for that, because it's literally a beacon for the Pacific Northwest arts community. I just want Seattle to be more accessible, I want artists to be able to afford to live here. Arts organizations that are doing such good work to support that—Artist Trust, ArtsFund, and others—I really appreciate and love them. I just wish there was more financial support because Seattle is a very wealthy city. The wealth does not get distributed as well as it should towards the arts. It’s all about the distribution of funds. I think slowly but surely, things are getting slightly better, but there is still a lot of work to do. 

We chatted about having your Instagram live as more of an archive, but if folks were curious, how could they find you?  

My Instagram handle is @devons_little_projects. A place for me to share my little hobbies! There's a boutique called Revival that I think still carries some of my work. (So go check it out! – Alexis) 

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