Inspiring Women Spotlight: Gwen Barba, Artist + Designer
I first met Gwen at a jewelry class. We quickly became friends and bonded over our shared passion for silver solder and drill bits.
Gwen is a powerhouse. Don’t let her modest demeanor fool you because she is a total badass when it comes to all things art. She earned her MFA in printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design, and then founded Concarta: a studio that crafted intricate, custom paper sculptures. Wanting to learn jewelry design, she studied with master jeweler Peter Solomon in California, and later learned computer-aided design. Gwen now incorporates her knowledge of both methods (hand-fabrication and CAD) to create her pieces.
I was excited to interview Gwen because I have always admired her attention to detail and ability to put her whole self into each piece she creates. Her jewelry designs are truly beautiful works of art. Here is our interview below, enjoy!
Tell us about how you got started in designing jewelry. Did you have a different career before this? What led you to this craft?
After college, I worked as a display artist at Bergdorf Goodman in New York and had the opportunity to quietly examine some really incredible jewelry pieces while I arranged and merchandised them in cases. I would marvel at the craftsmanship and try to imagine how the pieces were fabricated. Making and designing jewelry didn’t seem like a serious possibility for some reason, but I think there was a spark.
Years later, after completing a masters degree in printmaking at RISD, I was feeling like I didn’t want to be a fine artist. While I was wrapping my head around that (and looking for a job), I started a business making paper sculptures for weddings, almost by accident. It took off a bit and over the years, taught me so much about working with customers and running a small business. Creatively, it helped me move away from my strictly fine art mentality.
With that newfound freedom and with some of the Bergdorf jewelry still on my mind, I started studying jewelry fabrication. I found connections between making jewelry, printmaking and the intricate work I was doing with the paper sculptures. It just seemed to combine so many things I love - sculpture, drawing, product design - all in service of creating a beautiful and personal object.
Was getting into your career an easy journey for you, or were there challenges that slowed the process down? Can you share a situation in which you overcame that obstacle?
My professional journey has definitely had many twists and turns and continues to do so! Generally speaking, whenever I hit a wall it usually means that it is time to learn something new. Sometimes that means going deep and formally acquiring a new skill. Other times, it means educating myself by asking someone a question. I am continually shocked at how much I can learn after figuring out the right question to ask of the right person. I often need to remind myself that it’s an option.
Women are oftentimes inspired by other successful women. Who inspires you? Why?
When I was a kid, I enjoyed the company of my mom (still do) and, in general, loved to be around adult women - especially if they were a little quirky or independent. Now, one of the nicest surprises of getting older is seeing my friends develop that same depth and individuality. So many of the women in my life have reinvented themselves in big and small ways, from embracing their natural gray hair to becoming an intern in their 40s. I am always inspired by the humor, humility and courage of anyone willing to rethink how things are and do what they gotta do to move forward.
How do you come up with new designs?
Nature, art history, architecture, patterns, textiles - these are all great creative catalysts for me. The more challenging part is choosing which idea to focus on. For me, making a new piece requires a bit of a leap of faith to invest my resources and really nail down the specifics. The idea part is easy by comparison!
If one of our readers is interested in doing what you do, what advice would you give her?
I have never regretted the time spent acquiring technical skills - bench skills, enamel, CAD, etc. Plenty of people do design great jewelry without any of these skills. However, I have found that having this kind of hands on experience is liberating and empowering, even if I do not perfectly master every single part of the process. I also feel that out of respect for any artisans I may collaborate with to produce my work, it is important to understand what they do and have the tools to communicate the information they need to help me bring the piece to life.
If someone wants to connect with you, how can they find you?