Frank Zappa once said, “Art is making something out of nothing, and selling it.”
Local jewelry designer Vitrice McMurry wholeheartedly agrees, and says she has enjoyed doing exactly that for about 30 years now.
In addition to being a regular feature at the Palmer Park monthly arts market, McMurry’s silver, gold, stone and cloisonné enameled jewelry is sold at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, at Symmetry Jewelers in Uptown and often at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where she served as the festival’s original craft director for 10 years.
Since she first fell in love with metalworking during a class in her last semester of an English degree at LSU, McMurry has been on a continuous quest for perfection.
“It’s about that quest,” she says. “That ability to take a small thing and create perfection. It’s very satisfying.”
From a studio in her home in Bayou St. John, McMurry creates pieces inspired by the local landscape.
“I’m obsessed with natural forms like leaves and seed pods,” she says. “I also draw some inspiration from Mayan hieroglyphics and the art deco style of architecture.”
McMurry’s signature piece is a hammered leaf necklace.
“It’s an unusual form created from a tremendous amount of hammering,” she explains. “You have to open the metal up like an oyster and then the forming is done with a lot of hand work. Each hammered leaf is about 140 hammer strokes.”
McMurry acknowledges that the life of an artist can often be a solitary one, which, she says, is one of the reasons she became a founding member of the RHINO (Right Here In New Orleans) Contemporary Crafts Company, a nonprofit cooperative of Louisiana fine crafts artists.
“RHINO serves as an incubator for artists who are starting out, and it gives all of us the chance to be part of a community, to interact with our peers,” she says. “It’s always an education.”
Education is something McMurry also has a passion for. Since 1983 she has spent two days a week teaching metalworking to grades six through 12 at Metairie Park Country Day School. Students learn to come up with their own original designs, which they then create using skills like sawing, filing and soldering.
“It’s more physical than any other art that they study,” she says. “That’s the beauty of working with metal though. There’s so many things you can do, so many levels.”
mentor: My parents were really great mentors. They were self-employed, self-starters and hard workers. I’d also have to say fellow artists Courtney Miller, as far as how to do business, and Michael Curtis, as far as inspiring craftsmanship. For several years I’ve also taken private lessons from a jeweler and enamellist out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina named James Carter. His work is astounding and he’s a really incredible teacher.
defining moment: After Katrina, my husband (renowned guitarist John Rankin) and I were living in Nashville and it dawned upon us, like a lot of people during the second or third week away, that we were not going home anytime soon. At that point it crossed my mind for the first time that I maybe needed to go get a job – go out and pound the pavement. But I decided no, I wasn’t giving up. I did what I could to scrape up enough weird old junk together to set up a little studio in our basement.
advice for young women: I’ve learned that there is a market out there for everything. It’s just about finding your market. To be an artist you have to work hard, stick with it and find your market.
goals: This summer my goals are to get a new enameling oven and do a lot of new enamels. I also need to update my website and Facebook page – those things take a lot of time. More long term, I suppose I’d like to go experience the Mexican Day of the Dead. That’s on my list.
favorite thing about what I do: I really enjoy the designing – combining all the thoughts going through my mind, putting that on paper and then translating it into actual metal pieces.