Natural Strength: The Life and Work of Metals and Jewelry Artist Molly Shulman

Sitting in the apartment/studio that is technically the basement of her parents’ house, twenty-three-year-old metals and jewelry artist Molly Shulman tells me that she finds herself struggling to provide information for this article in a way that seems at all impressive; however, having known Molly as an artist and as a friend for many years, I can vouch that she is completely impressive in her own right. In addition to being a talented artist in multiple mediums, especially metals and painting, Molly is also one of the most genuine people you will ever meet: naturally cool, humorous, and always fun to be around no matter what the situation. Upon graduating from James Madison University in the spring of 2012 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Molly moved from Virginia back home to Maryland to prepare herself for her next big adventure: to live and create art in New Zealand.

Monile; copper and brass, chain mail necklace

Monile; copper and brass, chain mail necklace

As an artist, Molly is fortunate enough to have been surrounded by art for most of her life. Her high school was a magnet school for the arts and as a senior, she joined the Arts and Communication Academy, which she attributes to helping develop her painting skills. When it came time for Molly to apply to colleges, she sought out art programs that were small, yet strong. “Being a person who has always been able to form strong relationships with my teachers, I knew that I wanted a smaller program,” she shares. “I was certain that with smaller classes and fewer faculty, I would be able to get to know all of my professors as people and as artists, not just as teachers.” While her current artistic concentration is metals, that wasn’t always the plan. “I went to school as a painter,” Molly explains. “It wasn’t until my senior year that I changed my concentration from painting to metals and jewelry. With the way that the BFA major at James Madison works, students have to take a number of studio electives — that is, beginner level classes of numerous medias — outside of their concentrations. I signed up for metals and jewelry because it happened to work with my schedule. I actually hated it for the first week or two; I almost dropped the class. I don’t know what exactly happened to change my mind, but by the time I finished my first pair of earrings, I was in love. To me, there is something sexy about metal. I am a person who likes to argue and be challenged. I also love getting my hands dirty, and metals did all of that for me. Metal is strong willed. I had to learn when to stop trying to make the metal do want I wanted; I had to learn that there is something really beautiful in yielding to your material. Some of my favorite pieces are the ones that have a good ratio of artist design and natural form.”

Left: Tabitha; brass and copper, hollow fabricated ring // Right: Electroformed titanium, decorative piece

Left: Tabitha; brass and copper, hollow fabricated ring // Right: Electroformed titanium, decorative piece

Regarding different types of metal work, Molly loves fabrication, as she gets really great geometric shapes this way, but feels especially drawn to casting. “I enjoy combining both the natural and the artificial worlds in my work. Lost wax casting is a great way to really mix things up with your designs. There also might be a chance that I’m a junkie for the risk of casting,” she confesses. “It’s hard for me to explain casting to someone without also showing him or her the process, but most of what I have learned has been through trial and error; unfortunately, I still don’t know most of the proper terms, as I never was a very attentive student. The kind of casting that I do involves making a wax model of the object that I wish to recreate in metal. This is helpful because there are so many things that wax will do while metal just won’t. Once the wax object looks exactly as I want it to look in the end, I make my investment mold. Investment is best compared to plaster or some kind of cement. I attach my wax model to the correct base and cylindrical flask and pour the investment in. After the plaster has completely dried, the flask goes into the kiln, where the wax is melted, and all I am left with is a hollow shape inside the plaster mold. The actual casting process can be done in many different ways. The technique that I use the most is called spin casting, where the flask and the liquid hot metal are placed into a spinning device which, when set up correctly, creates a centrifugal pull guiding the metal into the mold.” When it comes to creating jewelry, Molly is especially opinionated. “Go big or go home,” she declares. “I mean it. I hate the world of commercial jewelry today. Everyone is so afraid to do something daring and wild. People still use the same basic templates and the same materials just because they know they will sell. I want the avant garde attitude that is applied to fashion design to be applied to jewelry design. I want to see new ideas and new concepts; stuff that not only serves as an accessory, but as a wearable work of art.”

Left: Faces Collection No. 1; caste bronze, dresser knobs // Right: Faces Collection No. 2; caste bronze and silver, dresser knobs

Left: Faces Collection No. 1; caste bronze, dresser knobs // Right: Faces Collection No. 2; caste bronze and silver, dresser knobs

In between graduating from college and preparing to move to New Zealand, Molly spent the summer teaching children at an art camp in Connecticut. “Camp was a really amazing experience. I cannot say that enough,” she reminisces. “I got to use old casting equipment and was reintroduced to soldering after spending the second half of my senior year working only with ARC and laser welding. I was also able to fine-tune a lot of my more basic skills; but the thing that really made camp amazing was working with the kids. Getting to work alongside and teach these eleven to sixteen-year-olds was a life-changing experience. I got to help kids who have real interest in art learn the trade, but I also got to help them start to think like artists.” Even after serving as an inspiration to younger artists, Molly still finds it hard to pinpoint where she herself gets her inspiration from. “That is to say, I don’t really notice what I’m doing before or when I get inspired,” she claims. “Usually it’s what comes after inspiration that gets my attention. I do know that I find talking things out with other artists to almost always be helpful.” As an artist of any kind, hitting creative road blocks is just part of the process. For Molly, creative road blocks tend to lead to a lot of frustration, as they do for many. “Some yelling, maybe a tearful call to mom, and definitely a trip to the nearest bar,” she says honestly. “What I can say here is, again, it is always helpful to have people around you who understand you. I always like to have other artists who have just gone through, or who are about to go through, what I just did around me when I order that first whiskey ginger.”

Top Left: Curabitur (open); steel, brass, spalted maple burl (stabilized wood), folding pocket knife // Bottom Left: Curabitur (closed); steel, brass, spalted maple burl (stabilized wood), folding pocket knife // Top Right: Flatware Trial No. 1; steel, canary wood, rosewood and epoxy paste, fork // Bottom Right: Flatware Trial No. 2; steel, canary wood, rosewood and epoxy paste, knife

Top Left: Curabitur (open); steel, brass, spalted maple burl (stabilized wood), folding pocket knife // Bottom Left: Curabitur (closed); steel, brass, spalted maple burl (stabilized wood), folding pocket knife // Top Right: Flatware Trial No. 1; steel, canary wood, rosewood and epoxy paste, fork // Bottom Right: Flatware Trial No. 2; steel, canary wood, rosewood and epoxy paste, knife

 As she gets ready to move across the world for the next few years, Molly opens up about the goals that she has for her last few months in the states. While many people would focus on saving up as much money as possible, Molly is extremely passionate about saving up in a different way: saving up art, saving up ideas. “What I want more than anything is to get back into creating,” she reveals. “I hope that through sharing my experiences, I am able to honestly portray my love of art, as well as the struggles that I face in creating it. As an artist, I do find myself having a lot of difficulty bringing my ideas to life through my medias. I haven’t picked up a paint brush in months, but today, after this interview, I will. I have no idea what I will paint, and I am actually pretty sure it won’t be much good; but, hey, that’s what you gotta do, isn’t it? Sometimes, in order to break out of a block, you just gotta throw caution to the winds and make something awful, because even the worst art is better than no art.”


Story by Emily McNally, artwork and photography by Molly Shulman.
This post originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of
V23 Creative Magazine.