“Growing up, I always struggled with feeling like a girl,” said artist Gracie Nichols. “I was a tomboy. But the one thing I always had on me was a piece of jewelry, whether it was big earrings or a long necklace. What I love about wearing jewelry is that you get to pick art that you’re carrying with you and styling yourself with.”
Naturally inspired, wearable art is precisely what Nichols has created with her latest collection of necklace designs that merge the rich grain of exotic woods with the opalescence of abalone shell and, in some cases, the stark ivory form of a small animal skull.
“There’s a real craft in making something functional that is extremely artistic and built to your taste,” Nichols said.
The 27-year-old artist has recently returned to Mississippi after several years spent in Austin, Tex., working both as a jeweler’s apprentice and as a manager at a lumber mill, where she worked as the only hands-on female, and took part in an ancient Japanese wood burning technique called shou-sugi-ban.
“I put on my flannel and went to work,” Nichols said of her days spent working in the mill. “I loved getting dirty. I would come home covered in soot, head to toe. But it really taught me that I could do it on my own. It was very empowering to feel like, I am a woman and I can do this man’s job. It was fun. I could cuss a lot. I didn’t have to bathe. One of the best things about flannel is you don’t have to wear a bra underneath. I could lift three twelve-foot boards of cypress and haul them across the mill and do the damn thing.”
Nichols first started making her own jewelry in college. After graduating from Meridian High School, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a painting emphasis at Mississippi State and began selling her own creations at a local jewelry store in Louisville, Miss.
The college years gave Nichols more than an art education — she also found a four-legged best friend in William, a Shepherd-mix dog who kept her company in the studio daily, and upon graduation, followed her to Texas and back.
“William is a constant,” Nichols said. “When I lived in Austin, we moved 11 times and I had around 32 roommates, and William put up with every bit of it, always by my side and just happy to be with me.”
William the dog, whose formal name is Sir William of Orange, would even accompany her to the lumber mill once a week. It was while working there that Nichols discovered the potential of wood scraps to be reborn as original jewelry. Incorporating techniques she learned while apprenticing under Austin artisan jeweler Christine Fail, Nichols began to assemble a collection of her own. Like many young artists trying to make economic sense of their skills, Nichols built her body of work while holding two and, at one point, three other jobs.
The need to be closer to family started calling Nichols back east. Her younger sister underwent a double lung transplant in 2014. Nichols moved temporarily to Durham, N.C., to be closer to her family following the surgery. The difficult experience provided a moment of clarity that she took back with her to Texas.
“After watching my sister struggle so much, I realized that I need to stop working so hard at just making a living and start focusing on what I’m going to be as an artist,” Nichols said.
Then in March of 2015, Nichols entered her work — wooden jewelry, as well as a collection of colorful glittered skulls and tortoise shells — into the highly competitive RAW Art Show in Austin.
“I was so scared of presenting a bunch of glittered skulls and jewelry that I was making out of scraps from the lumber mill,” she said.
But Nichols’ fears were put to rest. Out of 50 artists, her work was named “Best in Show.” It was a huge victory for the Mississippi artist, and perhaps permission to put a check in the box next to Austin’s name on her bucket list.
“I called my godmother and said, ‘I have a feeling I need to come home. I’m at a job I enjoy, but I don’t feel like it’s in my career goals,’” Nichols said.
In October, Nichols and Sir William hit the road once again, making their new home in Hattiesburg.
“I left Austin because I sort of fell out of love with it,” Nichols said. “After two drives from Austin to Durham and back, I just thought ‘it’s time for me to go home.’ I had proven everything I wanted to prove. I could come to Austin, find happiness and friendships and make it completely on my own. And now, I have such an amazing support group in Mississippi.”
To this point, Nichol’s greatest struggle as a jewelry artist was the inability to keep a stock of the same piece, a common hurdle in the maker world. She needed multiples of each design in order to have a collection to sell as well as showcase. Nichols reconnected with former classmates Morgan Welch and Sarah Qarqish, owners of The HannaBerry Workshop in Jackson. They provided her access to a CNC table, a computer-operated router tool that can efficiently reproduce a design. For the artist, this step was a long-awaited dream come true.
“Watching [the machine] cut multiple pieces of the same necklace was by far the most exciting day of my life,” she said.
While there are now enough pieces for fans of Nichol’s work to fawn over and possess, the artist stands by the uniqueness of her finished product, one that every step of her journey to this point has helped craft.
“You’re never gonna have two pieces that are the exact same. That’s nature’s art.”
Find Gracie Nichol’s work online at Garage Dog Studios on Facebook and Instagram (@_garagedog) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.