Copper in the Arts

February 2018

Foraging for Vera’s Iron and Vine

By Jennifer Hetrick

Hunting for scraps to craft into rustic, often emotionally-warming art, Vera Johnson recently opened her own shop in Farmington, Maine. Vera’s Iron and Vine highlights local artisans along with her own work. More and more, her mixed media approach involves copper and sometimes brass.

Johnson has lived in different parts of the country but spent 24 years in Seattle before moving to Maine in 2016, where she began working with copper.

Mixed medium copper art piece by Vera Johnson. Mixed medium copper art piece by Vera Johnson.
Photograph courtesy of Vera Johnson.

Back in Seattle, she operated Village Green Perennial Nursery and taught beekeeping and pottery. She also hosted events like farm-to-table dinners, weddings, concerts, guest speaker presentations, and wild harvest walks and talks.

With a small blacksmithing shop onsite, the flexibility of her business in Seattle also gave her the opportunity to teach forging to children, starting at age 9 for students and age 5 for her own kids.

“I don’t have my blacksmith shop fully set up yet here in Maine, but I can work it in my wood stove easily,” says Johnson.

Fortunately, her latest resources for salvaged materials are in her own barn.

“I’ve kept all the old copper plumbing and lead scraps,” she says. “The garage is full of brass fittings and rusty iron bits. I’ve even kept the old roofing nails for future projects.”

Scrap-picking started early for Johnson.

“Having grown up in rural Ohio, I spent my childhood rummaging through salvage yards and old barns with my dad, looking for replacement parts for whatever carpentry or repair project he was working on,” she elaborates. “Often, I will forge shapes, then pick through the pieces and assemble them in a way that makes sense to me,” she adds. “I try to use it all. We live in a throwaway society where perfection is expected. I like the castaways. They have the most character.”

It helps that friends, neighbors, and clients often bring old finds to her, knowing she’ll discover a way to make use of them.

“I have not always understood how things fit together,” Johnson says. “Assembling pieces to create something from a bunch of nothing—that is my way of making sense of a fractured life which I’m making beautiful in my own way.”

It also helps that Johnson did salvage work with an outside artist friend in Skagit Valley, Washington, before she moved to the East Coast. Side by side, they deconstructed barns and other buildings, saving the materials to re-use or re-sell.

When Johnson needs jewelry supplies besides from her upcycling supply, she uses G&S Metals in Michigan, which offers reused materials through its refinery. She also buys copper sheets from Rio Grande in New Mexico.

Fold formed copper earrings by Vera Johnson. Fold formed copper earrings by Vera Johnson.
Photgraph courtesy of Vera Johnson. 

“I'm just getting into brass, but I absolutely love etching it for use in other work,” she mentions.

Copper and sterling silver are more primary in her jewelry of earrings and necklaces. Her wrist cuffs are done in copper, and this metal tends to make appearances in her wall art, too.

She’s come a long way in the evolution of her art, having spent years drawing pen and ink dancing goddesses and watercolor studies, then years shaping hundreds of clay toadstools and Buddhas.

“I’ve been experimenting with forging small copper bowls and was recently commissioned to make a garden sign which includes a copper pickle,” she says. “I make copper hooks and copper hearts, pierced, repaired, and stitched together.”

Hearts are a strong and recurring theme in Johnson’s copper expressions, and the stitched ones with wire mending them carry a symbolism which resonates deeply in her identity-exploring and her own mending.

Her most recent salvage collage is constructed from slanted wooden blocks with price tags once used on a candy table. The blocks are organized in the shape of the state of Maine, with the background painted like a DeLorme map cover. That is centered within a barbed wire and rope heart with sheet metal from an old furnace as backing. A forged and stitched copper heart is located In the center of Maine. The piece measures 4'x4'.

Johnson reflects on hearts as a large role in her current work—a part of language but communicating away from words.

“They represent being true to my own heart,” she reflects. “I’ve questioned love and relationships for so long, mostly with myself. Embracing VERA as an artist is one way I have committed to lead with love.”

“Copper is so malleable and warms easily,” she adds. “It’s a conduit for heat. There’s something metaphorical in that. I think the simplicity of the heart symbol can be understood and easily embraced. I also think love is simpler than I’ve allowed it to be, so the symbol is fitting.”

Johnson notes that she believes we are born to use our hands, to touch what’s around us as a part of getting tasks done in a day’s time.

“Hammering metal and changing its physical shape and molecular structure is a relationship I can understand in a very deep way,” she says.

Resources:

Vera’s Iron and Vine, 155 Front Street, Farmington, ME, (207) 645-4464

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