“Ramona created bead brooches while watching television. Those pins were so in demand, we never had enough. She insisted that they be priced at $110 (unless there was a certain bead that was very rare, and then we could price them at $135). She would never let me charge more over all the years we represented her. It was important to her ‘that everyone could afford her work’. Today those ‘Fibulas’ sell for $400 –$800 when and if they ever come through on the secondary market.”
—Karen Lorene, Facere Gallery, Seattle, Washington
Curator and writer Vicki Halper, who wrote the definitive book on Solberg’s work in 2001, Findings: The Jewelry of Ramona Solberg, said that the briefest synopsis of the artist’s life might read: “Born in South Dakota; visited India 15 times; enjoys life; makes necklaces.”
Ramona (1921-2005) was a remarkable woman. She is considered the grandmother of Northwest found-art jewelry. She was a professor at the University of Washington and Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University). She mentored and inspired a generation of jewelry artists, including myself. She studied jewelry on the GI Bill after World War II (during which she served in the U.S. and for three years after the war in Germany as an information and education sergeant). She was an adventurous and intrepid traveler to all corners of the world and a collector of all sorts of wondrous and strange bits and pieces and fragments of this and that, which she incorporated into her work. Ramona was a firm believer that if it isn’t fun, then why do it? This was her personal and her professional mantra.
Feathers, beads, toy parts, shells, buttons, coins, pieces of bone (anything and everything she collected) were stored in jars in her studios in Seattle and Ellensburg, Washington. It was like walking into a sorcerer’s workshop with magical elements everywhere you turned.
From this treasure trove Ramona drew upon her Norwegian heritage to bring order to what could have been chaos. All of her jewelry is laid out and engineered to design perfection. Suddenly objects found on a beach have relevance and symmetry when placed next to a bottle cap or a domino or a discarded piano key because of their precise arrangement.
Ramona received her BA and her MFA from the University of Washington and also studied in Mexico, Oslo, Norway and at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
In the introduction to Findings: The Jewelry of Ramona Solberg, Helen W. Drutt English stated that: “In 1969, Ramona’s work was selected for inclusion in Objects: USA, the first major survey of American crafts. This inaugural exhibition, held at the National Collection of Fine Arts of the Smithsonian Institution, proclaimed a new era for those artists whose medium was not part of the mainstream.” Her work was also chosen to be in numerous one-person exhibitions, group exhibitions, books and films. Ramona’s jewelry is also in museums around the United States.
It would be an understatement to say that Ramona didn’t deeply influence many, many artists and their work. Just look at Kiff Slemmons, Laurie Hall, Don Tompkins, Ron Ho, and Nancy Lee Worden to see a sampling of her reach. And if it hadn’t been for Ramona Solberg being a family friend and eventually a mentor to me while I was in college, I wouldn’t have majored in jewelry. Although I never made jewelry professionally, her influence on me was profound, and I will be forever grateful to have discovered this amazing field. So, “Thank you, Ramona!”
Now, tell us how Ramona has influenced you and your work. Do you have a personal anecdote to share about her powerful influence? Is there another individual whose work has personally and dramatically influenced you? We want to know about him or her. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment—we can’t wait to hear your story!