If you’re interested in entering the Saul Bell Design Award competition, Kathleen Nowak Tucci is the person to talk to. She’s a two-time winner in the Alternative Metals/Materials category: She won first place in 2015 for her “Hummingbird Necklace,” and in 2016, her “Secret Garden Necklace” took home second place. I recently spoke with Kathleen to get a glimpse into the process from someone who’s been there more than once.
From Applicant to Award-Winner
Kathleen discovered the Saul Bell Design Award competition through a magazine ad at least 10 years ago. When she decided to enter in 2015, she wasn’t nervous, but she did question whether her jewelry was good enough to enter. Was it designed well enough? Crafted well enough? Interesting enough? As has been proven two years in a row, it was.
Because many of her friends had previously entered the competition, she knew what to expect. Entering is easier than you might think. The key component is making sure you have an excellent photo, rendering or drawing of your piece. After that, it’s simply a matter of uploading your file and adding the name of the piece, a materials list, and a brief description. And then you wait. During the first round of judging, five finalists are chosen in each of the eight categories. During the second round of judging, which takes place in February, the finalists must send in the actual piece to be judged in person—now, that’s the scary part! Kathleen had seen photos of the judges looking at the work with loupes; was her piece really ready for intense scrutiny?
In 2015, Kathleen got the call that she had won first place in the Alternative Metals/Materials category while she was driving. “I was laughing, crying, and really trying to stay on the road,” she says. The public announcement was made months later, so even though she wanted to scream out from the rooftops, she had to keep the news between herself and close friends and family. When she found out about her 2016 win, she was thrilled, and couldn’t believe she won two years in a row and could attend all the festivities again.
A Night to Celebrate
Speaking of the festivities, the winners and finalists are invited to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the official awards ceremony. Upon entering the ballroom at the Hotel Albuquerque, the first thing you see (after you notice the spectacular chandeliers) are the winning pieces on display in large glass cases. The cases are crowded with people grabbing a glimpse of the winning work—not only do the winners and their guests attend, but also the judges, special guests, and attendees of the Santa Fe Symposium. It’s a large gathering, and after some mingling and refreshments, everyone is seated for a wonderful “linen tablecloth” dinner.
For Kathleen, the most exciting part of the evening begins after dinner. A few weeks before the ceremony, each winner is sent a video camera to record answers to a short list of questions. These videos are played during the ceremony and allow the audience to see and hear more about each piece and gain insight into each artist’s personality and workspace. The night concludes with trophies and prizes handed out by Alan and Molly Bell, the second-generation leaders of Rio Grande, which runs the competition. It’s a memorable evening, and Kathleen encourages all winners to attend the event.
Beyond the Award
The impact of winning extends far beyond the award dinner, however. Kathleen credits being a two-time winner with increased interest in her work. For her, it’s a verification that she can stand with the best. It feels like a stamp of approval from the jewelry world, and one that will stick with her throughout her career. “Any article that is written about your work will always include a mention of the award,” she says. Because many jewelry magazines have ceased publication, there are limited ways to be recognized as the top of the field. Winning a competition like the Saul Bell Design Award is one of those ways.
Winning can also inspire future work, such as the two dresses Kathleen made that were inspired by her Saul Bell necklaces. If you’re near southwest Wisconsin, make sure to visit Sensory Overload: Clothing and the Body at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconson, September 23–December 30, 2016.
“I’m not sure that I would have made this new work without the validation of the Saul Bell Design Award,” Kathleen says. I feel very much indebted to the Bell family and Rio Grande for the establishment of this award.”
2017 Saul Bell Design Award
Are you considering entering the next Saul Bell Design Award competition? Kathleen encourages “anyone who feels they have made a really outstanding piece to enter.” Learn more about the categories, the application process, and other entry details here, and see images of past finalists and winners here.
For the 2017 competition, Rio Grande has reestablished the Best of Show award, in addition to the first- and second-place awards for each category.
You can see more of Kathleen’s work at kathleennowaktucci.com.
Annie Pennington is an independent jewelry designer with more than 14 years experience in the field, both as a maker and an instructor. She maintains a personal workshop and storefront, and was the Associate Editor of Art Jewelry magazine for more than four years. Pennington received her BFA in Jewelry Design from Pittsburg State University and her MFA in Metalsmithing from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Her jewelry has been published in numerous books and periodicals, and she has an extensive exhibition record, both nationally and internationally. Pennington lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where she spends her time as a freelance writer, creating work for sale and exhibition, and entertaining her three cats.