Madison Hampton is a twenty-something metalsmith who follows her passion for jewelry-making in an intriguing manner. She, her boyfriend Gage, and their dog Tobin live in a Chevy Express van, traveling the country and literally chasing after whatever they find most inspiring.
From coast to coast, they drive until they reach new and compelling scenery and post up, sometimes lakeside, sometimes at the cusp of a mountain range. Madison will pack up her pliers, tweezers, wire and stones, and trek into the wild. Once in a comfortable spot, she sits and becomes a maker, spending hours in peace with her tools and her talent. She sends a description along with her work when customers make a purchase, explaining the setting in which their piece was made. Madison, Tobin and Gage are “Van Crafted Studio,” an appropriate name for their always-mobile jewelry-making business.
We caught up with Madison when she was able to connect to Wi-Fi to ask her a few questions about how she came to be a traveling artist.
How did you first get into making jewelry? Do you practice any other forms of art?
I’ve always dabbled in all types of art but didn’t realize that working with metal and all things jewelry was my path until college. I went to Northern Michigan University on the shores of Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I had a really charismatic professor named Dale Wedig who inspired me to begin working with metal and making jewelry. Before I knew it, metalsmithing was my major, and I was half way through my degree. I’m a well-rounded metalsmith, as I can do larger scale sculptural work utilizing welding and blacksmithing skills, but I prefer to keep it smaller-scale and delicate!
To what extent do you live in your van? How long have you been doing this?
After I graduated college in 2014, Gage and I decided to start living in a van. We have been doing it for about a year now, with a short stint in a cabin in Big Sky, Montana, to make a little money and have a run at being ski bums. We built a full-size bed in it that lifts up for storage; it has a sizable bookshelf, and of course, a cute little removable work bench that Gage made me. We ‘shower’ in rivers and lakes and collect our drinking and cooking water from various laundry mats or grocery stores. As far as sleeping, we usually park at a trailhead and explore the area, or park for the night in a crowded parking lot. No one realizes you’re in there; that being said, we have seen some crazy things happen!
What are three advantages you find as a traveling jewelry-maker?
- The ability to choose my surroundings for getting creative.
- The pleasure of traveling to different cities, drawing inspiration and even finding neat little shops that are interested in featuring my jewelry!
- I feel like it gives me an edge as a company and gives my jewelry something unique. I hope it makes my buyers excited to know that their ring may have been made in the White Mountains in New Hampshire or in Yellowstone National Park, or maybe just in the van by light of a headlamp. I try to include that information when someone purchases from me so they can get a little idea of the surroundings and situation that shaped their one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry.
Out of every place you’ve traveled to as Van Crafted Studio, do you have a favorite?
There is one place that I really loved. Gage and I stumbled upon this little campground in Basalt, Colorado. Normally, we wouldn’t pay to sleep or camp somewhere, but this area was so captivating that the small fee of $15 a night seemed reasonable. The whole campground was basically empty except for our neighbors who lived in a school bus that didn’t run anymore. It was on a huge reservoir up in the mountains. We stayed for a few days, cooked quinoa chili, and I made a bundle of jewelry while the boys played fetch. It was a very dreamy time.
Do you ever find it difficult to take advantage of all your tools or ideas because of your van-locked studio?
Yes!! The number-one issue is that I don’t actually have an address. I can’t really send anything out for casting because it would be too hectic to get it back. Even if I could get it back—there’s not really room for a lot of stock or things in my plastic drawer set. I’m excited to utilize casting again one day. Another hard part is putting everything away right in its place—EVERY TIME! Nothing can be left out or it will go flying and be lost forever. Every tool and piece of metal has a home!
Tell us about an experience you’ve had as a traveling jeweler that you wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
The other day I packed my 40-liter backpacking pack up with almost every tool I have with intentions to hike a few miles to this neat place called Sage’s Ravine on the Appalachian Trail. I was going to have a big day of making jewelry. I hiked all the way out there, got everything out, and realized I had forgotten the only bag that I truly needed. It had all my pliers and tweezers in it. I tried to go on without them but eventually had to give in and run back to the van.
What’s a typical week like for you?
A medley of exploring the surrounding areas, playing endless amounts of fetch with my dog, Tobin, preparing for art markets, completing custom and consignment orders, and doing this all in an economical fashion!
Where do you think you’ll be in five years?
That’s really hard to say. Being on the road in a constantly changing environment provides opportunity and unforeseen insight and I’m not yet sure how they will shape my future on a long-term scale. I do hope that making jewelry can help me meet my basic needs of living and I can continue with it on a professional and permanent level!
Editor’s Note: Madison, Gage and Tobin just gave us word that they’ve upgraded their traveling home from a Chevy Express Van to a Toyota Tacoma. Follow along with their adventures on Madison’s Instagram account, @vancraftedstudio.