Local metalsmith honors her matriarchal muse
Most folks believe their story begins at birth. But Henderson County metalsmith Landen Gailey knows better. She knows that her story began in the 1940s when Virginia, her soon-to-be mother, came to a compromise.
Bold and full of fire, Virginia wanted to study art. But her father imagined a more straitlaced future for his daughter. So, the two arrived at an agreement: “My mother would attend the Rhode Island School of Design,” Gailey explains. “However, if she couldn’t get a job in art after graduation, she would go to secretarial school.”
Virginia never answered phones for a living. Instead, she became a display designer for department stores and, later, an art educator at Georgia State University. Then, when she retired and moved to Western North Carolina, she became a jewelry artist — a maker of daring, attention-grabbing statement pieces.
“My mother had such a tremendous influence on me,” Gailey reveals from Smitten Smiths Gallery, a shop in Horse Shoe Gap Village. Positioned off Brevard Road in Henderson County, the village is an anachronistic collection of little structures where blacksmiths, glassblowers, and other artisans hone their craft.
Since 2019, Gailey has occupied the village’s old general store — a goldenrod-yellow building with pine-green trim and creaky floorboards. Here, she displays her jewelry: sterling-silver necklaces with carnelian gemstones, forged double-hoop earrings, pendants made from dichroic glass and cubic zirconia. Ablaze with light and color, the gallery is a nod to the legacy her mother left behind.
“She was so original in her creativity,” Gailey says. “I often refer to her pieces for inspiration.”
Though Virginia left this world in 2006, her presence can be felt in almost every corner of Smitten Smiths Gallery. Some of her jewelry is even for sale there. “When my mother passed away, I inherited her work. Now, I’m slowly deciding that I can let it go,” says Gailey. “But it’s just so phenomenal. I’m a bit intimidated by it.”
She still uses her mother’s silversmithing tools. “It makes me feel so connected to her. It’s almost like a spiritual practice.”
Needless to say, Virginia is — and perhaps always has been — Gailey’s muse. That much is evidenced by her creative upbringing in Decatur, Georgia.
As a child, Gailey spent feverishly hot afternoons inside doodling — but not on paper. “My mother hated coloring books,” Gailey notes, explaining that Virginia considered them stifling. So, she doused the walls in blackboard paint and gave her daughter and son each a piece of chalk. “Coloring outside the lines was strongly encouraged,” the artist reminisces fondly.
After high school, Gailey studied art at Agnes Scott College. Then, in the early 1970s, she served as director of a community art studio in an inner-city neighborhood. It was around this time that Gailey discovered enameling — the process by which powdered glass is fused to metal in the intense heat of a kiln.
“I found it to be very Zen,” says Gailey. And so, she began creating and selling enamel jewelry on the side. However, when Gailey grew tired of the hustle, she started a dog-training business and joined a band as a bassist. “I have pursued many different passions,” she laughs.
But Gailey would soon return to the world of art. In 2002, she pulled up her Atlanta roots and followed her mother to the mountains of North Carolina, where she settled in Fruitland. There, in the midst of rolling orchards and cow-speckled fields, she began once again creating jewelry.
“When I moved to Western North Carolina, I started making right away,” Gailey remembers.
She and her mother even took a class that focused on metal clay. This relatively modern technique allows jewelry makers to manipulate a substance made from powdered metal much like a potter would manipulate clay. Once the piece of jewelry is molded, it’s fired — either in a traditional kiln, with a handheld gas torch, or on a gas stove.
As a self-described “kiln junkie,” Gailey quickly fell in love with metal clay. But she also took time to delve into more traditional metalsmithing techniques. “I like to learn a process and then push the boundaries,” the artist says. “I like to color outside the lines.”
Landen Gailey, Smitten Smiths Gallery, 3636 Brevard Road, Hendersonville. Gailey will join 60-some other makers in the Art League of Henderson County’s Fall for Art tour, a self-guided studio tour running from Friday, Oct. 21 through Sunday, Oct. 23. Guides and maps are available at the Hendersonville Visitor Center (201 South Main St., Hendersonville). Also see artleaguehvl.org. To learn more about Gailey’s work, visit smittensmiths.com and gaiajewelry.org.