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Art AND: Tracey Beale

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Tracey Beale plays with fire. The jewelry artist, vocalist, and program manager for the Baltimore Museum of Art is constantly thinking about metal—its malleability and changeability when heated are attractive to her, but so is its permanence. Beale understands the role that jewelry plays in families and hopes her work will be worn by one person and passed on to others over time as an heirloom. “What is jewelry without the body?” she asks. “It becomes something completely different. People wearing the work is just as important as the work itself.” When tied to memories of the wearer, jewelry becomes a reminder of those who came before us, and Beale is constantly aware of working in close conjunction with legacy.

The theme of timelessness and the lineage that it evokes is at the forefront of my conversation over Zoom with Beale, who describes herself as spiritual and focuses her collections of jewelry on the broad and universal topic of “the cyclical nature of time.” Raised Christian, she also follows astrology, is interested in metaphysics, and believes in past lives and that her ancestors walk with her. This “mashup of belief systems,” as she calls it, informs her work which feels simultaneously contemporary and ancient, drawing influence from Egyptian tomb jewelry and ancient African jewelry. Beale, originally from Hartford County, Maryland, first learned about these histories of adornment as an undergraduate fine art major at MICA, but she remembers always being fascinated by jewelry. As a teenager, she saved up all her money from her first job working at McDonald’s to buy a sterling silver and quartz necklace that she put on layaway.

 

After MICA, Beale produced events and traveled internationally, living in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Germany for a time before returning to Baltimore. Fifteen years ago, after messing around on her own to make jewelry for friends, Beale did an apprenticeship with Baltimore jeweler Stephen Page, whom she still calls on for guidance from time to time. Largely self-taught, Beale now mostly allows her intuitive process to guide her from design to realization of new pieces. Working from a spare room in her home in downtown Baltimore, Beale says she is always learning and enjoys “working with a material that has so many possibilities—you can melt it down and it’s liquid, you fold it, form it. It very much reminds me of the process that we go through in life, as we grow and live through different things in life and the process of the spirit. We have to move and morph throughout our lives.”

In addition to her jewelry work, Beale sings with Konjur Collective, which she describes as “free improvisational jazz very much rooted in spirituality, particularly, the spirituality of African religions.” Instead of having set songs, they are more of a jam collective, producing sound arrangements that function as experiences for their listeners. Beale thinks of their audience as “entering a portal” alongside the musicians where things can change as they go along. For Beale, making music this way is about channeling collective spirituality as a method of “envisioning Black futures” and responding to the sounds her accomplices are making on the drums, synthesizer, and other musical instruments. The collective is collaborative and allows Beale the socialization her independent small business does not.

Over Zoom, Beale and I talked about the role of museums today, how inspiration is everywhere, and her desert island metal choices.

SUBJECT: Tracey Beale, 46
WEARING: “My favorite painted-on jeans I’ve had for 10 years, a Zara dress, and my own jewelry.”
PLACE: Zoom

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Tracey Beale: My favorite book is Wisdom of the Mystic Masters by Joseph A. Weed. It delves into the power of thought, healing, and visualization. I’ve had it for about 15 years and still read it every so often. Around the time that I found it, many of the topics weren’t as popular as they are now. More recently I’ve been intrigued by audiobooks. Spending more time alone during quarantine, it’s been nice to have someone read me a story. A friend recommended The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, so I’ve been dipping in and out of that book for a while now.  

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

I don’t think I’ve ever received bad advice from someone whose opinion made an impression on me. The best advice was to not be afraid to take chances on new opportunities even if I don’t think I can pull it off. Be up front about what I don’t know and do everything I can to make things happen. 

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist?

There is a delicate resilience to Baltimore that I’ve always found intriguing even though I’m from here. If you are curious enough you can find just about anything you want here. There’s a realness to this city that I personally feel is required to create and carve out our own voice. You can’t say that about a lot of places.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career? 

Perhaps life as a creative, our life in general should come with a warning label that says, “Failure Required.” I can’t think of a single instance where I tried and failed and didn’t learn an important lesson. I’m navigating that exact situation right now. I worked for months on a new collection that I’d planned to launch this spring but my samples didn’t come out at all as I planned. I’m straddling the line between starting over or salvaging what I have. Yeah, I took my moment to cry about it. Called my mother, my friends, and other creatives about it. Now I sit in a space of knowing that these fractured little samples are exactly what they are supposed to be: they are becoming, still in process.

[The photographer] Schaun Champion and a few besties had to remind me of that. So my advice to others is the same advice my mother has always given me: “Keep going. You got this!” Give yourself grace, take a rest when necessary, look for the lesson but make sure you keep going. Nothing can reveal itself if you give up. 

 

You’re part of a sound collective, Konjur Collective. What is it like to make art with collaborators versus the art you make on your own? How does music making compare to jewelry making? 

Jewelry is definitely more of a solitary practice, especially the production of the actual work, although I did just recently form a partnership on two designs in my upcoming collection with a friend of mine. So that’s nice to have another artist to bounce ideas off of. In all, jewelry making can be a very insular practice. That’s a big part of my personality, I’m very social, I know people, I have friends and do the stuff, but there’s a part of me that has a bit of a hermit quality. Especially with the jewelry, I do a lot of research around my work. I tend to design in collections, and every collection has a story. My work is very much spiritually based. I’m inspired by ancient African jewelry, specifically Egyptian jewelry which is also spiritually based. 

Making music with Konjur Collective is a completely different experience. We all need each other. No instrument or voice is more important than the other. It allows me to get out of my head and forces me to act and react. Our music is experimental, mostly improvisational; there’s not a lot of room for thinking. Our music is spiritually based as well. I love that connection. There is freedom in making jewelry and making music. I enjoy and need the difference between the two. 

You’ve been the manager of public programs at the BMA for a year and half, but before starting to work at the museum you worked in events. What are your feelings about the role of a museum today and your programming’s role within it?

My events background was very much rooted in experiential event production, working for marketing companies and an independent news station, that kind of thing. So, producing events and programs in an art space as an artist is like a combination of all of the work I’ve done both creatively and on the production side. I’m learning a lot. To me, museums are a place where people go to interact and connect with art, artists, and each other. Learn about the work, gain a new perspective, and experience something new. I would love for museums to be a place where people can go and see themselves.

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it?  

Good question. The next big thing I would say is connection. It’s already happening but I feel it’s only going to grow from here. I think people will seek new ways to truly connect and explore. Anything that will allow people to feel like they are a part of something greater. Now, whether the actual outcome is a true connection I think will be up to the individual. But overall the marketing of services and products will lean more towards selling the idea of connectedness.

 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

The Bluebird was my jam before the world closed. I’m also in love with Land of Kush. Pho is a standard for me, and I can’t go without a classic chicken box once in a while. 

Looking at your jewelry, it’s all metalwork. Would it be correct to say you’re a metalsmith?

Yes, I consider myself to be very much a metalsmith. Also a jewelry artist, not necessarily a jeweler. It’s more or less contemporary art jewelry. With regards to the traditional jewelry industry, I work in metals that are considered to be experimental. I regularly work in Sterling silver and I’ve started to use a lot of brass lately. Copper is another favorite—I just love the beauty of copper and metals in general. I love that it can be so many things. It can be hard and soft, solid and liquid. With the right tools and definitely some fire, you can morph it into just about any shape.

Have you had any pandemic-influenced hobbies or just things that came back into your life because you’ve had more time to reflect on them? 

There are some friends that I had a chance to connect with on a deeper level because of the pandemic. Long conversations that wouldn’t have happened if the world was open and we were our usual busy selves. I started writing again and took some time to be still.  

 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it? 

Oh boy, I have a strange relationship with clothing these days. Quarantine opened my world up to the joy of wearing sweatpants. The jeans I have on in the photo are my favorites. All of the paint and holes in the jeans are from me wearing the hell out of them while making and creating.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make in your studio or the programming you would put on at the BMA.  

I would love to be commissioned by a brand to design one-of-a-kind crowns and/or a piece of wearable jewelry for women who are everyday heroes. The women would get the designs for free of course. I’d also like to create a virtual reality experience that would allow people to experience a day in the life of a type of person they wouldn’t want to be. Perhaps someone they disliked. I’m curious as to whether their thoughts about the person or the person’s way of life would change or not. Perhaps it would be VR practice in empathy. 

What are the last three emojis you used? 

Fire, heart, and the kiss face. 

Inspiration comes from everywhere, but in a career it is likely that you’ll be put into context with other people. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with? If there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

It’s hard to speak to specific designers or makers as I see my jewelry mostly in conversation with ancient works. Pieces that have been excavated, found in parts, and worn by the earth. It’s been a fantasy that my work will be found thousands of years from now and perhaps will be part of the story of how we lived today. On a contemporary level, I’d like my work to show up the way Bjork’s voice sounds.

 

You’re a believer in astrology. What kind of insight can astrology give our readers about you? 

I’m a true Aquarius. I always have an idea. I relish in my thoughts. At times I struggle to communicate feelings and thoughts verbally. I thank God for being able to communicate through art. I’m ready for all things mystical and unknown, and I believe in giving people space to be who they are. I sometimes use distance to feel more comfortable in emotional situations. If it’s not popular I love it and as soon as it becomes popular I’m off to find the next hidden gem. I like discovery and seeing things for what they could be.   

Who are your art or business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate, or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest? 

Tricky all day. I would love to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with him. He’s not a formally trained singer or musician and yet he created the entire Trip-Hop music genre. When I first discovered Trip-hop it taught me that my own music style already had a place in the world. I’d invite Tina Turner and Grace Jones to join us later on. I enjoy their balance of abrasiveness and femininity. Tina’s ability to evolve through spiritual practice is very inspiring to me.  

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

She would be thrilled and tell me to start traveling again. I think she would be a little surprised that I moved back to Baltimore after living in other cities and overseas. Back then I wanted to live in many different places for the rest of my life. She’d be happy that I’m singing with a collective like Konjur and exploring the edges of creativity. I never really planned to live a conventional life.  

What have you learned the hard way? 

I’m learning that sitting still is just as important as moving. I don’t have to be a superwoman, and in fact, I don’t want to be. Black women are often taught to do and be all the things. While I vow to remain curious and continue to create, I’ve traded in my cape for a pair of wings at this point in my life. Not the kind of wings you get when you die. The kind you get when you decide to live. 

 

*****

Tracey Beale releases small capsule collections throughout the year, 3-5 designs at a time. Konjur Collective will be releasing an album later this fall.

 

Photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 11: Comfort

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