There’s so much beauty to discover at Julie Wolfe’s Victorian townhouse in the urban-yet-bucolic neighborhood of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., that it’s a good idea to clear the day before paying her a visit. Luckily, we did just that when we enjoyed a cheerful, chat-filled summer afternoon shooting the artist and jewelry designer at her home last month. We quickly learned that the inspired space is a reflection of its creative occupant—lively, offbeat, and utterly charming.
Wolfe has been living in the house, which she shares with her husband and daughters, for just over a decade and has carved out a work space in a sunny front room on the home’s second floor. There, she moves seamlessly between her work as an accomplished artist—primarily painting, drawing, and conceptual installations—and as a jewelry maker. She’s been selling the designs of her eponymous collection at Barneys for more than two decades.
Below, she tells The Window about her passion for science and nature, her visual vocabulary, and her love of contrasts.
The Window: You’re so highly creative as both an artist and jewelry maker. Which descriptor comes first?
Julie Wolfe: I would say I’m an artist, because I’ve made things ever since I was tiny, whether I was constructing 3-dimensional sculptures or doing 2-dimensional illustrations. That being said, I also always tinkered with jewelry when I was little too. My grandmother and great grandmother were big jewelry lovers and collectors, which made me fascinated from early on.
Did you ever think you could make a career out of creating things?
I was determined to! Luckily, I got so much support from my parents and professors. When I was young, I didn’t care—I was going to be an artist and didn’t consider not being one.
Your work spans many mediums. What are some of the consistent themes of your art?
I’m interested in systems and how everything is connected, whether it’s a social system, a transportation system, or—especially—an ecosystem. I’ve always drawn from nature and scientific-related themes, and I love bugs, animals, and insects. My dad was a biologist, so I grew up around a lot of that because he did a lot of organizing and cataloging of animal and plant species for different universities and museums. I was constantly surrounded by all these creatures!
What are some newer mediums or themes you’ve been exploring?
In recent years, I’ve been doing more large-scale installations, like last year’s “Green Room,” which featured 500 glass bottles of water samples collected from various sources and combined with both natural extracts—like henna, squid ink, and beet juice—and chemicals, like copper sulfate. It explores environmental issues, but also color and the spectrum of color—how things are arranged and connected. I’ve also been working a lot with books and words.
Can you tell us about the colorful series that we see hanging on the wall of your work space [and pictured above]?
I’ve been working these pages of old books, especially old manuals or scientific materials. The ones hanging in my studio right now are actually old art history books. I became interested in the language that they use—some of them feel really current in the issues that they address, like race and religion. I find a page with an interesting size or texture and have a spontaneous reaction to what’s on the page, maybe I’m inspired by a word or phrase. I create symbols, colors, or forms around that—as a visual person, I immediately associate color and form with words. I’m creating a visual vocabulary that I can use in other works.
How does your work as a jewelry designer intersect with your work as an artist?
In both, there’s a focus on repurposing old materials and an interest in art history. I’m really interested in the Victorian, Georgian, and Edwardian eras and the funkiness and quirkiness of those time periods. I use a lot of found materials in both art and jewelry making. With my jewelry, it’s about taking things and making them modern. The cameos are a great examples of this idea. I like casting things from nature and setting them in black or silver and contrasting them with diamonds and opals. I love the contrast of pretty and ugly, rough and delicate. It’s the same with my artwork; there’s a dark side combined with a form of beauty. I also use a lot of minerals in both. For painting, it’s a color focus—I grind them up to create pigments.
What was your inspiration for this season’s collection?
The collection is very pared-down compared to a lot of my past work. It’s really minimal, and in a way, I’ve taken what I’ve always done and reduced it down in a very simple, sleek way that’s still feminine and modern. The cameos are all old, mostly from Italy. I have different sources all over the world. They’re made of hard shell or lava stone.
You’ve been in Barneys a long time—tell us how it all started.
I’ve been formally making jewelry for about 30 years, and that’s not even counting when I was a little girl banging soft metals. I got a call from Barneys about 25 years ago about these beaded purses I had been making. They asked for samples, because they’d seen the bags in a magazine, maybe it was InStyle, and I’ve been working with you guys since. From there, I got into jewelry and work closely with the buyers for each collection. I’ve done it all over the years—patchwork leather belts, embellished military-style metals, rosaries, and even men’s accessories. It’s been a real evolution.
Your workspace is so gorgeous. How important is your environment to your creativity?
I need to do my jewelry in my own space. I do find that, especially for my art, I need to go at least once a year to work somewhere else. I go to Berlin in the summers, and I’ll have a show there next summer. I recently went to Mexico City and Oaxaca and found it incredibly inspiring. It’s really important, especially for my art, to work in different environments. That being said, my studio will always be my haven, and this is where all the good stuff happens!