JEFFERSONVILLE — One of last month’s featured artists at Artist in Residence in St. Albans, jewelry designer Holly Spier, 53, said her work is heavily influenced by her spiritual connection to nature.
“Nature was my friend,” Spier said, describing her childhood years. “And the cat. It was my solace and my entertainment.”
In the summers, the family would drive up from their home in Walpole, Mass to their campground in Jeffersonville. “It truly was a bucolic setting,” she said. “It was heaven for a little kid… Evergreens and moss covered everything. It was like a big green jungle for me.”
Soon enough, it became her new home. At 39-years-old, Spier’s dad passed away from a heart attack. Spier was seven. “We were down at our camp,” Spier said, when the family got the phone call. “My mother had everything packed up… and sent to Vermont.”
“I never went back,” Spier said, choking up. “Never saw my friends, my school, my house. All of a sudden, we were here.”
“I’m realizing now what an impact that had,” she said. “It was like a rug being pulled out from underneath us.”
The family moved in with their grandparents for a year to get back on their feet before settling into the house that Spier still lives in to this day. From her studio space on the second floor, she can see the ragged outline of Mt. Mansfield.
Spier recalled that it took some time to get used to the Vermont way of life, including kids her age who grew up knowing hard labor, used colorful language and sometimes smelled of manure.
“It was a real culture shock,” Spier laughed, but she still had friends in “the green plants, the flowers, the trees.”
“I think [nature] has always been a safe place for me and a never ending entertainment and joy,” she said. “I’ve equated it with my higher power. My spiritual life is all wrapped in the lessons I’ve learned in nature.”
Spier also found joy, from an early age, in making art. “I used to string macaroni when I was six,” she said. “I always loved the arts and crafts; I excelled in that.”
Some of her interest came from watching her parents. Her mother enjoyed painting while her father had amateur wood working skills, often making benches and other items in his spare time.
After his death, Spier, as a teenager, began finding her entertainment at the local swimming hole, chatting with boys and drinking beers. She was both a tomboy and “boy crazy,” according to Spier.
Getting by in high school, Spier decided to continue her education at Johnson State College, earning a bachelor’s of fine arts in studio art with an emphasis on drawing and painting.
“That just put me in the midst of fun, funky people,” she said.
“I was right in heaven there,” she continued. “Although I pursed my drinking and partying pretty heavily there too. Many of my friends didn’t make it through school.”
While she was in college, Spier also began her jewelry business, “Shades of Eve.”
“The idea behind it was that my mother always used the expression, shades of your father when she would talk about me,” Spier explained, “And Eve, like the woman Eve.”
Put together, “Shades of Eve” was meant to symbolize the different sides of different women. However, on her business card at the time, it read, “Made from Mother Nature’s treasures: bone, feather and leather.”
“You couldn’t get much more natural than that,” Spier said. “I was heavily into skulls and bones and teeth and claws and weird stuff.”
Spier said she found “that didn’t appeal to all women.” Maybe “cave women,” she joked. So that’s why in her earlier years, she also designed jewelry with a Victorian flair or hippie style.
After a few odd jobs here and there, Spier landed a job at Marty Sculpture Inc. in Milton making ceramic animal figurines. “It was just like kindergarten,” she chuckled. “It was play. It was all for the most part a really fun bunch of people,” some of who are still her friends.
“I do have to say,” Spier said, “all the jobs were jobs that I could have and drink heavily. It wasn’t a matter of getting up and having a drink in the morning. But that was a pretty heavy thought on my mind most of the day, ‘Can’t wait to get the hell out of here so I can have a drink.’”
“I was completely unaware of the point I was at,” she said.
Spier said she also often fell into the trap of dating men who had problems with drinking. Spier’s longest relationship, which lasted long enough for the couple to be married under common law, was with a man addicted to alcohol.
For 20 or so odd years, Spier shared a huge connection with “Mr. I love nature.” They remained friends after their romantic relationship ended. He died in December.
During her time at Marty’s, Spier would occasionally try and sell her work at local craft shows. At one point she attended an evening class at Burlington High School for jewelry design. It was her first taste of learning the finer aspects of the craft and ultimately swayed her to move to Arizona for two years when Marty’s transferred their manufacturing base from Milton overseas to Japan.
“I packed up my van and my cat and [went],” she said, driving cross-country with a friend.
At school, she learned a variety of techniques, including soldering, melting metals together to form shapes and casting, using wax to mold forms. If Spier wanted to cut and polish stones for jewelry, she scavenged for the material herself.
The class would take field trips out into the desert to look and before she knew it, Spier would be off wandering on her own, asking the creator to guide her in the right direction.
“I’d just get pulled,” she said. “I’d be walking in the desert and it would be a giant white light shining on me. It just felt so spiritual, so wide, so open.”
“The light was so pure. Everything was clear. It was just,” Spier sighed. “I don’t know. It was something I hadn’t experienced, ever. It feels like everything is exposed when you’re out there.”
But it wasn’t forever. After the two years were up, despite numerous housing offers from classmates, Spier moved back to Jeffersonville.
Once again in the Green Mountain State, Spier lost a sense of direction. She worked for her brother in a greenhouse for a while before switching to a part time position at the hardware store she lived above. When she lost 93 pounds, Weight Watchers hired her.
“I chose the not so great lifestyle again,” she said. “I did that lifestyle for a while, still just skipping around, different hours at different places, just kept moving.”
She picked up where she left off with the craft shows and the drinking.
“There was never a real clear plan of ‘this is what I aspire to be,’” Spier said. “But I was having more success with my jewelry and I tried to make that my goal in life.”
She changed the name of her business to “Spier Designs,” because she thought no matter what she made, the title covered it all.
At that time, her work could also be found in “very rink a dink,” stores, here and there, she said.
As Spier began to make sterling silver pieces and custom jewelry, she developed a following. Customers would go to the same craft shows year after year to see the new things she had to offer, Spier said.
“It boosted my confidence,” she said.
Spier got a major wake up call at 42-years-old. “When I was out back at my campsite,” Spier said, “and I had finished another big bottle of wine, I got up to get in my van.”
“I tripped and landed in my fire,” Spier said. She found herself helplessly stuck in the pit, with no one around to help, at 2 a.m.
“What I had to do was put my hands back in the fire to get myself out,” she said, “and I was plastered.”
When Spier woke up the next day, she had a massive blister on her back. “I could feel that my skin had cooked,” she said.
When she sought medical attention, her doctor presented her with a scenario that scared Spier enough to consider quitting drinking.
“My doctor said to me, ‘What if you had hit your head on one of the rocks when you fell in the fire?’” Spier said. She could picture her mother searching for her out back and finding her “cooked daughter in the fire.”
“I thought, ‘I couldn’t hurt my mother like that,’” she said. “I think that, more than anything, made me realize I was out of control.”
Spier started her sober journey with a cross-country trip out west. She traveled with her partner at the time, a 66-year-old Mi’kmaq Native American, who had also given up drinking alcohol for some time.
“It probably gave me the time to stop the hamster wheel,” she said. “I wasn’t drinking and I was in the company of different people and a different environment.”
During their trip, the couple would make pit stops along the way so he could attend twelve step meetings. Although Spier stayed in the car for every single one, the stops exposed her to the lifestyle and when she got back to Vermont, she attended 90 meetings in 90 days.
Last month, Spier celebrated 10 years of sobriety.
Today, Spier splits her time between caring for her mother, who broke her back last year, and designing jewelry on commission or for the glass cabinets at Artist in Residence.
When she isn’t holed up in her studio, Spier travels around Vermont and New England selling her work at more than 30 craft shows a year. Spier said she enjoys chatting with people about the stories behind her work or stones she discovers at gem and mineral shows.
Her jewelry style has evolved along with her.
“What I like to do is make the simplest of settings for my pieces because I think you cannot improve upon Mother Nature’s handiwork,” Spier said. Oftentimes, she will find a stone or fossil she loves, and give it a simple sterling silver backdrop.
“The sleeker I can make it, you’re not distracted,” she said. “I just make a way to wear it.”
But she knows how to make all sorts of things. When a customer wants one of her designs, Spier will have them come to her studio in Jeffersonville and go through her stone collection, describing to Spier what they want.
Spier said she will channel their story and emotions into her work.
“I often will say about what I do, “Just share the love,’” Spier said. “That’s kind of what I feel I’m doing with my work. I’m just trying to connect with people.”
“Some days I feel like I’m not really making a ton of money,” she said. “And I don’t feel that I’m on any particular career path, but I feel very fulfilled.”
Spier’s work can be found at Artist in Residence on South Main Street in St. Albans. She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-644-2063.