Former Librarian Makes Statement Jewelry That Won’t Whisper

“I knew my jewelry would have to be bold,” declares Viola Spells, pictured in her studio.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Viola Spells is a third-generation crocheter, and she says she loves the medium’s “woven look — and that it’s a traditional women’s art. It brings back memories of doilies in my grandmother’s house.” But Spells works with fine wire instead of fiber, taking the medium to fearless new places. 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

She makes jewelry — and it isn’t your grandmother’s jewelry. Spells’ fashion-forward, triple-take statement pieces are delicate but divinely extra; they are finely textured, but they interpret as substantial. “I remember learning that a dash is read as a mass by the eye. I’ve always been taken by line,” she notes. Her body of work is extensive, divided into collections including her “crinkle” pieces that can be refreshed and subtly reformed with a gentle squeeze and release.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

In 2001, the career librarian left a position heading up Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia to return to her native Asheville and care for her ailing mother. She went on to get her BFA in metalsmithing and jewelry from East Tennessee State University and launched ZenobiaStudio, located in the Pink Dog suite in the River Arts District.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

She will not — cannot — limit her expression. “I’ve made masks from flat metal sheets, sculpted out of bronze, and done ceramics, and I don’t like ‘working tiny.’ I knew my jewelry would have to be bold.” 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

That it is. Spells’ necklaces feature everything from asymmetrically placed balls of different sizes and tones mounted on tubular woven wire to lacy compositions that cascade down the décolleté like a fine spray of water. ZenobiaStudio is housed in a roomy, light-filled space, but Spells confesses that her most prolific time is often in the wee hours, at home. “I awaken around midnight and work through the night, without distractions.” 

Beads, gems, and crystals individualize the pieces, while the crocheted wire unites them.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

A few years ago, she launched the biannual Chit-Chat Fashion Show event series. The interactive happenings feature models who mingle with attendees, bedecked in artist-designed clothing accessorized with Spells’ pieces. Past Chit-Chat themes have included the beauty of leaves and the life of legendary singer/pianist Nina Simone, born in nearby Tryon. This year’s event focuses on African influence in fashion, jewelry, and food and will feature Spells’ jewelry and her own clothing designs. It coincides with an exhibit of paintings by Casimir Balibie Bationo (Caszi B), an artist from Burkina Faso who currently lives in Morocco. “Folks can touch the jewelry, get up close. Chit-Chat is low-key; we show casual ensembles first, do an intermission with refreshments, and then the models return in more formal attire,” Spells explains. 

The artist often works during the night.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

“My ideas come from everywhere — conversations, things I see, memories.” At this point in her career, she’s energized by her own creativity, comfortable expressing it, and sharing it almost as a mission. “I let the wire and colors in my work just speak to people.” 

Viola Spells, ZenobiaStudio inside Pink Dog Creative (344 Depot St., River Arts District, Asheville), open Thursday through Saturday, 12-5pm, or by appointment: 828-301-3495. Spells’ work is carried at 2 on Crescent (4 All Souls Crescent, Biltmore Village, 2oncrescent.com) and at the Asheville Art Museum store (2 South Pack Square, ashevilleart.org). “Flow of Africa,” an exhibit of paintings by Caszi B at Pink Dog Gallery (the turquoise building — 348 Depot St.), opens Friday, Feb. 21 with a 5:30-8pm reception and runs through Sunday, March 29. The Chit-Chat Fashion Show, themed “Talking About ‘Flow of Africa,’” happens Saturday, Feb. 22, 6-9pm at ZenobiaStudio. For more information, see ZenobiaStudio on Facebook and on Instagram.

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