The Vibrant Veruschka Stevens

Veruschka Stevens’ polymer clay creations add a vivacious touch to statement jewelry.

Veruschka Stevens is highly trained, but not as an artist. Up until 2013, this self-taught jeweler was a full-time systems engineer. But however disparate her two careers may seem, Stevens says certain skills have served her well in both fields.

Veruschka Stevens: There's definitely a significant portion of learning to code, and you learn programming languages and so forth. But the biggest part about systems engineering is learning how to think. So I'm able to deconstruct something that I find beautiful in tiny little elements, and then I know how to start. I start with the smallest of elements, and then I start putting them together.

And whether drawing on African fashion design, pottery, or even a favorite coastal view, color, texture, and nature are constant elements of Stevens' work. One series celebrates the unique cultural heritage of her homeland, Bolivia. In the region where the Incas once lived, indigenous peoples still use particular kinds of fabric.

Stevens: ...Which are called aguayos. And our native women and men still make these fabrics, and they use them mainly to carry stuff. So instead of bags, they wear them on their backs, and they put their babies in there, they put their foods. And it's such a contrast, because everything they wear is dark and brown and black, but this is so colorful.

AJC: What does that say about the character of the people, or is there a practical reason for it?

Stevens: I think it's the contrast of their lives. These are people that live in what we called the highlands, the altiplano. And if you've ever been in Peru, it's the same people. Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, we're the same people. Those lands are really...you have no plants, you have no greenery. And I think the human spirit just cannot quite handle that. If your environ doesn't give you the colors, you create them. So I think this is their way of balancing the spirit, a little bit, of joy. They wear these fabrics more even on their skirts when they get married, when a baby is born, so this is definitely part of celebration. I do think it has to do with a natural association of color with joy, which is something I absolutely believe in, because the reason I do this is because it makes me feel happy. Some people hear music, and music can shift your moods. For me, color does that, and texture does that.

AJC: Do you think that that's a cultural thing for you, or is it something that's just a part of who you are personally?

Stevens: I think it's part of who I am personally. I don't know that many people that can be shifted so easily with color. I can. If I'm in a bad place, I just need to see something beautiful, and it literally will shift my mood. It's very powerful for me.

Stevens began making her colorful jewelry as a reaction to her brother's battle with cancer. She happened upon the material that would become her signature medium, polymer clay, while he was still alive. But she didn't find her artistic voice until after he was gone.

Stevens: I started contemplating the ideas of reincarnation. I started contemplating the cycle of life and what it really is. And so, my very first piece came to me in a dream, after he passed away. And he was in it, but he was not...the dream was like a close-up following the cycle of the butterfly. And so I could see it started with the eggs, and the eggs that became the little worms. And then, at the end of it, it was a butterfly. And as the butterfly flew away, I saw his face. And then I didn't know what it meant, but I just knew I had to do that. I had to capture that. And I hoped that, in the creating of the necklace, whatever I felt he was trying to communicate with me from the other side, would become clear to me. So I did, and that was my very big first piece.

AJC: And did that bring you any kind of peace?

Stevens: Yes, it did.

AJC: It did?

Stevens: Yeah, it did.

Such peace, in fact, that Stevens decided to dedicate herself to making jewelry. The move, she says, was empowered as much by American cultural values as her own passion.

Stevens: There is no way, no way I would have ever been an artist in Bolivia, no way. It was not even a thought, as a possible thing for me to do as a kid. I loved playing and building and whatnot, but I went to engineering. One, because I was good at it. And two, because—

AJC: It was a job.

Stevens: That's a job. Everything else is a joke. You know, you always have your uncle, Uncle something, who is the artist, and he's the crazy one. You don't want to be the crazy one. So it was not even a thought. And so this country has given me the permission slip to do something that I know I would not have done. And that's been the biggest thing for me, in terms of VeruDesigns, is I felt a backing—an emotional psychological support in the culture that I don't feel I ever had in my own home country.

AJC: If you can dream it, you can do it.

Stevens: Yes, yes, and that is so real. And I think that it's such an intangible that is really hard to articulate to both Americans, because it's how they grew up, but also to people that have never lived here, because it really is very special.

Another American value that's come in handy: the willingness to fail.

Stevens: I think people don't realize how failure is so feared elsewhere. Hugely feared! It scars people for life, and I've seen it. I've seen it in friends and family, both in South America and in Europe. It's okay to do that here. It sucks, but we can come back.