Buy Now


Finding Beauty In A Broken World: Silversmith Nancy Bugbee
Montana Senior News Feb./March. 2017
Discipline and play might seem like contradictory mindsets to create art but not for silversmith Nancy Bugbee. For over three decades, Nancy has relied on both discipline and a sense of playfulness to produce her whimsically charming jewelry. In fact, among the drills, scales, presses, and pliers residing in her Missoula studio, you can also see quotes reminding her to maintain a balance between those two concepts.
The words of the first quote, “Discipline is remembering what you want,” were inscribed on a sign, which Nancy saw at her mother-in-law’s home. They resonated with her so strongly she copied the quote and placed it in her own studio early in her jewelry-making endeavors. Considering how difficult it can be at times for artists of any ilk to finish a project, the reminder has remained appropriate.
“I function best when I can have long hours of work alone,” states Nancy, whose earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and pins appeal to a wide range of ages and backgrounds. “But I get distracted with wanting to give time to family or trying new techniques. I’m an information junkie and love learning new methods or experimenting with new materials. I want to try them all. So to me, the F-word is focus. How do I get my discipline without shutting out the world?”
The second quote, “Above all, I feel art should be happy and not lugubrious,” came from the pages of a book penned by Alexander Calder. Best known for originating the mobile, the famed sculptor also fashioned jewelry and happens to be one of Nancy’s longtime inspirations. Like Calder, Nancy believes that metal is the “heart and soul” of each creation. She forges fluid or quirky designs as imagination impels her, hammering, cutting, twisting and looping metal into beautiful shapes.
“I really connected with what he said. I think jewelry should be fun. Most of the pieces I make ultimately reflect joy,” says Nancy, whose forays into crafting jewelry began when her teaching career in Clinton ended. After 13 years in the classroom, Nancy was ready for a change and wanted to work from home so she could be closer to her young school-age children. Initially, she tinkered with gluing pretty tumbled stones into pre-made settings. But while the concept was appealing the outcome was not.
“I took some of the jewelry I made to the school where I had worked to show the other teachers,” recalls Nancy. “Unfortunately the room where I put the jewelry was so warm, the glue melted and many of the stones slid out of their settings.”
Understandably mortified, Nancy decided it was time to gain some mastery if she wanted to pursue this new direction. So she took a one-week course from an expert in Ennis to learn silversmithing basics. That provided the foundation she needed and convinced her she was on the right track. From there, she enrolled in additional classes in Seattle and Colorado to develop her skills and a signature style.
One of the many ways she learned to convey a sense of delight in her pieces is through using colorful beads along with hand-built ethnic silver pieces hailing from Ethiopia, Morocco, and Turkmenistan. Movement is another technique she often employs, especially in crafting earrings.
“I like the idea of motion. That’s why I make dangling earrings, not posts,” says Nancy. “My body likes to move and my hands need to be busy, too, whether making jewelry, knitting, or playing the piano.”
Whenever possible, she also incorporates unexpected objects into her pieces. That explains, in part, why you might notice an old button or rusted disc adorning one of her brooches or bracelets. While most of the world walks past and ignores such artifacts left forgotten on the sidewalk, Nancy stops to examine them seeing potential where others see junk. That is not to say she picks up every lost button she finds. But if the hue or shape catches her eye, she realizes it could possibly star in her next creation.
“Even the patina of an antique button can be significant. It has a sense of history and now you’re going to do something new with it to continue that history,” explains Nancy. “Essentially, it’s recycling or conservation. I do it for the same reason I bring clothes to Goodwill and Secret Seconds—the need to use things up, to give them a complete life.”
When embarking on a new project, Nancy describes her process as intuitive, not pre-planned. She never begins with a preliminary drawing.
“I can’t draw anything,” she admits. “Even stick figures are hard for me.” Instead, it is the piece of weathered glass discovered on a beach that triggers her creativity or a vintage wristlet minus a clasp purchased from a thrift shop.
“I’m attracted to beauty and love finding beauty in a broken world. I want objects that we love to continue in the flow of life,” says Nancy. “For instance, I like to take apart antique necklaces to repurpose them. I might make earrings from them. Or, if I’m intrigued by the pattern or design of a section, I’ll use just that portion and give the elements a different life.”
Along with found objects, Nancy considers Mother Nature to be another source of ideas. She is constantly motivated by the various textures and color combinations in the natural world. When taking walks, she notices what the clouds and trees happen to be doing at the moment as well as the mountains and meadows.
“Nature just gives its beauty to you,” states Nancy, “whether it be a sunset or a shell with a hole in it.”
Of all her creations, Nancy’s price-friendly earrings remain her bestseller. People enjoy buying them for themselves or giving them as gifts.
I want to be affordable to the Missoula community, which is one reason I work in Merlin’s Gold and in silver. Merlin’s Gold is a kind of brass,” explains Nancy, who donates jewelry to support organizations such as Montana Natural History Center, Five Valleys Land Trust, and Living Arts. She also donates home-cooked meals as a member of the Cooking Angels team at YWCA Missoula. (See related article.)
Like the clothing we wear, the jewelry we chose makes a statement about our personality. It tells the world if we are serious or flamboyant, impish or conservative. It even provides us with an opportunity to change preconceptions we might hold about ourselves.
“I don’t want to be pushy,” remarks Nancy, “but at times I just want to say to a customer, loosen up. Be more daring. Have fun with this and choose something that makes your heart sing.”
Laurel Creek Clothing and Gifts in Missoula carries Nancy’s jewelry. For more information, visit: or contact her at 406-360-0431 or