Meet the Artist: Selima Dawson of Blakbird Jewelry

This Pittsburgh visual artist pours thought and life experience into her hand-cut metal jewelry.

by Jessa Gibboney
December 18, 2020

Selima Dawson is a Pittsburgh visual artist and founder of Blakbird Jewelry, a handcrafted metal jewelry business with a focus on intuitive, environmentally-friendly production. Her care in creating from polishing and cleaning the metal to hand-cutting each design leads to distinctive, made-to-last wearable art.

 

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Landing in Pittsburgh

Dawson was born in New York and moved to Pittsburgh as a small child. The East End, and for a time The Hill District, was home. Her mother, Marian Elizabeth Lloyd Dawson, and father, Morris Dawson, are profound inspirations when it comes to Dawson’s artistry.

Dawson’s mother was a talented seamstress and quilter, though she never thought herself as a typical artist. Dawson’s father was categorized in the “folk art” realm, but also dabbled in photography, as well as building miniatures and dollhouses.

 

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Arts vs Crafts

As Dawson’s parents effortlessly defied artist classifications, they helped shape her philosophy around art.

“I got this idea growing up that a lot of things were art,” said Dawson. “It wasn’t this idea of ‘well, that’s art and this is craft.’ It’s where I got the sense that anything I make is art.” And, even further, those handcrafted pieces can be sold.

Blakbird Jewelry, as a business and as a creative outlet, has undergone many transformations. Curating one-of-a-kind jewelry was always of interest. Dawson’s pieces have stepped into the light and have been made available for sale, then retreated – whether by Dawson’s personal reasons or for creative discovery – over the past 10 years.

These transformations, these starts and stops, are reflected in her business’s name.

“It [the name Blakbird] embodies a lot of things I relate to,” said Dawson.

“At the time, I was observing birds a lot – crows, which I love, and ravens. While reading a book about them, I was really fascinated with how smart they are; they are so adaptable, they make tools, they actually can mimic human language, they’re all over the world. I used them as a metaphor for a way of living.”

 

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Bringing Blakbird to Life

In 2010, Dawson began making earrings and other wearable pieces for herself, family and friends using brass foil, a delicate and beautiful material.

Using Facebook as a promotional platform, she posted a small collection of items for the first time. The money didn’t pour in, but the positive reaction to her art was a confidence booster. From there, she began selling her hand-cut pieces at WildCard in Lawrenceville, and has been selling there on and off ever since.

Dawson’s jewelry production faded a bit in the next coming years, then Blakbird Jewelry had a resurgence in 2015. Sadly, Dawson’s mother passed in September of 2015 and once again Blakbird Jewelry took a backseat to other life priorities.

In 2018, Dawson began developing a new, cohesive collection with thicker metals (brass and bronze purchased from other small businesses and found metals such as aluminum from Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse).

 

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Jewelry as a Vehicle for Art

While creating her jewelry, she was forging a path where she was comfortable being seen as an artist. It was less about a sales goal and more about giving her artistry a chance.

“Jewelry has been a good vehicle for my art and relating to people, getting out there in a different way,” said Dawson. “It’s grown with me.”

At the end of 2019, Dawson began in-person vending for the first time, popping up at Handmade Arcade and Made + Found Market. By 2020, Dawson received studio space at Radiant Hall Susquehanna in Homewood through an ORIGINS Residency, a local program dedicated to increasing the visibility and supportive resources available to Black artists.

Due to COVID-19, Dawson has been in and out of the studio. This has not stopped her from using the ORIGINS’ resources to grow in production and concept.

Timing seemed to work out again in August when a colleague nominated Dawson and Blakbird Jewelry for a photo branding contest for Pittsburgh small businesses funded by local photographers, Eva Lin Douglass and Levana Melamed. Dawson was in the weeds of working on a new website, her first website, and winning this photo branding session was the elevating last piece she needed.

 

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“I’ve learned that every season in my business is not going to be the same, just like in life,” said Dawson. “You have these times when you may not know it, but you are preparing for something. There are a lot of times when I may think I am not doing enough, but I end up finding out I’ve been prepared for the next season of my business. I try to be in tune with that idea in my life.”

Shop Blakbird Jewelry on Etsy

Follow Selima and Blakbird Jewelry’s journey on Instagram

Blackbirdjewelry.com is launching soon! Submit an email address here to be notified when the website is live. 

Jessa is a writer and poet, but above all, a storyteller. Her blog houses poetry and essays on sustainable style, freelance and motherhood. Through her writing endeavors, she has worked with local and global brands such as Carnegie Museum of Art, TRYP Pittsburgh | Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh Opera, Cartier, Earth Brands and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Jessa lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, Ben, daughter, Louise and their pup, Opal. She wears the same rings every day, believes anything secondhand has a good story to tell and likes her whiskey straight up.

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