The sun rises over the tree line and spreads its light across the fields. The horse, donkey, and pot-bellied pig are ready for breakfast. So is the cat. However, “Dusty”, the Border Collie, will not eat until she is certain all is right with her master. She waits dutifully, expectantly, by the back door. So begins another day on Bev Yokley’s fifteen acres of Tennessee heaven.
There are those who integrate their passions into their daily life, and Bev is one of those lucky individuals.
“From an early age, I loved to draw animals. In high school, I fantasized about riding horseback across the country; paying my way as I went by making art for people-kind of a ‘making art for my supper type thing. ‘That didn’t happen, but I think I’ve managed to create a life that is a variation on that high school fantasy,” she said.
Top Basenji puppy “Larry” enamels over copper with over glazes, Left Fox head, enamels over copper with over glazes, Right Tibetan Spaniel head enamels over copper with over glazes, Bottom Pug head study, enamels over copper with over glazes
After high school Bev attended East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
“I knew I wanted to study art. I had a natural affinity for watercolors, but it was jewelry/metalsmithing that captured my imagination. There was something about the process that intrigued me-how one could take a relatively rigid material (metal), and fashion it into a curvaceous, organic form. I loved that about the medium.”
It was while getting her master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, again in jewelry / metalsmithing, that she discovered enamels.
“I took to enamels instantly. In a sense, enameling reminded me of working in watercolors. Both are unforgiving in that there is not much room for ‘do-overs.’
After graduating, I faced the same choice as many graduates-what do I do now?
“With an MFA one is qualified to teach at the college-level, but I had already decided what I really wanted to do was to make a living through my work. I admire good teachers to no-end, but teaching just wasn’t for me.”
She decided to combine her love for animals with both her enameling and metals training. Thus, in 1982 Bev began her business “The Horse Brooch”
“It has always seemed to me that the best things in life are deeply personal. For me, a cherished part of my life is about the way my craft connects me to other people.
“I decided to fabricate gold and silver brooches where clients would send horsehair from the mane or tail of their horse and a headshot or side profile picture of that horse . I would mount the horse’s hair as a background, enamel an image of the horse, and secure both hair and enameled portrait inside the brooch. In that way my customers were wearing a very personal piece of jewelry.
Those resulting labors-of-love were well received.
“I learned early-on that my college education had not prepared me for running a business. I look back on that time in my life now with amazement that I survived,” she adds with a laugh. “A basic course or two in marketing and small business practices would have been most beneficial.”
Talent, however, has a way of breaking through, and in Bev’s case it was a set of fortuitous meetings that helped guide the direction of her business.
“The price point of those brooches was necessarily high, and while there were plenty who admired my work, many could not afford it. By now, I was selling my work at horse shows, and that brought on, what for me, were hefty expenses.”
“I was at a horse show in Kentucky, when a woman looking at my work suggested I make a less-expensive item in addition to the brooches. It was clearly the enameled portions of those brooches that attracted the most attention, so I took her advice and began making larger enameled horse pins, sans the horsehair and constructed brooch housings. The enameling techniques I was using then (and am currently using) are a combination of limoges and painted enamels (using commercially prepared over-glazes) on copper.
“The following year, another woman at that same horse show asked if I had ever considered doing a dog show. I told her I had never given it a thought, and she said, ‘Well, you should try one.’
Fast-forward twenty-seven years plus, and the Horse Brooch is a very different “animal” than when it started.
“I could not tell you the last time I made one of the fabricated/horsehair brooches, but I decided to keep that business name as a reminder of the philosophical spirit from which the business sprang-very personal work for one animal-lover at a time. Although most of my work is now more geared to dog shows, animal-lovers the world over share a common bond.”
Her work includes her ready-to-buy standard designs, pieces in which she customizes those designs, and one-of-a-kind commissioned works. A perusal of her inventory astounds the viewer with its variety: there are dogs, horses, foxes, cats, birds, African animals, farm and woodland animals, and flowers. Custom commissions range from enameled portraits of some of the best-bred animals in history, to much beloved mixed-breed pets rescued from shelters. When asked how she arrived at such a of work, she smiles.
“Mine has not been a methodical journey. It’s not the way I am made. Take for example, the variety of sheep I make. Did you know there are forty-seven recognized breeds and type of sheep in the U.S. according to the American Sheep Industry Association? I didn’t. But I was at a dog show in one of the Mid-Atlantic States where a woman visited my booth and told me she was the vendor chair for the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. She asked if I might consider selling my work there. I was fascinated by the prospect and the rest, as they say, is history; I’ve been doing that annual show for over ten years now.”
Her work has taken her from Vermont to Florida, New York to California, and many points in between. She is, however, quick to point out that it is not an easy life.
“When an artist sells his or her work directly to clients, it can be a nerve-wracking way to make a living, and this work is (and has been) my sole source of income for more than 25 years. You have paid for your vendor space) worked long studio hours to build up inventory, made lodging reservations, and traveled great distances. If it is an outdoor show, Mother Nature can make quick mockery of all of that preparatory work with three days of driving rain.”
“There are times when I think, ‘Why am I doing this,’ but then I’ll receive a letter of gratitude from someone who has been gifted with a custom piece of a recently-departed pet. That goes a long way in my book to answering that self-imposed question about why I do what I do. And at the end of the day, I have a certain satisfaction that I have answered my life’s calling.”
“My studio itself is nothing fancy; it is a small clapboard building with a loft that was originally used as a place for curing hams. The word ‘cozy’ comes to mind. Out the back door of my house, a few steps past the kitchen garden, and I can be at work in my studio. That is a luxury I appreciate every working day.”
Today most of her output is custom work from a loyal client-base. Whether it is custom work or not, all of her work is completely handmade from drawing the silhouette images on the metal, through the enameling process, to the hand-written note that accompanies every order being shipped out. There is nothing about the work that does not have the accumulation of her integrated life in it-and world is a more visually appealing place.