• Artist and Metalsmith: Valerie Ostenak

    Valerie Ostenak is an artist and metalsmith.

    Photograph courtesy Valerie Ostenak

    By National Geographic Education Staff

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    EARLY WORK

    One of Valerie’s earliest memories is asking her mother “how to draw something like the wind is blowing through it,” showing her twin interests in art and the natural world.

    The artistic side of Valerie’s professional life was encouraged by her mother. Every summer Valerie learned an art or craft project: mosaic, drawing, paint-by-numbers. (Many artists dismiss painting by numbers, but Valerie remembers it fondly. “It taught me a lot about shading and dimension at an early age.”)

    While her mother cultivated her artistry, Valerie’s father nurtured her detailed interest in nature by taking the family on picnics in the nearby Arizona mountains. Valerie realized “art is an expression of things that happen in nature . . . the way water moves, or the way a leaf unfurls.”

    Valerie’s grandmother also had an enormous influence on her professional life. Her grandmother was a world traveler and took cruises once or twice a year. Her grandmother would tell the family stories from her travels to such places as China, Hong Kong and India. “Having her around was like listening to a National Geographic talk!” Valerie says, laughing.

    As a young girl, Valerie once joined her grandmother on a cruise to Scandinavia. Leaving from New York City, they visited Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Soviet Union. Showing how geography changes in the course of a lifetime, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. And a Russian city Valerie visited, Leningrad, is now known as St. Petersburg.

    At Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Valerie originally studied science, with plans to become a veterinarian or marine biologist. But her life changed one day in phylogenetics (fi-loh-jeh-NEH-tihks) class. (Phylogenetics is an advanced biology class that studies the way organisms are related to each other.)

    That day, her professor brought anteater bones for the class to study. “They were so tiny, intricate and delicate,” Valerie remembers. “I couldn’t take my eyes off them.” She wanted to make earrings out of the anteater bones, so she asked her professor if a biology supply house could sell her material.

    “That poor lab instructor was so weirded out that I wanted to burn and make silver jewelry out of his bones!”

    Valerie realized she was an artist, and her earliest professional work involved silver castings of feathers and raccoon bones. She now works as a metalsmith (crafting objects like jewelry and sculpture from steel, iron, silver and gold). She also works as a painter.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Creating. “Celebrating nature, celebrating the diversity of things that are growing, I’m part of the creative part of the universe,” she says.

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Physical exhaustion. “The energy it takes to be creative is so much stronger than people realize. . . . It is as physically demanding to design and execute a painting as it is to dig ditches.”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    “I think geography is the overall view of where I live and its relationship to other places.”

    GEO-CONNECTION
    Valerie’s subjects have always been instruments of geographic change—natural materials that grow, modify and adapt. Valerie is inspired by “the way water creates a canyon or stalactites transform a cave.”

    Patrick’s Wave is a wall sculpture made of steel and the hard, colored plastic known as Plexiglass. The sculpture was inspired by both Valerie’s son (for whom the sculpture is named) and the Pacific Ocean in California. Although the sculpture is abstract (not a direct or photographic representation of something), Valerie studied wave dynamics to understand the force of water. “Water seems so fragile, but can transform an entire landscape,” Valerie says. In “Patrick’s Wave,” Valerie expressed “all of the power and energy just as the wave starts to crest . . . we don’t really see the power that is in that water; we just see the smooth beauty.”

    Even in urban areas, Valerie is fascinated by nature’s power and ability to persevere. “I get so happy when I see a dandelion coming up through asphalt,” she says.

    After spending time in Washington, D.C., Monterey, California, and Austin, Texas, Valerie recently moved back to Arizona, where she is rediscovering the colors of the desert landscape. Nearby buttes and hills look like they’re “washed with milk and ice cream under a brilliant blue sky,” Valerie says. Her most recent paintings are of sandstone and limestone cliffs near the town of Sedona.

    “We’re right on the Mogollon Rim,” Valerie explains. The Mogollon (MOH-goh-yohn) Rim is the southern end of the Colorado Plateau, running from the northwest to the southeast corners of Arizona. Many of the sedimentary rock formations in the Mogollon Rim can be seen in the Grand Canyon, where erosion due to the Colorado River exposed the layers. The cliffs near Sedona had their geologic history exposed not by erosion but by faulting—a fault in the Earth’s crust drove one part of the rim to crash into another.

    The crash resulted in a vivid contrast of different layers of rock and minerals. “There are these neatly defined horizontal layers, and all of a sudden it turns into these sheer vertical layers of rock,” Valerie says. “You can really see how the Earth works, as layers and layers of time.”

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ARTIST

    “Take business classes!” Valerie recommends. “You may have a drive to paint or draw, to make things in wood or metal. Ultimately, you’re going to have to turn it into a business.”

    GET INVOLVED

    Valerie encourages families to visit local botanical gardens. Often these open-air nature museums display artwork in addition to flowers and plants. Botanical gardens offer visitors a chance to see how artists complement and interpret nature.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    asphalt Noun

    chemical compound made of dark, solid rocks and minerals often used in paving roads.

    botanical garden Noun

    place where plants and flowers are grown and displayed for education and study.

    bronze Noun

    metal made of the elements copper and tin.

    butte Noun

    single hill or rock formation that rises sharply from a flat landscape, usually in a desert.

    Encyclopedic Entry: butte
    canyon Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: canyon
    casting Noun

    form that results from a liquid substance hardening in a shaped container.

    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    cliff Noun

    steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: cliff
    crest Noun

    the top of a wave.

    crust Noun

    rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crust
    cultivate Verb

    to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

    dandelion Noun

    small, tough plant with bright yellow flowers that most gardeners regard as a weed.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    dilapidated Adjective

    falling apart because of age and neglect.

    erosion Noun

    act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: erosion
    fault Noun

    a crack in the Earth's crust where there has been movement.

    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    gold Noun

    valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.

    iron Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Fe.

    limestone Noun

    type of sedimentary rock mostly made of calcium carbonate from shells and skeletons of marine organisms.

    marine biologist Noun

    scientist who studies ocean life.

    metalsmith Noun

    person who makes tools or sculpture from metal.

    mineral Noun

    inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

    mosaic Noun

    picture or design made from many tiny pieces of colored glass.

    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    organism Noun

    living or once-living thing.

    phylogenetics Noun

    study of how organisms relate to each other as they develop over time.

    plateau Noun

    large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plateau
    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    rock Noun

    natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.

    sandstone Noun

    rock formed by grains of sand.

    Scandinavia Noun

    region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

    sedimentary rock Noun

    rock formed from fragments of other rocks or the remains of plants or animals.

    silver Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Ag.

    Soviet Union Noun

    (1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

    stalactite Noun

    rock formed by mineral-rich water dripping from the roof of a cave. The water drips, but the mineral remains like an icicle.

    steel Noun

    metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

    veterinarian Noun

    person who studies the health of animals.

    wave Noun

    moving swell on the surface of water.

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