Finding Feathers: A conversation with visual artist Jillian Sortore


“Quiet, but in control,” said contemporary visual artist and educator Jillian Sortore as she described the ornithological inspiration for her exhibition, titled Plume, now on display at the NC State University Crafts Center.

The show runs through July 27, 2023. There will be a reception with the artist on Saturday, June 10, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., with a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. During the summer, the Crafts Center is open daily except Fridays.

The San Antonio-based artist’s exhibition draws heavily on bird feathers and the symbolism they embody.   

“I find the variations of plumage between species and sex very fascinating,” explained Sortore, over a Zoom call in April from her Texas home. “The attention-grabbing male plumage of some species is quite elaborate, while the camouflaged females are quiet, but in control.”

Rooted in vibrant colors and thought-provoking metaphors, Plume explores both the macro and the personal sides of the winged inspiration.

“I like the idea of thinking about how the plumages are metaphors for people in society and in my own life,” said Sortore. “I took influence from feathers’ patterns, colors and shapes to create the body of work in this exhibition.”

An interactive component of the Plume exhibition – the “Found Feather Exchange” – was made possible using equipment found in the Crafts Center’s C:LAB digital makerspace.

“There are one hundred small, wooden brooches, in the form of a feather, that will be attached to a folded card and arranged in a grid,” explained Sortore. “There will also be blank folded cards where someone can respond, in their own way, by writing a word, or drawing an image, to express and share an experience of, or similar to, finding a feather. Then, they will place their card back in the spot where they took the brooch.”

This collaboration was made possible in part with the help of Aditya Munde, the C:LAB’s studio technician, who used the WAZER waterjet to cut out one hundred forms based on the drawing Sortore sent him. The forms were then shipped to Sortore to finish the surface work and install the pinbacks.

Jillian Sortore received her MFA from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and her BFA in jewelry design and metals from Pittsburg State University. Working primarily with the mediums of wood and metal, she routinely explores a range of materials in her pieces.

Her work pays respect to the traditional techniques and processes within the jewelry and metals field while challenging the assumption of what jewelry can be. Through color, texture, scale and material, she confidently walks the line between functional jewelry and wearable sculpture.

In addition to the exhibition, Sortore will be teaching a sold-out wood jewelry workshop at the Crafts Center on June 10 and 11. The workshop will cover how to cut, sand and texture wood to create wearable jewelry such as rings, earrings, pendants and brooches. Additionally, she will discuss surface coloring techniques using gesso, colored pencils, and a variety of other techniques.

“My hope for the workshop is that it will give the students an array of options for working with wood.”

Specializing in metalsmithing, Sortore’s work often utilizes materials outside of the traditional metalsmithing techniques.

“It really stems from my undergraduate professor, Marjorie Schick. Marjorie herself was a highly skilled metalsmith and I did learn the ins and outs of metalsmithing. But she really made a name for herself by creating conceptual sculptures to wear,” explains Sortore. “She challenged the traditions of scale and materials, using whatever material necessary to portray her ideas. Because of her, not only did I fall in love with working on the body, but with the same challenges of breaking traditional barriers in the jewelry field.”

In addition to her own creative output, Sortore is a full-time professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Balancing the demands of teaching with the demands of her studio practice is not without its challenges.

“I am not going to lie, it takes discipline,” said Sortore. “Sometimes it is hard to find the time to balance the two, but I think of studio work like self-care in a way.”

She explained the hurdles of juggling both roles, saying, “I have to plan it into my schedule ahead of time because that helps keep me accountable, and it always puts me in a better headspace when I spend time in the studio.”

Whether in the classroom or the studio, Jillian Sortore’s genuine enthusiasm motivates her to keep moving forward despite the challenges of being a contemporary visual artist.

“It is a challenging career path, but I really think there is a demand within myself to manifest my ideas through creativity. Materials and processes fascinate me and ultimately the satisfaction of completing a piece or series keeps me coming back.”

Drawing from many mediums, Sortore’s blend of productivity and creativity already has her mind on what is next.

“I find that sometimes I need to change things up,” she explained. “I have some sketches for some sculptural works using Creative Paperclay, which is an air-dry hobby clay. The egg is something that I plan to use as a theme in this work. The rest of the details will be discovered through the making process.”