Waiting for nature to speak

Julie Betts Testwuide sees magic in the moment. But she’s also willing to wait for it.

The versatile Katonah artist — who is from Wisconsin — built her career on the virtue of patience. As a nature photographer for 30 years, she’s often waiting, whether it’s for animal activity or the right lighting. And as a budding vintage jewelry designer, she first has to locate her preferred pieces before redesigning and refinishing their looks. 

But once that moment comes, whether in photography or in jewelry-making, it’s worth the wait.

One of Testwuide’s creations made by combining watch chains of varying textures. Photograph by Julie Betts Testwuide.

“For me, it’s about capturing a moment that was fleeting and gone the next minute,” Testwuide says. 

A lifelong horse lover — her property includes a horse barn, which houses her Icelandic horses, Fila and Fidla — Testwuide has become known for her ethereal images of wild horses. And she’s willing to go to great lengths to get them, having traveled all over the world in all sorts of conditions, for the right shot. Her adventures have led her from Assateague Island, off Maryland, and Chincoteague Island in Virginia to the Camargue in the South of France, Iceland and numerous places in between, including knee-deep swamps, barren beaches and mysterious forests. But one experience she’ll never forget was a recent trip to Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada.

The crescent-shaped island, which is 26 miles long and less than one mile across at its widest point, is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, by some, because it’s constantly shifting and challenged by thick fog and rough currents. For these reasons, the island is vacant, with the exception of a few researchers and Canadian government personnel, along with wildlife like gray seals and horses. The only way to access Sable Island is by plane, she says, and the conditions must be near perfect, though there’s always a level of danger involved.

After waiting years to visit, Testwuide finally had her chance, and the result was a photographic collection of feral horses, freely grazing the bleak land. 

“Once you get there, you land and walk for miles, looking for horses,” she says. “You have no idea when you’re going to find them.”

“Lost on Sable Island,” a photograph taken by Testwuide during her visit to Sable Island. Photograph by Julie Betts Testwuide.

One shot that Testwuide is particularly fond of depicts a lost foal in search of its mother, an image that took hours to capture. 

It seems that with Testwuide’s photography, it’s all a game of chance. But with her jewelry, she uses a different tactic, beginning with a visit to the Brimfield Antique Show in Brimfield, Massachusetts.

“It’s a feast for any antique lover,” she says.

It was at this show, which Testwuide describes as one of the highlights of her year, that she began finding vintage pieces — including old necklace chains and fobs (chains attached to watches), lockets and antique medals. After collecting her pieces, she refinishes them with an 18-karat gold coating and adds rhodonite, a pink-red mineral, as an accent. Her collection, which includes layered chains of different styles and textures, is an eclectic, vintage celebration. Testwuide also creates custom work, including transforming a pin that belonged to a client’s grandmother into a necklace.

Finding just the right piece is something that Testwuide has been doing since age 10, when she visited her first tag sale. 

 “I’ve always been a scavenger,” she says. “I’ve been really good at finding things and recreating other things with them.”

A Victorian medal. Photograph by Julie Betts Testwuide.

Testwuide, who started experimenting with photography as a child and jewelry-making in high school, removes a few objects from a cabinet in her at-home studio. In her hands sit two ceramic bowls, which, she says, are the first two items she’s ever bought at a tag sale, along with her first camera.

“I think I might have been born in the wrong era,” she says. “I’ve always loved the patina of antiques and the worn feel of old jewelry and furniture. I like the fact that they have a past.”

Testwuide’s creativity is not restricted to photography and jewelry. She’s left her mark throughout her home. A majority of her furniture consists of antique finds that have been refinished, including a living room bar and kitchen cabinets. She’s experimented with creating lamp shades, and she frequently makes custom wooden frames for her photographs using refinished barn wood. She also plans to publish a photography book — in its own good time.

Julie Betts Testwuide’s artwork and jewelry is available through Oak & Oil in Katonah, Hickory & Tweed in Armonk and The Avenue Gallery in Norwalk. For more, visit juliearts.com.

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