Artist and Metalsmith: Valerie Ostenak

Artist and Metalsmith: Valerie Ostenak

Profile of the artist and metalsmith Valerie Ostenak.


8 - 12+


Arts and Music, Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...


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.


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


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.”


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

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.”


“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.”


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.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

National Geographic Society
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources