Finding family in Sicily

Here in the mountains of upstate NY, one can’t help but dream of warm sunny places during the long dark days of winter. Long before we could “armchair travel” on the internet, we had the PBS series by Rick Steves, “Europe Through the Back Door” , to transport us to beautiful destinations such as Italy. Watching these shows on Sunday mornings inspired us to plan a trip to Italy and have our own adventure.

My husband’s grandparents were among the more than 4 million Italians who immigrated to the United States between 1880-1924. Paul’s grandfather Antonino arrived on his own in 1918. After finding a job and a place to live, he sent for his wife Caterina, their two children and his father. Three more children were born in Albany NY,  one of them being my father in law Giuseppe, who we always knew as Joe. Many of Joe’s cousins had remained in Sicily and fortunately for us, the Italian cousins had stayed in touch with Joe’s older brother Santo over the years. Seventy two years had passed since Uncle Santo had departed from Sicily as a small boy, and the connection to the old country was growing tenuous. He wrote down the names of two villages and the name of his cousin Peppina on a scrap of paper, but no street address or any indication of which village she lived in.  We flew to Italy with a great sense of anticipation in April of 1993 and after spending a week or so in Tuscany and Rome,  we boarded the train south to Sicily. As we journeyed  south of Naples, the sounds of the voices around us became more animated, alive with the sound of dialect. The villages that the train passed through were not like some of the well groomed Tuscan towns we had just spent time in, but refreshingly real. We met wonderful people in our train compartment who were enthusiastic about our mission to reunite with the cousins. They even tried to teach us a few phrases of Italian…we were SO unprepared to meet relatives who spoke no English!

Much to our surprise, when we got to Reggio Calabria, our train was laboriously separated into sections and loaded onto a ferry for the passage across the Straights of Messina.  Due to this area being seismically active, there is no bridge across the 1.9 mile span of water.   Upon arriving in Sicily and disembarking the train, we made our way to the local bus station. Here we showed the note that Uncle Santo had provided us with to the ticket seller at the Messina bus station and explained that we were searching for our cousin Peppina . Confusion ensued of course because we didn’t know which of the two towns she lived in! (We later learned that Uncle Santo had meant to indicate the township of Castroreale, and the town of Terme Vigliatore). Everyone on the bus was very interested in our story and wanted to help us to find Peppina. The bus driver assigned us  to the custody of a group of middle school age children who were getting off at our stop. The kids skipped through town asking everyone that we passed by if anyone knew a woman named Peppina. As we followed them through the town, our pack of escorts kept expanding and eventually included a bright young lady who suggested that we go to the Municipio or Town Hall for assistance. Success! Soon we had a street address and the children excitedly led us onward. Finally we turned down a side street and the children pointed to a small doorway in an ancient building. With both excitement and also a little trepidation, we knocked.

The door opened and there stood a very small woman with twinkling eyes and a warm smile. The children competed with each other to explain that we were cousins from America, and then off they ran with their own story to tell. Peppina spoke the local dialect,  not a word of English or Italian, but she knew just what to do… call for reinforcements! Her next door neighbor, like so many Sicilians who had fled poverty in the early part of the 20th century, had spent her working years living in Australia and as a result spoke English very well. She was able to translate back and forth, explaining who we were and how we were related, which was wonderfully helpful, but then she had to leave and we were briefly on our own.  More phone calls were made and relatives poured into Peppina’s tiny and immaculate living room from the surrounding streets to meet the Americans. Soon there were more than a dozen  people of all ages,  all talking at once with great merriment and much confusion. Of course we could understand very little and spoke even less. Peppina’s great niece and I bumbled through some basics with both of us straining to recall high school French, and a plan was thus formed for cousin Bartolo to escort us the next morning to the little hill town where my husband’s grandparents grew up. The piles of relatives then dispersed and Peppina prepared us a wonderful spaghetti dinner, the leftovers of which were fed to the pet turtle who resided in her walled garden. We couldn’t  understand a word of what she was saying, but she erupted in peals of  laughter every few minutes and was completely charming. The following morning Bartolo came with a car to pick us up for a tour of Bafia and then on to his home village of Rodi.

Bartolo’s little car climbed up and up into the hills, traversing hairpin turns and passing through the beautiful terraced countryside and the occasional small village. All throughout the ride he earnestly tried to tell us everything about the family which unfortunately we understood very little of. It was abundantly clear to us that when we would need to learn to speak Italian before coming back again. Bartolo was a wonderful tour guide and devoted his whole day to ferrying us around.  We saw the house where Paul’s grandparents had lived when they first were married located in the village of Bafia. The village picturesquely straddles a ridge, with ocean far below on one side and views into the beautiful Madonie mountains on the other side. We went on in search of the even smaller village of Mustaga, the birthplace of Nona(grandmother), Catarina. Higher and higher we climbed, twisting back and forth on a tiny dirt track which hugged the mountainside. When we were almost to the top of the mountain we finally arrived at our destination. There were just three houses remaining there and sadly now all of them are in ruins. We pushed aside the vines that were engulfing the houses and peeked inside and saw what looked like a piece of a Roman column! There were archeological excavations in the area, and we wondered if perhaps this piece of antiquity had been scavenged to use a a press for grapes or olive oil. This beautiful land had been given to the family by Garibaldi as a payment of sorts for those who fought with him to unite Italy.After looking around we descended back down the hairpin turns back into the valley and up the other side for the next stop on our tour, a visit with Bartolo’s cousins Peppino and Angela.

Peppino and Angela’s house is located on a bend of the road to Bafia and is surrounded by orchards of both olives and citrus. Inside the house, Peppino’s elderly mother sat in a chair with a tray of hot coals in front of her to fight off the chill. In the local dialect, she recalled the day that Nona Catarina left the village to go to America. I wish we could have understood more of what she said as she was one of the last remaining links to this piece of history. Angela invited us into a small shed which to our surprise housed a large grain mill. She easily hefted a huge sack of wheat berries and dumped them into the hopper.  She uses this flour to make the hundred or so loaves of whole grain sourdough bread which is  delivered to local stores twice weekly. Thanks to Bartolo, our timing was perfect, the bread was just coming out of the wood fired oven! They served it to us on a plate drizzled with their own delicious olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt…needless to say, we ate of it most heartily. What a fine and special lunch we thought to ourselves! Because of our poor language skills, we had no idea that while we were devouring great quantities of fresh bread, Bartolo’s wife Marguerita, and his daughter Giuseppina were very busy preparing a cena(midday meal) of epic proportions. We were whisked back to the beautiful village of Rodi where we were warmly welcomed into their spotless and elegant home. Cena was ready and soon we had in front of us  us a large bowl of tortellini which was absolutely delicious and which more than filled up the small remaining spaces left in our stomachs. But true to the Italian tradition, after the pasta entree, more was forthcoming….much much more!  A huge platter of sausages, veal and meatballs arrived at the table. Oh how we wished that we had not eaten all that bread, because every time our plates were near to being emptied, more meat appeared on our plates. The food was absolutely amazing and we ate everything including  salad and  bread followed by cake and espresso! Overeating on Thanksgiving could not hold a candle to this day of overeating! After the meal was over, we were taken on a tour of their beautiful little grocery shop or Alimentari which was in the building next door. Everything was perfectly neat with cans and bottles perfectly aligned, it was one of the most charming alimentaris I have visited anywhere.  Unfortunately, our oohs and ahhs of admiration over the store and the freezer display of ice cream treats were misinterpreted to mean that perhaps we were still  just a bit hungry. Before we knew what was happening, Bartolo had popped two cones out of the freezer…and we gamely ate those too!

The perils of overeating aside, it was a fantastic day and we vowed to return as soon as we could. Meeting our Sicilian relatives has been one of the most rewarding and fun adventures that we have ever had and we have returned many times over the years.



Stonewall Musings

There was an approximately 200 foot long by 10 foot wide fallen down stone wall that I could see from my seat at the kitchen table.

Over the course of many years as I sipped my morning cappuccino, I thought about  taking on the project of rebuilding the wall. I knew that it would be a daunting task, both due to the length of the wall and the enormous size of many of the stones, some of which were 200-300 lbs!



One morning with a hint of September crispness in the air, I got inspired to begin and started the process of  dismantling the first section of the old wall, throwing a few hundred stones out of my way and into various piles. Stones with good right angles for the end of the wall over here, good flat building stones  over there, rubble for the middle of the wall at the base of the tree, shim stones by the log and so on. It felt great to begin and lay those first end stones! When I am immersed in the process of wall building, I feel deeply peaceful. Handling all of the stones is great inspiration for my jewelry work!

I am lucky in that many of the stones that are common in our area are flat Bluestones. These sedimentary rocks are part of the earth’s endless cycle of creation whereby large rocks are eroded into smaller and smaller rocks and finally turn into sand which washes downhill in streams and rivers.

The layers of sand compress over the course of millions of years and eventually turn to rock. The sedimentary layers break off into this beautiful blue grey sandstone. But on our property we also have limestone rocks, formed from the skeletal remains of corals and mollusks that at one time lived near the equator. It seems strange that the land we live on was once located so far away. We have  lots of caves around here and fossil studded ledges of wavy limestone. Less common are the granite boulders studded with garnet from the Adirondack mountains north of us and even some pink granite rocks from Maine which have made their way to our property via glaciers sometime in the last 50,000 years or so. Our basement has a limestone ledge floor with large glacial scrapes running diagonally across it.

Thousands of  stones find their way into my hands as I make my own mark on the landscape. As I dig deeper I make an interesting discovery. Underneath the random pile of stones is a built wall, now about a foot under the surface and comprised of beautiful flat stones. In 1858 a Dutch family by the name of Osterhout lived in our house, and I imagine that it could have been an Osterhout who once handled these stones and labored as I do now, placing them carefully one over two, two over one. When the stones are connected to the ones around them, they stand firm for the ages.

The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” describes having a difficult decision to make and no good options. When working on my walls and trying to put a stone into position, I understand the idea of rocks and hard places in a very literal way! Often it is just a very small rock that will not allow me to move a much larger stone into position. Even though it is very frustrating to be thwarted, it is gratifying to see that the problem can sometimes be easily resolved. But there are also times when a tree is in the way, and times when an exploratory poke with my pry bar reveals that there is a large partially buried boulder in my way that is far too large to be moved. I must work around these things and the wall grows organically.

At times, nothing is clear to me, I feel discouraged as I stare at a random pile of stones and just can’t see what to do next. When this happens, I usually will work on dismantling the old wall that stretches out ahead of me or sort stones into piles of like size or shape. This allows my brain to catalog and become familiar with the rocks that I will be working with over the course of the next day or two and warms my body to the work. At some point during the day, I realize that I am in the flow, the wall flies together and it feels magical. In my jewelry work also, there are days that I must apply myself to uninspiring work, in order to get into the best state of mind for those magical moments to occur.

One can build a life in many different ways and each section of wall can be built in many different ways. I find though that without enough options, (rocks in this case),progress can be slow or halted.  When this happens I go foraging on the property and sometimes I even find wonderful stones buried under just a few inches of soil right beneath my feet! It is surprising how often one finds just what one needs.

Always I must stay in the moment and recenter. Think, consider, evaluate, build.

I worked on the wall for 3 months or so, until finally the ground froze and the snow fell. I had completed 215 feet of wall all together. It was a long winter with the ground frozen hard, stones trapped in frozen dirt and mud. But then pring arrived and I got back to my wall building, this time  working behind the house. I love being outside for hours on end. What a joy it is to see and hear the geese flying overhead and to watch the slow unfolding of the springtime!

Getting ready for the ACC Baltimore Craft Show

Like most craft professionals, I got my start at small local shows. My first booth consisted of a floor lamp, a card table and a piece of cloth on which to display the jewelry. My eye was always on the prize though, getting accepted into the American Craft Council shows. In 1986 after 5 years of unsuccessfully applying, I was finally accepted into the American Craft Council’s flagship show in Baltimore. It was very exciting to get that fat envelope in the mail full of exhibitor information! Since that time I have shown my work in Baltimore at the end of February every year except the year I was 9 months pregnant. This year’s show will be year 32!

Getting ready for Baltimore has dominated my winters for a long time now. The preparation begins right after the holiday rush. Because the show is open for both wholesale and retail sales, it is a good time to introduce new work to buyers from galleries, museum shops and stores that feature handcrafted work.

Early January is my favorite part of the process. During this time I review found objects, (mostly rocks), sketches that I have been making throughout the year, and photos of rock walls and escarpments taken from my travels in Ireland, Italy, the Adirondacks, the coast of Maine, or wherever a good rock makes it’s acquaintance with me. It is a time to dream and aspire, a time to play with color and design without giving a thought to salability… which is very freeing. I draw on large index cards so that I can lay out all of my ideas across my desk. I move the cards around according to my daily assessments/ratings of the designs that I am working on. Eventually I narrow it down to 10 or 12 design ideas, more than I will ever actually have time to make. During week two, I make my final selections and work on refining and scaling the drawings. Construction begins toward the end of week two and continues through week three and four. One by one the designs are transferred to tracing paper and glued to a thin sheet of sterling silver.

Long hours are spent each day sawing out the tiny compartments that will eventually contain the enamel and filing them to smoothness. Depending on the complexity of the design, this step takes between 8 and 25 hours to complete. The next step is to put many tiny paillons, (chips) of solder on the back of the cut out design. One has to be careful not to put on too much solder, the excess could flood the design and fill in small areas. At the same time,  one must apply enough paillons to secure the pierced piece to the base with no gaps. The solder is applied over a coating of flux and I gently heat the piece just until the solder flows across the design.

Next I clean the piece and place it right side up on a textured  base sheet of silver. I heat the two layers from underneath until the solder flows. Sometimes it takes a few repetitions of this step to get everything into place, particularly if there are multiple sections to attach. After the piece is cleaned in a mild acid called “pickle”, the next step is to cut out any interior windows and also around the outside edge. If I am working on one of a kind work, at this point I move on to the enameling process. When I am working on edition work,  the new design is now a completed model. Initially, a rubber or silicon mold is made from the model. Into this mold, hot wax is injected.  The wax version of the piece is then surrounded by a pour of plaster which hardens to make yet another mold. The plaster encased wax model is heated in a kiln to melt out the wax and eventually molten silver is injected into the cavity.  Casting enables me to duplicate the design and keep prices affordable! I don’t own casting equipment, so I send the models to a professional caster. A week or two later, I receive 6 or so castings of each new design which now need to be prepared for enameling. The sprue, which is the channel through which the molten silver flowed into the plaster mold, is not a part of the finished design and must be ground away.  Also, because I am enameling on sterling which is an alloy containing  fine silver and copper, I must heat up the cast pieces in the kiln and quench them in acid. This, for some reason unknown to this non-chemist, brings a layer of fine silver to the surface which is necessary for enameling. During weeks 4, 5 and 6,  I enamel all of the new designs and also stock up on my older designs of which there are more than 100. During week 4, cabin fever comes knocking on my door. We get out every day for a nice walk or an afternoon of cross country skiing or skating, but the schedule is non stop. My husband Paul works on preparing castings for enameling. I do all of the designing, enameling and soldering, but when that is complete, he goes to back to work. He first grinds off excess enamel and polishes each piece. After that he oxidizes the pieces in liver of sulfur and burnishes them on a spinning steel brush wheel followed by rubbing them with powdered pumice. The last step is to acid etch the glossy enamel  to a matte finish.  (He also makes dinner most nights, in fact right now he is making chocolate cream pie!) His help makes it all possible!

Wait, what week is it? …oh no, the show is only a few days away and I still have to photograph the rest of my new work, edit in gradient backgrounds  and post everything to my website. (Here is where my two sons, both computer science experts, have been an invaluable help. They are grown up now, but still respond to emergency “help me I’m stuck” calls). Price lists, postcards and business cards are printed and ready to go…I fill my spare time with posting on Instagram and Facebook, eating dark chocolate covered almonds and writing this blog… but now I really have to stop and pack up my show clothes, buy dog food and have a glass of wine.

All for now, hope to see you in Baltimore!


How to use your iPhone to take (decent) Jewelry Images for Instagram

I thought I would depart from the jewelry making/inspiration/lifestyle focus of my previous blog posts and this time offer a quick little tutorial on taking decent photos of jewelry with an iPhone. This is a low tech approach… no equipment, no lights, no set up!
I am a jeweler, not a photographer, but like so many jewelers, (and gallery owners), I find that I have to produce more images than I could possibly afford to have photographed professionally in order to feed the great maw of my social media accounts! Social media is a fun way to generate interest and excitement about your work, but of course poor quality images won’t advance your cause. Because many of us don’t feel that we have much time to spend on learning how to do this, or the money for a professional set up, I thought I would share what I have learned after taking thousands of (terrible) photos.
The following are some common issues and the fix:

Photo out of focus: This one is easy to solve…support your phone with a small box about 6″ tall, in order to hold it steady. The box should be either white or wrapped with aluminum foil to reflect more light back onto the piece…serves two purposes!  
Lighting: I use natural light, which for me is usually a window ledge in the studio which faces south. Morning light on a cloudy day seems to work best for me. I find that bright sun casts too many shadows and late in the day shots tend to be too yellow. Once you get a feel for the right time of day and cloud cover, your success rate will go way up. You can edit/fix some lighting issues with adjustments in the photo program on your phone. I have found that the most useful ones to try are “exposure”, “contrast”, and “cast”, this is not a miracle cure however! If it is a sunny day and you can’t wait for the clouds, you can try taping a large piece of paper over the

window to filter the light. Test out different windows and angles to the light. You can also try hovering apiece of white paper such as an envelope over the piece to get some nice reflected light. This is when a third arm comes in handy…I somehow always manage to do this on my own and I hardly ever drop my phone!
Background: Blank 5”x7” index cards make for a nice clean white background. However when shooting on a white background, be sure to make a “frame” around your piece of a more neutral color, otherwise your image will likely be overexposed. In the photo showing my set up, I have cut a window/square out of a catalog page. This same tip works for shooting on a black background…you have to balance what the camera sees. Or you can use a neutral background…for instance some gray paper. Before posting, I edit/crop the catalog page out of the photo and rotate/adjust the angle of the piece as necessary.
Weird reflections: You may notice a weird pink glow on your piece…if you are white, this could be coming from your face or hands, or that pink jacket you are wearing. You can experiment with where you are standing with relation to the piece and the light source, and make sure that your clothing is neutral in color.
Supporting the piece: A small packet of black Model Magic does the trick here; you can buy this at craft stores and fashion little supports to use behind your pieces to keep them in the position that you want them to be in.
Fortunately with digital you can take many photos and experiment with getting the effect that you want,  eventually you will get some nice photos!
These tips are for more casual jewelry shots…for producing jury quality images, you might want to use a professional photographer or at least learn to use Photoshop or similar. I use an open source program called “Gimp” to refine photos and add gradient backgrounds etc.

Building the stone patio 2017

I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to improve and enlarge the stone patio that I had built 10 years ago or so on the west side of the house, but the job was daunting. The entire retaining wall would have to be dismantled and rebuilt and there is a lot of stone in a four foot high wall that is thirty feet long!

I always know that I am ready to begin another stone project when I see a stone on one of my walks that I must have. One morning in early spring, I spied just such a stone, triangular in shape, about 2.5 inches thick and 16 inches on a side. It was covered with lichen and had fallen off one of our old walls. Without thinking about it too much, I picked it up and carried it the few hundred yards back to the house. A few days later,  again without thinking about it too much,  I started taking the old patio wall apart. I find that sometimes if you think about something too much, you never do it! After setting aside the top most stones, a collection of fossil laden and stream smoothed beauties,  I started throwing stones off the wall at a steady pace. It really did not take long to make a huge mess in the yard,  I was fully committed!

I love doing stone work in the springtime; it is a great motivator for getting out of doors during one of the most beautiful times of the year .   The apple blossoms from the orchard smell wonderful, the birds are singing, and the black flies buzz merry circles all around your head.  A few years ago when I was building a wall in a wooded area, I witnessed two male Pileated woodpeckers swooping through the trees, battling for territory.

When most of the wall was down, I laid out the new arc for the wall which makes a graceful curve around a bizarre Honey Locust tree which is covered with 3 inch long spikes that can, and have pierced our lawn mower tires. I feel quite sure that Sleeping Beauty was pierced by one of these thorns. And by the way, while taking pictures today, one of those thorns pricked me too. So…. I wonder what it will be like in 100 years when I awaken in 3017.

Stone by stone the wall grows taller.



Building a wall is a great metaphor for tackling anything difficult. One stone at a time and all of that. I find myself humming happily and completely absorbed as I work, I guess you could say that it is a form of therapy.

I had to make regular runs out for more stone pulling a trailer behind our heavy duty garden tractor. Because the wall is built on an embankment, I needed a lot of fill stones. I found some old chunks of concrete, left over from somebody’s project… and into the wall they went. We reasoned that we were discovering the remains of the original chimney when we found a quantity of bricks mostly buried at the edge of the woods. The bricks were really useful to use as spacers and shims on the back side of the wall. Fortunately, we have 13 acres of land which is well endowed with stones, so there are always plenty! I had to pay particular attention to the strength of the wall as it curved down the hill past the spike tree. This is where I was not careful enough last time and the wall had started to pull apart. Here in the Northeast, the frost heaves can really damage a wall that is not built well.

I worked on the wall for about a month, but only a few hours each day. It is very heavy work, and for me this works best.


Many people ask me for tips on wall building so here are a few.  It is always one over two and two over one…this is the stone masons credo. I build small sections that are level and then try to seat a larger stone there in order to connect the front of the wall to the back for instance. I fit the stones pretty tightly so that if the frost pushes on a section of the wall, there is no empty place just out of sight for the stone to move to. I always wear gloves and I don’t pick up anything that I am not sure that I can handle. I roll, or flip heavy stones rather than lift them.  I don’t work when the stones and work area are wet and muddy, one’s footing absolutely has to be secure.  Lastly, I try not to be too attached to a section that I have just built. If I am stuck, or if I think that I can make it better, down it comes. It is worth it! At the end of a project, you have something that will be there for a very long time. People also ask me if I build walls for money. No, not usually although I have done so a couple of times. It is more fun for me to work on our own property where I can really enjoy the results.