The relaxed pace of my life these past two winters has been a real contrast to the decades of insanely busy winters that preceded them. Formerly, the holiday rush segued into the “getting ready for the Baltimore show” rush resulting in almost no down time from December through February. Covid ushered in a new reality where retail shows were canceled and many of the galleries that had been ordering my work closed for good. I still had a lot of the inventory that I had made just before Baltimore 2020 and it was hard to get inspired to make new work knowing that the opportunities to sell my work had vastly changed.
For us, the upside of the pandemic was that we really enjoyed the company of our grown sons who moved back home for awhile to wait out the pandemic. As a family, we cooked (and ate!), spent time out on the water in our various human powered boats, we took a lot of walks in the spring, summer and fall and during the winter months we went skiing, skating or snowshoeing most days. Dark winter days drifted by, one much like the next. I had no problem with keeping up with orders from my website and Artful Home, but I just couldn’t seem to get motivated to do any new work.
A trip to Acadia National Park in Maine in the spring of 2021 was a good jump start for my creativity. The wave lashed cliffs and stony headlands have long been great sources of inspiration for me.
I took a lot of pictures and communed with lots of rocks and then waited for all of that good input to “ferment” like a good wine.
Finally, with the help of a New Year’s resolution, I plunged back into doing creative work in the studio in January 2022. As much as I miss the excitement of the ACC Baltimore show, I don’t miss the stress of the show prep. This year I have been delighting in allowing my creative process to flow in an environment completely free of pressure. I can work normal hours instead of flat out for weeks on end. I look forward to sharing with you the results of my efforts soon!
The American Craft Council show in Baltimore was where you could find me during the last week of February almost every year for the last 36 years. I have always enjoyed being a part of the show and have loved having the opportunity to see the inspiring work of my colleagues and meet my wonderful customers.
Concerns over the burgeoning numbers of jewelry booths and of course Covid, have keep me away for the last couple of years, but there is always the possibility of a return to Baltimore in March of 2023.
In the meantime online sales keep me reasonably busy, I have several website sales over the course of the each year, and would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have ordered from the bottom of my heart! You are the ones who have enabled me to keep my business going. If you haven’t done so yet, get on the mailing list so you don’t miss out on promotions and sales!
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 in the United States 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. When he heard that we were planning a trip to meet the family, he wrote down the names of two villages and the name of his cousin Peppina on a scrap of paper. Unfortunately, he had no street address and didn’t indicate 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 tried to explain 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 left to nod and smile. 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 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.
There was a collapsed old stone wall, approximately 200 feet long by 10 feet wide, that I could see from my seat at the kitchen table.
Over the course of many years as I sipped my morning cappuccino, I mused 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!
But…one morning with a hint of September crispness in the air, without a lot of forethought,( because forethought can really slow you down), I started the process of dismantling the first section of the old wall. I threw 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 fossil studded ledges of wavy limestone. This rock was 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. 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 glacial transport sometime in the last 50,000 years or so. Interestingly, 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, or 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. 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 deep snow and all the stones trapped in frozen dirt and mud. But then spring 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!
February 14, 2019
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 ACC’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 20 to 30 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 those are then 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 5 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 my 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 once 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 hour of cross country skiing or skating, but the schedule is non stop. I do all of the designing, enameling and soldering and my husband, Paul, helps out with preparing the castings for enameling and also the many finishing processes. He grinds excess enamel off each piece, polishes it and then oxidizes the pieces in liver of sulfur which turns the silver to a dark grey color. After that, he burnishes them using a high speed 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 during the Baltimore rush and sometimes even desserts! 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!