Arts  /  October 2, 2019

Core Story: The Core's death defying Baltimore Jewelry Center

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When you look at the light-hearted grins of Mary Raivel, Lydia E. Martin, and Elaine Zukowski standing in front of the “Metal Shop” show they are part of, in the simultaneously bustling and serene Baltimore Jewelry Center, it's impossible to realize how improbable (even impossible) this scene would have seemed just a few years ago. It’s a dramatic story of Baltimore-style community determination, and triumph against the odds, with an assist from the fickle finger of fate.

We were there to learn about Metal Shop, which is not just the name of an exhibition closing this week, but an ongoing retail effort at the Jewelry Center. However, we soon understood from talking to the trio of jewelry artists that to understand Metal Shop, you have to understand what the Baltimore Jewelry Center itself is, a place unique in Baltimore and, believe it or not, the whole, wide, world.

The story began in the winter of 2012, with a near-death experience, a few miles away, on the banks of the Jones Falls (in Woodberry), inside an often-flooded 150 year-old building at Meadow Mill, whose stone and timber interior bore a passing resemblance to the laboratory in the basement of Castle Frankenstein. The leadership of what was then Jewelry Center at MICA (a satellite program of the school's Continuing Studies Department) called together convocation of their larger community. They confirmed to the assembled, what email invitations had already suggested, that MICA would no longer have a Jewelry Department. Thus their basic financial structure had disappeared. The news was greeted by some with gasps and tears. But, before long, there was cheering in the room, because the leaders at the Jewelry Center resolved this would be the beginning of a new chapter, rather than the end of the story. They would find a new financial model and a new home and they would go on. But despite the cheers, not even the most optimistic in the room anticipated what lay ahead.

Meanwhile across town, here on North Avenue, a landmark structure mutely showed the same tenacity, and unwillingness to give in. What was then known as The Centre Theatre was in a state of complete dissolution, with its mangled interior covered in debris and plant life. This included a large tree, growing through the roof – right in the space where the Jewelry Center is now located. But as Charlie Duff, leader of non-profit developer Jubilee Baltimore, noted, when he surveyed the wreckage – despite the roof damage, the structure was solid and its exterior walls (fortuitously composed of cinder block) were fully intact. His organization bought The Centre at auction for $93,000, with the intent of filling it with tenants whose activities would fuel the renaissance of Central Baltimore. This being Smalltimore, it wasn’t hard for Jubilee Baltimore to discover an ideal tenant for its latest project, and The Baltimore Jewelry Centre to discover its ideal home. Making the whole thing a reality was of course not so easy.

But they did it! So we’ll spare you the details and tell you about what The Baltimore Jewelry Center has become. It’s gone way beyond its origins as a jewelry department of a university. The current mix of programming – with classes (including ones for kids and teens), internships, scholarships, work study residency, certificate programs, workshops, studio rental, exhibition space, fun free events (like the recent Cuttlefish Casting in the YNOT Lot) – and of course Metal Shop ¬– are just not something you see combined in the same way anywhere else. Rather than simply an educational institution, The Baltimore Jewelry Center has become the hub of a wide-ranging community – offering resources to meet the diverse skills and commitment levels of everyone from a curious child, to a professional jeweler/artist/metal worker.

The participants in Metal Shop would fall into the latter category. But even in this subset there’s tremendous diversity. Two of the artists pictured, Mary Raivel and Elaine Zukowski, both have workspace at The Center, and met about a decade ago when it was part of MICA. But they came from very different starting points. Mary had been an environmental lawyer (working for both state and federal agencies) who felt that she needed to pursue art every day, though jewelry was not initially on her horizon. In 2010, she was located in Baltimore and “took an introductory metals and jewelry class at MICA, and was hooked.” She continued her studies until 2015, when she became a full time metalsmith and jewelry artist. Mary’s pieces start with sterling silver, bronze and other metals. The metals are combined with a subtle use of bright color introduced by other elements such as “spray paint, heat-shrink tubing, and silk thread.” Her website is http://www.maryraivel-jewelry.com/

Elaine Zukowski, a Baltimore native, from Butcher’s Hill, graduated from Baltimore School for the Arts and got a BFA (in Fibers) from MICA in 2002. She then worked as a mold maker for New Arts Foundry in Hampden. Working there with metal sculpture inspired her (in 2009) to return to MICA. This time at the Continuing Studies in Metalsmithing Program. For the past eight years she’s worked in an Art Conservation firm in Jonestown specializing in gilded objects, dividing her time between that and her “line of jewelry that combines found materials such as broken car window glass, with epoxy resin to form geode-like gems.”

Lydia E.Martin is in Baltimore because of the Baltimore Jewelry Center. Last year, after graduating from two of the most prestigious academic programs for jewelry in the U.S. (MFA from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology) she began a nationwide search for a teaching job in her chosen field. Previously unfamiliar with Charm City, Lydia discovered it and the Jewelry Center during her search and felt an instant connection to both, which is lucky, because she got the job and is now a Baltimore resident and instructor at the Center. Lydia has exhibited her work and all over, including Germany, China, and The Netherlands. She describes her output this way: “based in process and material skill, [it] becomes an investigation of intentions and consequences.” Her website is http://lydiaelsamartin.com

There are 20+ more jewelry artists in “Metal Shop. Their work presents a dazzling array of ideas, materials, and design elements, forged into jewelry that is also art. To see the Metal Shop, just go to the Baltimore Jewelry and ask to take a look. It’s all contained in a series of drawers there. And it works the same way as browsing through the flat files at an art gallery. But, be prepared, it seems like once people get started with The Baltimore Jewelry Center, they never really part ways. So, if down the road, you end up graduating from a certificate program, or renting studio space there, remember we warned you.

Only in The Core, keep exploring!

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