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Wearable art
Local jewelry designers discuss the spark behind and sparkle in their work

Photos by Matt Haas

September 2016

With "fashion," clothes, purses and shoes may spring to mind first, but M Magazine wanted to explore other accessories more fully ó namely, jewelry and the Cream City artists who design it. We spoke with four designers about their work ó why they make jewelry, what they love about it and where you can find it.

A Collaboration of Introverts

The designers of Michael Thee Studio, Michael Thee and Mary Wohlgemuth, met at an art show in Green Bay. Wohlgemuth, who at the time was an editor at Kalmbach Publishing Co. in Waukesha, was scouting artists for one of her jewelry books, and the two bonded over their shared backgrounds in graphic design.

"I worked as a graphic artist for 20 years, and somebody gave me a ring ó sterling silver ó that was too large," Thee says. "I took it to a jewelry store, and they wouldnít size it. They gave me the name of a local silversmith. We got to talking, and he gave me lessons," he explains of his transition into jewelry making.

"Iím a Marquette grad in journalism but always had my hands in layout or design," Wohlgemuth says, adding that she went back to school at MIAD and took classes in jewelry design at MATC before working at Kalmbach.

A couple of years ago she decided to make jewelry full time, and now she and Thee live together and work together in their Milwaukee studio. That meant consolidating equipment ó and figuring out how they would collaborate on projects.

"I had an industrial/techno thing going, and then I had the nature influence, and then there was the stuff that I considered more Ďjewelry storeí jewelry," Thee says of the studioís past work. "Now those have fallen away. Weíre making it a more unified line."

Recent projects have an otherworldly feel. For example, in their simple yet elegant constellation ring, Thee drilled holes in the sterling silver, and Wohlgemuth suggested they cut out star shapes with a jewelry saw. Their rising moon pendant, which they developed as a project for their class at the last Bead&Button Show, includes a bezel-set Norwegian moonstone surrounded by an ethereal bluish patina. The top layer, which acts as a frame, features drilled holes and blue topaz.

"Building boxes or layers is pretty typical of a lot of our work," Wohlgemuth says.

"My going with the boxes, with three-dimensional, was sort of a rebellion against being stuck in 2-D for 20 years. I like to explore that whole depth thing," Thee says, adding that his depth perception is affected by partial blindness in his left eye.

Thatís why tube-setting stones is another one of the studioís signature techniques.

Thee and Wohlgemuth also cut their own stones, enabling them to incorporate different shapes and to start with a design and conform the stone to it.

"There are two ways to go about design," Thee explains. "One is to take a stone and work a design around the stone. Another way is, for instance, this piece," Thee says as he points out an "alarm" pendant. "(It) was inspired by antique fire (alarm) boxes, and to go from that as a departure point and sketch."

The work, which includes the phrases "Alarm may sound" and "Hard to say," showcases the soft-spoken Theeís sense of humor, and such pieces often appeal to people at art shows.

But Wohlgemuth points out that they are serious about designing jewelry that women want to wear. "Our jewelry is not costume jewelry," she says. "I want it to be pretty and beautiful and wearable. I want to design for someone who likes to look fresh and cool and have something that her friends might say, ĎWhere did you get that?í"

What are the two working on next? More enameling to start. "Enameling is a really good way that weíre able to collaborate," Wohlgemuth says, adding that she created the enameled surface for a recent piece and Thee fabricated the silver. They plan to focus on neutrals, including gemstones in taupe, creamy white, black and gray on black, and theyíre eager to put to use skills they honed in a class with master porcelain ceramic artist Sandra Byers.

"We hope to carve our own porcelain and bring it all down to jewelry scale and be able to incorporate it in our work," Wohlgemuth says.

They will continue to teach and offer their students and other jewelry artists an affordable, Milwaukee-made tool set they developed. And theyíll continue to display their work on the art show circuit as well as stay active in their leadership roles on the Wisconsin Designer Crafts Council.

Still, they describe themselves as introverts. "I can connect with people at shows," Wohlgemuth says, "but at heart Iím much more of an introvert. I like working in a fairly solitary way, and I like working with my hands. Iíd much rather be working quietly with Michael, with my best friend sitting next to me."

Where to Find Their Work

Sept. 3-4: Third Ward Art Festival
Sept. 10: Bay View Art in the Park
Nov. 18-19: Winter Glory Fine Craft Show, Franklin
Museum of Wisconsin Art shop, West Bend

Passionate Subtlety

"Iím a minimalist by nature, and thatís reflected in the design of the jewelry," says Sarah Mann, a jewelry artist on the North Shore who dresses in gray and favors silver accessories. "Itís certainly the way I live but also in the things I create."

Mann grew up in Shorewood and studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where master metalsmith Heikki Seppš taught. After school, she managed a jewelerís studio in New Orleans. Thatís where the seed to run her own business was planted, and so she did in Brooklyn, where she lived for 10 years. When she needed to find a new home, she decided to head back to the Milwaukee area, where she could have more space with her daughter and be near family.

That was 10 years ago, and the move only helped her career.

"Fine craft resonates with Midwesterners in a way that I didnít find to be the case in the Northeast," she says. "People (in the Midwest) understand what it means to work with your hands, whether itís farming or whether itís carpentry ó whatever it is ó they get it."

She works exclusively in sterling silver and describes her work as generally drifting from big, bold and geometric pieces earlier in her career to incorporating much more delicate, organic elements. Her timeless style is reminiscent of black and white photography in that, absent of other colors, you begin to notice other design elements ó texture, finish, composition, shape.

"Thereís something really subtle about it, but if you look closely you can see all thatís going on there," she says, adding that while she took a range of art classes, she majored in photography.

She likes to texturize pieces and adds a patina to all her work. Patina, as opposed to a high polish, shows off subtle variations in texture, she says. To create texture, sheís employed a rolling mill, a sanding disc and a Mizzy Wheel, which she explains is a rotating stone thatís drawn across the surface of a piece. Sheís also imprinted a texture with screening and added visual interest with a jewelry hammer.

"A lot of (my pieces) are technical challenges. (For) this one," she says, pointing to a necklace, "I wanted to try doing a series that used all cold connection, which means no soldering in the links, so that was the technical challenge. And I really like mechanics, so this series all had hinges in them," she says, indicating several other pieces.

While Mann has worked with nickel, brass, copper, bronze and gold, she prefers sterling silver largely because itís what she likes and what complements her coloring. "I donít make anything that I donít wear," she says. Plus, gold in particular is more expensive to work with. "It feels like I can take more chances with silver," she says. "It feels a little more playful, a little less conservative and precious."

And even though she designs first for herself, her jewelry resonates with people in a way that transforms her solitary hours in the studio into a genuine bond with her clients. "Itís a part of me that I put out there," she says of her work. "Itís a little vulnerable. When someone says I really like that, and I want to show it off because it feels like itís a part of me too, thatís incredibly rewarding. I love that connection. It feels like youíre speaking the same language."

For Mann, jewelry making also feels like itís part of a family tradition of creating ó whether it be writing, painting, illustrating or weaving ó even as her studio is a retreat for the busy single mom. "Thereís no place in my home that feels more like home than my studio. I feel like Iím channeling my grandpa, because he had his own studio," she explains of the woodworker in the family. "It just feels like Iím reaching down into my DNA and connecting with something thatís really at my core and my family roots."

Where to Find her Work
Nov. 18-19: Winter Glory Fine Craft Show, Franklin
Magpie Jewelry and Metals Studio LLC, Wauwatosa

A Spiritual Enterprise

I first met Ann Kathryn Kehoe at the Lakefront Festival of Art in June, and it was at a similar venue in her native St. Louis that she fell in love with the idea of jewelry design.

"I got interested in making jewelry when I was 12, because my mom would take me to the art shows around town. There was one particular jeweler whose work I just loved, and I asked him a million questions," she says and laughs.

Each year, she saved her own money to buy jewelry from her favorite designer, and they developed a rapport. "When I was in high school, he invited me to his studio, and so he taught me how to forge and how to manipulate metal and just some basics with metals and stones. I was hooked," she says.

She attended Missouri State University in Springfield and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in metals and jewelry design. After school, a Kansas City company hired her to create artisan jewelry that could be attached to medical ID tags. As part of her job, she built a jewelry studio for the company, a process that would help her later when she would set up a studio at home.

"The big transition happened when my husband got the job here," she says. So after five years in her position, she transitioned into a freelance role with her employer in early 2013 and began to ramp up her own business. Last year she and her husband, a motorcycle designer, bought a Tudor house on the northwest side, and Kehoe turned a second-floor bedroom into her studio.

There she loves to work with gemstones. Her gemstone pendants, which come with a card about the healing properties of the featured stone, are best-sellers. "I really feel like (gemstones) can heal and they can offer support. Thatís what has propelled me to work with stones more over time," she says.

She believes that people are drawn to particular stones for a reason. "Itís interesting for me to look back, because there are periods in my life when I was very drawn to certain gemstones," she says. "And connecting them with what was going on in my life ó itís always intertwined."

A meditator, she oftentimes finds that when she is stuck on a project, the solution to the design will come to her in a dream, as if her mind had been continually working on the problem even as she focused on other things.

Her distinctly feminine designs are inspired by nature ó for example, her line includes moon-shaped earrings and a songbird ring. She also cites Indian textiles as an influence. "I use a lot of symbols, and I call them empowerments in my work. So (I include) hidden words or hidden symbols that can encourage the wearer," she says.

She works in sterling silver, brass and 14-karat gold, depending on the stone. "If I see a stone, and I think, ĎIíd really love to see this with a warm tone,í Iím going to set it in brass," she says. "A lot of times Iíll use mixed metals, so Iíll use both sterling silver and brass when I create a piece, and I love the look of that."

Her clients seem to not only like the look of her pieces but also to connect with her philosophy. She says that while each fine art show brings a different crowd, she knows her online customers tend to be health-conscious and freethinkers and yogis.

Essential oils are popular with that market, and Kehoe designs essential oil necklaces too. "Iím so excited by them, because I use essential oils and I believe they can offer natural healing as well," she says. "So itís fun to create these little vessels that hold something special and sacred and natural."

Making jewelry is Kehoeís passion, but it challenged her early on. "When I was younger, I used to paint all the time, and it was easy. As soon as I met the jeweler, and he started showing me how to work with metals, it was the one medium that I didnít succeed in right away. And that made me mad and also fueled me, like, ĎI have to learn this.í

"I love the idea that Iím creating a piece of art that is meant to be worn and meant to be touched," she adds. "It has sentimental value. Itís a really special form of art." m

Where to Find her Work

Forget Me Not Flower Market, Walworth
The Waxwing



This story ran in the September 2016 issue of: