In her Metals and Contemporary Art jewelry class at University of Wisconsin-Stout, sophomore Mindy Allee created a brooch with birds, a nest and bits of string salvaged from old, broken and unwanted jewelry.

Reminiscent of spring, Allee wanted to capture the ritual of birds collecting string to build their nests, lay eggs and raise their offspring.

“It was something I did as a kid — leaving colorful string out for birds so they could make their nests,” said Allee, 34, an engineering technology major originally from Ridgeland. “I would find the nests, and they were so colorful and beautiful.”

About 11 other pieces of jewelry were repurposed into the brooch, Allee said.

“I love the idea of keeping old memories alive,” she said, gesturing at one of the small birds in flight on the pin. “It’s something someone loved before, and I am bringing it a new life so it doesn’t get thrown away. I hope someone gives it a new home and loves it.”

Ethical sourcing

Allee is one of 72 metals and contemporary art jewelry students from UW-Stout taking part in the Radical Jewelry Makeover, an organization that educates jewelers of all levels about mining and material source issues. Students from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, as well as professional jewelers, are participating. Jewelry was created through March.

An exhibit of the pieces can be seen through Friday, May 11, at the UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery.

Proceeds from jewelry sales will support Ethical Metalsmiths. The nonprofit organization started in 2004 to encourage social change that values jewelry made with ethically sourced materials and to support student scholarships at the participating universities.

Vincent Pontillo-Verrastro, UW-Stout assistant professor of art and art history who teaches metals and contemporary art jewelry, said UW-Stout students will receive three scholarships from the project, which also gives students’ exhibition experience.

“It is great for students to have this type of holistic quality and applied learning in a project that is so unique,” Pontillo-Verrastro said. “It’s an amazing professional opportunity. It teaches young artists to be professional right from the initial point of entry.”

Environmental considerations

Masako Onodera, an associate professor in metals and contemporary art jewelry, said many people don’t think about the environmental issues of mining gold, silver and precious stones. Costume jewelry made from pot metals often just ends up in landfills when it breaks or is no longer wanted.

“Jewelry is something that is pretty and pleases people, but it is connected to the bigger issue that we as artists can do something about,” Onodera said. “We have the power to do it. We can help the environment.”

Onodera said metals and contemporary art jewelry students have enjoyed the project and sorting through the donated items, which include all types of jewelry, like lockets with pictures left in them. Jewelry made from all over the world has been donated, she added.

“They are learning a lot about the intimacy of jewelry as an object,” Onodera said.

Finding inspiration

Jared LeClaire, 21, a junior majoring in studio art-sculpture from Rogers, Minn., recently was making a necklace from various donated necklaces and bracelets.

“I was inspired by tribal and African art,” he said, showing wooden beads and other beads believed to be made from nut shells he was using. “I hope people understand the importance of what we’re doing by recycling jewelry. I didn’t know anything about where the materials came from. That’s been huge to me. I hope it makes us think about what we’re doing and what we’re contributing to.”

Thomas “T.J.” Johnson, 24, a senior from Hudson majoring in engineering technology, was using melted sterling silver and casting it into links for a new necklace. He likes the project because it allowed him to create new jewelry without having to spend money for materials.

“We are taking old jewelry and making it a lot better,” he said.


Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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