Signs of Life
Karen Lorene leans toward me with a conspiratorial smile and passes over an eighteen-line poem printed on a sheet of loose paper.
When I have read it through, Lorene, owner of Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery in Seattle, pulls out an image of the necklace that inspired the poem. It is a choker that looks startlingly like a centipede, but made of bronze and big enough to fit around a woman’s neck. It could be an amulet to ward off evil spirits, or a reminder to unfaithful fiancés that treachery can turn even the most dulcet one-time-lover into a monstrous avenger.
“Isn’t that just great? I always find that the writers and the jewelry pieces are extremely well matched,” says Lorene, thrilled that once again her matchmaking between writers and carefully selected pieces of jewelry has resulted in poems, essays and short stories that are small literary treasures.
For the tenth consecutive year Lorene has organized “Signs of Life,” an exhibition of specially made jewelry accompanied by a publication of writing inspired by the jewelry. As in the past, for the 2014 show and publication Lorene invited nine jewelrymakers and nine writers to participate. The artists, who all work in a narrative style, are asked to create a piece that will be the inspiration for a literary work. The artists and writers come from around the country. They do not know each other. They do not talk to each other. Writers are given images of the jewelry piece Lorene selects for them. Three months later they send Lorene their literary miniatures, which must be short enough to fit on an 8.5 x 11 inch page. Lorene is the editor, publisher and guiding spirit behind the annual, unusual project.
“The reason “Signs of Life” started is that many years ago I used to send out little thank you gift-like boxes of candies to our most faithful customers,” says Lorene. “But I had started writing myself by then and I got the idea to do a publication that could be sent out as a gift. I loved the name Signs of Life and the project was so serendipitous because it included the other half of my life, which is about writing.” Although Lorene has been running her jewelry gallery for more than forty years, she is also a writer. Lorene got the writing bug in the late 1980s when she wrote a book about vintage jewelry. She has since written two novels and a book about building a small business, among other publications.
For the first few exhibitions and journals, it was sometimes difficult to entice well-known, critically acclaimed writers to participate. But Lorene is enthusiastic and persuasive, and now that the publication has a history, her invitations are rarely declined. Writing participants have included such notable writers as Shawn Wong, David Wagoner, Tess Gallagher, Greg Bear, and Linda Bierds. The jewelrymakers who have participated over the years include a who’s who of distinguished artists. Ron Ho, Ramona Solberg, Roberta and David Williamson, Robert Ebendorf, and Merrily Tompkins are just a few who have participated.
“Signs of Life 2014,” the jewelry exhibition, will include a ravishing gold necklace by Mary Lee Hu that suggests a series of orchid flowers and leaves linked into a delicate chain. There is also a brooch by Thomas Mann made of found materials. Of special interest is an elaborate piece by the Seattle sculptor Morgan Brig, who had never made jewelry before Lorene invited her into the show. For “Signs of Life” Brig made a nuclear-warhead-shaped pendant that comes with its own display armature—a fanciful ship made of colored tin and other metals. Along with the piece that each jewelrymaker submits as inspiration for a writer, the jewelrymakers must create enough additional jewelry to fill a 21 x 21 x 7 inches display case.
Another heavenly 2014 matchup resulted in Kathleen Flenniken’s poem Shield inspired by Marcia Meyers’s pendant/brooch called Moon. The silver and gold brooch suggests a moon half-eclipsed in a golden penumbra. Flenniken’s poem is a mother’s blessing as her child leaves home to start life as an adult. In the poem, the moon becomes a protective shield that the mother has “polished in my mind/since before you were born.” The grown child is leaving, but the mother’s powerful love continues to shield the child. Flenniken is a former poet laureate of Washington State.
At the opening of each “Signs of Life” exhibition, Lorene arranges for a few authors to read what they have written while an image of the piece that inspired them is projected on a screen behind them. “The most wonderful thing is when the writer reads the piece and at the same time the audience sees the jewelry on the screen,” Lorene points out. “It’s like a hologram. The writing has to be so tight that it becomes a condensation of the language and the piece. It always sends shivers down my spine.”
Robin Updike is an arts writer based in Seattle, Washington. A former newspaper art critic, she covered the Seattle fine arts scene for many years and has also covered the Pacific Northwest’s robust jewelry community. Her interview with Kate S. Mensah, unfolds in a comfortable fashion as Mensah talks about the art of designing clothing. Cosmopolitan, world-traveled and ambitious, Mensah has distributed her line of clothes in Paris, New York and Africa. Also in this issue Updike talks with gallery owner Karen Lorene about Lorene’s tenth “Signs of Life” project, a remarkable mix of jewelrymaking and the literary arts.