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BOOK LOCKET of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-four karat gold (keum-boo), 1.9 centimeters high, 2013. All jewelry photographs by Robert Diamante.

Celie Fago


One twig, one hinge,

one book at a time.


 

The Vermont-based jeweler is a master at combining polymer clay, PMC and metalsmithing to create new designs.

 

 

When asked about how she develops her designs, Celie Fago states that the process is nonlinear—“I’m not methodical in that way,” she says. She works in what she calls “painfully small increments,” one aspect of an idea leading to another, “one little embellishment to the next.” As an example, she describes a hinged box she is working on and how she might decide to make it with a copper hinge pin—one small change that will move her forward.

Some of Fago’s work is driven by the materials she is exploring. For the past couple of years she has been working with Mitsubishi’s new sterling Precious Metal Clay, which was produced for the durability it adds to silver. To test it, she started doing a number of pierced designs—covered with holes, “like Swiss cheese,” she says—something that could not be done in fine silver.

That idea of making little openings in something led Fago to create tiny books, which feature those Swiss cheese holes and minute hinges. They are pendants, although the artist first conceived of them as charms. She has found that the term charm can be off-putting; in any case, the book pieces were a little too big and restrictive to be labeled as such. She has designed some larger ones and is even thinking they might at some point be free-standing objects.

Fago has discovered that students are as fascinated by the idea of books and hinges, so she has built a class around their fabrication. The motif not only has a certain mystique at its heart, it also makes economic sense: PMC has become expensive so small is good. Unlike a locket, the books have very little volume; they are more like two covers. For a number of these pieces, Fago employs the tear-away technique invented by Gwen Gibson in the early 1990s for use with polymer clay. This transfer process entails burnishing a photocopy of a design onto the clay, letting it sit, and then tearing it away. The photocopy toner binds with the polymer so that when the paper is pulled off it bears a layer of clay. At the same time, the clay from which the paper has been torn bears a relief of the image. Fago uses both the paper and the textured relief in her book pieces, depending on how they work with the design.

MICA FRAME BOOK LOCKET of sterling silver, mica riveted over leaf skeletons, 3.8 centimeters high, 2013.

Sometimes the tear-away design is drawn from texts, which heightens the “bookness” of the object. She cuts up and collages different examples of typeface—Asian, old English, etc. “It’s important that it’s writing,” she says, “graphically, visually.” She will photocopy the text and then convert it and reverse it. Sometimes the resulting writing resembles petroglyphs. Fago is thinking that the next step for the book pendants may be to incorporate an actual tiny bound paper book. She plans to study bookmaking and discuss the idea with book artists. While she considers herself “centrally located” in PMC, she is always considering new materials.

In addition to being stronger, Mitsubishi’s sterling PMC has a slightly different binder that gives the material a longer open working period and greater flexibility when it is dried (before it is fired). Fago exploited these characteristics in a simple and striking diamond ring: the surface of the piece was whittled with a scalpel and a straw. “It’s like frozen butter,” she says of the clay. The ring is activated in part because it took no time to carve: it is fresh and immediate.

One of Fago’s favorite materials in recent years are tiny twigs she picks up during long daily walks in the woods around her home in the town of Bethel, in central Vermont. “There are little stacks of sticks everywhere in my house,” she relates with a smile. Back in her studio, Fago will take those that are special for one reason or another—their hardness, their texture, the quality of moss fixed to them—and incorporate them in her jewelry. She stains some of them with paint, others she carves. She places tiny metal caps on their ends. A recent necklace features three of these twigs with capped ends (as does the pin Fago made for Dan Cormier’s Broken Telephone Project—see Ornament, Vol. 36, No. 4).

Occasionally, Fago will work from a rough drawing or notes in a sketchbook, but generally she will find ideas in the cartographer’s drawer next to her work desk. The large drawer is full of parts in different states and she will look over these forms and pieces for ideas. “I’m doing something different all the time,” she explains, “to the point where it drives me around the bend.”

You might say Fago’s journey to her current stature as jeweler and sought-after teacher began before she was born—a kind of genetic propensity for the arts was in play. In an overview of her life and work to faculty and students at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, she started her PowerPoint with a slide showing the cover of a vintage copy of The Human Torch, an icon in the history of comic books. Why this image of the fiery red superhero? Fago’s father, Vincent, was a cartoonist and writer who served as interim editor of Timely Comics, predecessor to Marvel Comics, while Stan Lee was serving in World War II. Fago’s mother, Dorothy Ann Calhoun (known as D’Ann), was also artistically inclined. A southern belle from Lexington, Kentucky, she had moved to New York City to further her painting career and, her daughter adds, “to find a man from an ethnic group guaranteed to alienate her daddy.” Vince Fago fit the bill: a second-generation Italian.  

The couple lived in Greenwich Village until 1951 when, pregnant with Celie, D’Ann convinced her husband to leave the high-stress city with its requisite smoking and drinking for a quieter life in Rockland County, thirty miles north of Manhattan. Thanks to this move, their daughter grew up in the countryside, barefoot and happy in the woods and fields—but close enough to the city that the family made frequent trips to visit museums. By the late 1960s, what was once a rural getaway had become a bedroom community for the Big Apple. In 1968 the family moved further north, settling on a two-hundred-acre farm in the tiny town of Bethel, Vermont. Celie’s father died in 2002; her mother, who is ninety-six, continues to draw every day (she had a seventy-five-year retrospective at Studio Place Arts in Barre, Vermont, in 2012).  

“I never made a conscious choice to be an artist,” Fago notes. “It was expected of me, assumed that I would go into the ‘family business,’ and I did.” The artistic genes began to manifest themselves early on. She drew very well and was interested in graphic arts, including various printmaking mediums. She also studied painting at the Massachusetts College of Art. ;

In 1991, Fago moved to her family’s home in Vermont, and not long after, a friend sent her some buttons made from a colorful plastic material. She was smitten and went out to purchase her first polymer clay. She read the manual that came with it and was soon experimenting with this flexible modeling clay that had recently been adopted by jewelers. Up until this time, Fago had never worked in jewelry. She had spent a summer at Penland when she was sixteen, but the session was meant to introduce artists to the concept of “living their lives through crafts” rather than to serve as a study of any single craft.

Fago felt that she could do something with the polymer clay. The material had the form and color in one malleable, willing material—and it satisfied what she felt was a long-time, if secret, longing: to work in three dimensions. Using wood gouges from her mother’s printmaking kit from the 1940s, she carved into the baked material and rubbed paint in the carved lines. An early lizard pendant in polymer clay shows her remarkable sense of design.

At the time, jewelry in polymer clay was somewhat “unfledged.” There were a handful of artists doing interesting work in the medium in jewelry, including Cynthia Toops, Nan Roche and Tory Hughes. While Fago followed advances in the medium with interest, she felt something was missing. The material felt too light, both in actual weight and aesthetically. “A piece of polymer clay jewelry that is absolutely stunning in a photograph,” she points out, “feels light when you actually handle it.” To her, the material lacked gravitas. What it needed was more weight.

Fago “beat the bushes” for a metalsmithing class. She knew nothing about metal at the time. Indeed, she is embarrassed to recall wondering how one could cut a shape out of a metal sheet. What tools would be used? The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Craft Studies program in Hanover proved to be the answer. The studio was (and still is) run by Kerstin Nichols, a classically trained metalsmith—“a wonderful teacher and jeweler,” says Fago. She took workshops and classes with Nichols for years and apprenticed to her. Fago learned as much about metalsmithing as she could, recognizing that the artform takes years to master. She learned some fundamentals that enabled her to progress in her jewelry. She quickly began to combine metal with clay; the settings for a stunning ibis pendant were made in the metals studio at the league.

HOLLOW FORM BOX BRACELET of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-four karat gold (keum-boo), 2002.

In the late 1990s, jeweler and author Tim McCreight invited Fago to Haystack to teach a workshop in polymer clay. While seated in the dining hall one day, McCreight took two packets of Precious Metal Clay from his pocket and pushed them across the table. If, as Fago jokes, polymer clay was the gateway drug, PMC was the “hard stuff.” While the Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi had brought PMC to the states, Fago notes that it was McCreight who ensured it made its way into the hands of jewelers.

While Fago had heard about this new medium, she did not really know what it was. She took it home, removed it from its package and hated it. “It didn’t do what I wanted it to do,” she remembers, “and I was stumped.” Wanting to give a positive report to McCreight, she ducked his calls for several weeks.

As her supply dwindled, Fago felt paralyzed. Solution: she saved some money and bought thirty packets of PMC. It was a major investment on her part, but she felt she needed a larger amount of clay. With a big pile she felt relieved. And discovering that Saran Wrap could slow the drying process—a major breakthrough that Fago still smiles about for its ridiculous simplicity—she turned a corner. She dropped her tense shoulders and started to breathe again.

Fago kept in touch with McCreight and became more involved in the medium. In the late 1990s she also learned more about combining materials: “You get to a little dead end on one and then you go to another and you have fresh ideas and mix them together.” With metalsmithing, PMC and polymer clay in her material chest, she was set to explore and expand.

Inventive and innovative, Fago worked amongst the mediums with great freedom. To create a pendant with a design based loosely on cuneiform writing, she impressed a pattern in polymer clay and then pressed metal clay into the design. The resulting PMC piece might be a Bronze Age relic. In a brooch that features a photograph of two Adirondack chairs, Fago experimented with co-firing copper alloys with PMC. Since the brass wires would not fuse to fine silver, she captured them with wraps of fine silver wire, which does interact. She used pine needles to texture the frame and a thin sheet of mica to protect the photograph. A backing of polymer clay holds the pin’s hardware in place.

Fago considers herself fortunate to have been able to experiment with new materials over the last fifteen or so years. In the early 2000s she mastered keum-boo and ended up writing Keum-Boo on Silver because, she notes, there was not a comprehensive book on the technique in English and “I wanted one.” She was a beta tester for BronzClay and Copprclay. “I just have kept it open,” she says.

Teaching is a big part of Fago’s life because, as she explains, she lives a very quiet one. “Getting out and mixing it up with people—putting myself in a position where I am feeding and being fed by students—I find to be really important.” She is one of eight senior instructors for the Rio Grande Rewards Program and has taught a master class in book lockets and hinged boxes at the Bead and Button show in Milwaukee. She also offers five semiprivate classes each year at her Vermont home.

In speaking about what makes a good teacher, Fago cites her father. All good teachers, he would say, know their subject and have patience. “You’re incredibly vulnerable when you’re a student,” says the jeweler, who continues to take classes herself each year. “You put your trust in someone you probably don’t know very well to handle you kindly, patiently and explain things.” She is continually amazed by students who come up with a different question about something she has been teaching for years.

URBAN RINGS of sterling silver, twenty-four karat gold (keum-boo), 1.3 centimeters high, 2012.

Fago believes in the benefits of apprenticeships. She has been involved with them since she was twenty, either as one herself or serving as a mentor. In 2001, University of Vermont graduate Jennifer Kahn became her live-in apprentice, staying till 2010. Fago reports with pride and pleasure that Kahn has a flourishing jewelry business of her own, working in PMC. Fago’s second serious apprentice, Erin Meharg-Harris, who is also a University of Vermont graduate, started working with her two years ago. Meharg-Harris, who has developed a successful line of pet portrait jewelry and reliquaries, accompanied Fago to Haystack this year to help facilitate her workshop

As far as marketing her work goes, Fago has a robust website featuring Robert Diamante photographs of her one-of-a-kind and limited edition work. Her former apprentice Kahn set her up with an account on Etsy, that worldwide “egalitarian” marketplace. “If I don’t have Etsy,” she notes, “I have work sitting in a bag for six or seven months, not doing anything,” adding, “With Etsy, it’s out there and people want to see sold work.”

Back at Haystack, the ten or so students in Fago’s workshop take a very brief break from their work to greet a visitor to the studio overlooking the ocean. Fago has them focusing on polymer bracelets, which serve as a “blank canvas” to which the students add an array of adornments made in PMC. Fago is also covering polymer mokume (layering of translucent clay), texturing (including the aforementioned tear-away technique), carving and painting textured surfaces. Add some metalsmithing techniques to the mix and the students are fully engaged.

Fago continues to delve into the process of her jewelrymaking—and of art in general. She recently read Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and has been enjoying choreographer Twyla Tharpe’s The Creative Habit. She is fascinated by artists’ rituals—What time do they go to work? What do they wear? How many hours do they work at a time?

Asked about her own rituals, Fago replies, “I walk.” That’s the centering element for a very fertile and productive life in art that seems to endlessly evolve—one twig, one hinge, one book at a time.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Carl Little
Carl Little, on a sunny late August afternoon, sat down with Vermont jeweler Celie Fago in the dining hall at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, to talk about her life and art. Fago was in Maine to teach “A Perfect Pairing: PMC and Polymer Clay Bracelets.” The dialogue that ensued provides a fascinating window into the rituals that make up Fago’s life. Little is jurying the Maine Craft Association’s “The Inspired Hand VI” exhibition at the Lewiston-Auburn College Atrium Art Gallery. His latest book is Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb (University Press of New England).


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