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Artisan's Gemlike Boxes Double Your Pleasure

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CHICAGO - Though boxes are what she creates, Holly Stein herself does not want to be boxed in.

For example, asked how she thinks of herself - "A jeweler, perhaps?" - she replies with conviction: "No. Because I'm also a graphic designer, I consider myself an artist."

Since 1989 Stein, who lives in Highland Park, Ill., has owned her own business called Axis Design, doing marketing for others, designing brochures and packaging. She did some marketing work for the Suburban Fine Arts Center in Highland Park, Ill., which offered her classes in lieu of cash. She was going to put her children in the classes, "but my husband said, `Why don't you do something for yourself?'"

And that is how, in 1999, she was introduced to metalsmithing.

The result has been ethereally beautiful boxes of silver, copper, bronze and other metals, boxes that might be the secret cachepot or jewelry box of a wood nymph, a mermaid queen, or an African princess. Beyond the aesthetic, the boxes each have an innovative aspect. Each of them has detachable wearable jewelry as an integral part of the design.

"I know a lot of people would like to have art more than mass-produced stuff," says Stein. But since "art and jewelry are expensive, you might as well make it as versatile as possible. I know I can't afford the stuff I make.

"I do things because I love them and I don't want to get caught in one particular style or genre," she adds. "I was trying to make this loophole for myself, by doing something different."

And different it is, as fairgoers can judge for themselves at Art & Riverwoods, a fair that itself is unique in that it is both a house walk and an art show. Time on Her Hands: A fine example of how Stein's boxes perform double duty is her elegant ginkgo leaf-motif box. The leaves are imprints from actual gingko leaves, cast in silver, she says. The rest of the box is copper and brass. A large blue labradorite stone that rests in a frame in the box top is the knob for lifting off the lid as well as a brooch or pin. The stone also has a bail or hoop-shaped hook at the top so it also can be worn on a necklace. Most of her boxes take 40 to 60 hours to make; the gingko box took on the higher end of this range.

Out-of-the-Box Boxes: Just when you think you have Stein figured out, she comes up with shapes that you would never expect. Her Zulu box has a fluted cylindrical silver body; the rest is copper with a silver ring on top. Around the middle is a little channel, and the beaded bracelet that is part of it wraps around it like a belt. Every detail is a kind of metaphor. The feet of the Zulu box are strong beads sewn together to look like the ankle bracelets African women wear. "The Zulu artists make incredible beaded things, so I wanted to play on that but in a contemporary American tradition and in a different color palette," she says.

A Mermaid's Treasure Chest: Another box is called Underwater Pavilion (shown on our cover), which "to be honest, is my favorite box," she says. "Modeled on kelp and underwater things," she says, the body of the box, which is only about 6 inches tall and 4 or 5 inches in diameter, is verdigris or patinaed copper. The clear part (of the body) is mica. The clear part of the lid is glass. The rivets are silver. The accompanying necklace is made of silver chain and a frosted quartz stone. The chain comes off, goes inside, and the pendant fits on top of the box. "I love nature and trees and everybody responds to the real organic shapes" in this box, she says. "It was a lot of fun to make," she adds.

Back to the Hand: "I've been making the boxes for three or four years," says Stein. "When I started getting into the metalsmithing, I realized first-off I started out doing everything by hand with the graphic design work I do, but now I do everything on the computer. I realized what I was missing was the hands-on design. I really fell in love with metalsmithing for that reason. I started out making jewelry and once in a while doing objects. Now I do one to three boxes a year. I make a box, then I do a line of jewelry to go with the box. Basically the box sets the tone for the whole line of jewelry. Each of them works as a functional box. All are one of a kind. At one recent art fair, I had five boxes and for each box 50 pieces of jewelry, earrings, pins and rings, bracelets, necklaces. Lots and lots of earrings."

No Shut-Off: Asked what inspires her, Stein says "Everything. I really can't shut that off. I'm always thinking or ideas are just popping into my mind." The metalsmithing "is a lot of fun to do and it is my personal outlet. It feels good to do it," she adds. As for other jewelry or objets d'art-makers that inspire Stein, she mentions Thomas Mann "in that he's willing to share both his metalsmithing and business knowledge," as well as New York jewelry designer Tom Harmon and local designer Aaron Macsai 1/8CQ3/8.

A Class Act: Stein teaches one class a week on metalsmithing at Suburban Fine Arts Center, where she also does most of her work. "I like teaching and educating people, lecturing on how metalsmithing works, or how beading is done."

Prices: $2,000 to $4,000. "They're pricey," she admits, but that is because of the amount of work that goes into them. Prices for the jewelry pieces, sans box, range from $30 to $400.

Contact: 847-266-9330


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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