Rather than toss a broken heirloom imbued with family history, local Jewish artist Juliet Ames brings new life to it.
It is customary in Jewish families to find memories in tangible objects. For example, my mother takes great pains to preserve the relics left to her by her parents, which they acquired either during their years as New Jersey chicken farmers, or which they brought over on the boat from the refugee camp in Germany. Such items include my grandfather’s rocking chair, an old Kiddush cup, and jewelry that my grandmother’s daughters may or may not have fought over a bit. Unfortunately, these emotionally heavy objects can easily be shattered. For example, my grandfather’s wind up, ceramic-musical-horse figurine was all but destroyed as a result of an afternoon’s roughhousing, on my part. Most people would throw out such broken shards, tearing up while doing so. This is because they haven’t met Juliet Ames, who takes shattered dinnerware and transforms the remnants into necklaces, earrings, cufflinks and other forms of jewelry that are still worth holding on to.
In a process that she has been perfecting for 13 years, Ames will use tile snips to break a plate up, hoping to conserve most of the original item. While cost-effective, she acknowledges that it isn’t quite what people were hoping for. “People are often disappointed that I don’t just smash them with a hammer.” Enlisting the aid of a saw or a glass grinder, she then sculpts and shapes the remnants as she pleases, often utilizing a stained-glass method established by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Formally trained in metal-smithing and craft, Ames graduated from Towson University with a bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary-Craft in 2005. While she found success in the nonprofit art world, she nonetheless couldn’t shake the nagging wish to get back directly into the creative process. “One day, just to satisfy my need to make something, I decided to make myself a mosaic mailbox for my house, using an old plate that I purchased from Goodwill.” Afterwards, with an abundance of shards left over from the project, she decided that mending was better than ending. “I made myself a necklace from one of those shards, wore it to work and got orders for more that day. Many trips to Goodwill and flea markets followed.”
As time passed, her work was noticed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM), who wanted to partner with her for their upcoming exhibit: “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling” (which will be on view from October 27 to April 26, 2020). Designed to tell the story of how Jewish and Italian immigrants pioneered a scrap industry that would become the forebear of modern-day recycling, the JMM wanted their exhibit to end with similarly themed items available for purchase in their gift shop. Jumping at the opportunity, Ames began work on a new collection that was actually made from chipped and damaged items from the museum’s own gift shop. “A beautiful plate, floral mug and ceramic pomegranate will become necklaces, earrings and bracelets,” she said.
According to Ames, what draws her most to this form of art is the ability to preserve the emotional connection people have with special cherished items. “When you think about all the special times spent with family, conversations and stories told around a dinner table, you realize that sometimes plates are more than just vessels to eat from,” she said. “They also hold memories and family history. Plates are often passed down through family and it can really hurt when something gets broken.”
Understanding this, Ames recognizes the inherent importance of the work she does. “Over the years I’ve come to learn that many people have shards from special broken plates hidden away in a box because they can’t bear the thought of throwing away the last piece they have of their mother’s, grandmother’s [or] great grandmother’s china. It’s my honor to help people preserve these memories by turning them into jewelry or art.”