Lucinda’s Enamels – A special kind of jewelry

Fleur-de-lis earrings. — Photo courtesy of Lucinda Sheldo

Lucinda Sheldon holds a special place among the Island’s jewelers. With a studio in the Oak Bluffs Arts District, she is one of the very few who does enameling and the art of jeweled enameling.

Many of her enamel earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings and pins, as well as boxes, cuff links, and household items such as miniature pictures, contain crystal beads or cabochon stones.

Dating back to the 13th century B.C., enameling blends ground glass with metal oxides that add color and melts the mix to a temperature that allows it to adhere to a metal surface. The result creates stunning effects that combine the artistry of metalworking and glassworks, all on a miniature scale. A very technical skill, enameling takes a long time to master, according to Ms. Sheldon. It takes days to design and finish a piece, the wirework alone needing one or two days of intense labor.

“My metal of choice is pure silver,” the artist says. “It’s like painting on white canvas, and it retains the colors.” She works with a type of powdered glass that will create the most transparent enamels, using lead-based colors to give them strength and brilliance. “It’s a very fluid look,” she says.

It’s also very different in style from the kind of jewelry that her late mother, Beryl Sheldon, made in the 1950s and sold in Menemsha. The New Britain family summered in Chilmark, and the senior Ms. Sheldon created copper-backed enamel jewelry that was sold at upscale New York-based department stores such as Peck & Peck.

“It was just what they wanted on those big tweed coats,” Ms. Sheldon says of her mother’s work. “Hers were more free-form; I’m more precise.”

The senior Ms. Sheldon was the first artist to create jeweled enamel pieces, in which crystal beads and glass stones are embedded in the enamel. The Sheldon enameling dynasty began when Ms. Sheldon’s mother took her daughter to a Saturday morning ceramics class at the New Britain Museum of Art. The instructor introduced the senior Ms. Sheldon to enameling, and before long, she had set up a studio in the Sheldon family basement.

“It’s unique,” says her daughter. “No one else is doing it.”

Lucinda Sheldon didn’t turn to enamel work until after her third child was born. “I’ve always worked with my hands,” she says. “But I didn’t want to do what she [her mother] was doing.” Ms. Sheldon learned metalworking at the Farmington Valley Art Center in Avon, Conn., and cloisonné enameling from well-known jeweler Anne Besse Shepherd. In cloisonné, thin wires separate different enamel colors. Ms. Sheldon’s dragonflies and seahorses are done in a different enamel style, called champlevé, where areas are carved out and then filled with enamel through a lost-wax process.

Ms. Sheldon’s newest work is based on Victorian glass window designs. She has gathered many of her new floral patterns while walking through the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association in Oak Bluffs and looking at the cottage windows there. A fun project, she says.

“A wonderful thing happened to me this spring,” Ms. Sheldon says. “I got a grant.” Thanks to the Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts, she replaced the 20 year-old kiln she uses for firing her enamel pieces. The pyrometer on the old kiln had broken.

“I was guessing by the color of the kiln’s insides,” she says, and considering that the firing process for her enamels takes only a minute or a minute and a half, she didn’t have much leeway for error.

The Oak Bluffs Arts District was just starting to bloom when Ms. Sheldon moved to the Island in 1995. Although the Sheldon family had been summering up Island since the 1930s, Lucinda Sheldon knew she wanted to be down Island. In 1996, she joined jewelers Rick Hamilton and Kenneth Pillsworth to form the Edgartown Jeweler’s Studio. After 10 years, everyone started moving in different directions, and the partnership ended. Ms. Sheldon decided to build a studio next to her home and become a more active member of the Oak Bluffs Arts District.

A visit to this artist’s 11 Vineyard Avenue studio shows how organized Ms. Sheldon is. Within the confines of the 12- by 18-foot shed she had built in 2006, she has managed to fit in showcases for her jewelry, a desk area, a station for mixing and firing enamel, another for metalwork, and one for polishing and finishing pieces. There’s even room for displaying the children’s costumes and clothes she also makes.

Ms. Sheldon has long exhibited her work at the Vineyard Artisans Festivals, and this year she will participate in the Tuesday Flea and Fine Arts Markets at Featherstone Center for the Arts. She’s also looking forward to this summer’s Oak Bluffs Arts District Strolls. Her son Charlie Shipway of Chilmark will join her to exhibit his chairs made out of tennis racquets and hockey sticks and wall pieces made out of old boat parts.

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