Laura Marsolek’s (Visual Arts 2009) Study of Jewelry Brings Her Across the Globe
Portions of this article are excerpted from the Ortonville Independent.
August 3, 2020
Studying the cultural and historical significance of jewelry adornment took her to places like Italy, Kosovo, and India, working alongside noted scholars and master artisans. But Laura Marsolek (Visual Arts 2009), forged the foundation for her studies in Ortonville, on the prairies of west-central Minnesota, and in the halls of Perpich.
The first exposure Marsolek had to the world of jewelry design and fabrication was at the Milan Village Arts School in nearby Milan, Minnesota, where she worked under the guidance of an experienced silversmith. “The process of making jewelry agreed with me,” she stated. “It was meticulous and detail-oriented.” As a teenager, Marsolek reached out to JoLee’s Jewelry store in Ortonville, hoping to work part-time. “I wanted to see if [JoLee’s] would be interested in having me as an employee.” To promote herself, Marsolek showed some of her works created at the Milan Village Arts School. “I did retail, helped people find gifts, sometimes I did jewelry repairs on broken pieces. It was a wonderful place to work.”
Marsolek attended Perpich Arts High School for her junior and senior years of high school. It was at Perpich that she was first exposed to art history in Craig Farmer’s class. “All Visual Arts students were required to take Art History, because in order to make art that is relevant in today’s society, we had to learn the history of art making from prehistory and cave painting all the way to contemporary art. I enjoyed the subject matter a great deal and even had the opportunity to take AP Art History. Through Craig Farmer’s teaching, I realized that looking at art and understanding its underlying visual cues was like looking at a historical artifact. Art History is a window into a different culture and a period of time that is so removed and distant from our present society, which was fascinating to me. I knew that I wanted to study Art History at the university level upon graduation and Craig Farmer assisted me in choosing a university that offered it as a major. My study of decorative arts and jewelry history around the world is intimately tied to my knowledge of Art History, a curiosity which began at Perpich in Craig Farmer’s class.”
Other Perpich instructors helped Laura expand her creative repertoire. From Karen Monson and Bill Jeter, she learned about painting, printmaking, sculpture, textiles and sewing, silver casting, and ceramics, all of which helped her think about jewelry making as a wearable, conceptual piece of art. “Outside of my visual arts classes, I continued to make jewelry in my dorm room and my pieces became increasingly sculptural. After my junior year, Karen and Bill encouraged me to apply for a summer study program at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design to which my jewelry portfolio won me a full-tuition scholarship. I spent my summer in Providence, Rhode Island, in the jewelry studio honing my craft under the direction of a professor skilled in metalsmithing and conceptual, wearable art. Karen and Bill also encouraged me to enter my jewelry in the Scholastic Art Awards and I won the top prize for the jewelry category as a junior and senior, two years in a row. My senior year at Perpich, I was awarded an artists’ grant (which was a competitive and selective process in the visual art department) to design and produce my first line of silver sculptural jewelry pieces. It was a great exercise in project planning, grant writing, and managing a budget; skills that I would use in the future.”
“Additionally, Perpich’s proximity to the Twin Cities art community and arts institutions was a great resource for me as a rural, out-of-state student. I took part in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts‘ teen book-making grant program and exhibited my work at the Book Arts Center in Minneapolis. I regularly attended weekly life drawing sessions at MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design) in order to improve my drawing skills and rendering of the human body. My senior year, I was a post-secondary student at MCAD where I took two college-credit courses. I was also a night-student at the Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis where I learned how to draw portraits of a live, sitting model,” said Marsolek. She interned with another Perpich alum, and jewelry designer, Karin Jacobson. “I spent a great deal of time helping her in her studio and during jewelry sales where I was able to learn about the business aspect of starting a jewelry business.” As a rural student coming to the Twin Cities area, Perpich’s connection to the city and the arts community helped open up a world of opportunities for Laura that never would have if she had stayed in Ortonville.
Upon graduation from Perpich, Marsolek went on to earn a BA in Metalsmith Design and Art History from Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. “I decided I wanted to pursue my degree in something jewelry-related, but I also enjoyed art history,” she detailed. “I wanted both and Syracuse University provided me the opportunity to pursue both degrees simultaneously.”
While at Syracuse University, Laura learned how to conceptualize jewelry and view it as wearable sculpture by experimenting with different mediums and forms in her studio art classes. Then, on the opposite end of the campus, she enrolled in several art history courses where she became enamored with Italian Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. “I decided to study in Florence, Italy, for a year,” she highlighted. “It was a joy to see these amazing pieces of artwork first in lecture, and later in person in the museums of Florence.”
For her undergraduate honors thesis at Syracuse University, Marsolek blended her passion for jewelry fabrication and art history by researching and reproducing the jewelry worn by the Spanish Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Eleonora di Toledo, in her official portrait as a Medici woman. “I enjoy viewing jewelry in portraits as many of these adornments no longer exist,” she detailed. “Jewelry is a recyclable material. It gets melted down as fashions change. Gems are sold, broken apart, and recut. The only record of their existence is in paintings.” Marsolek wrote about the iconographic and cultural significance of the jewelry in the portrait and reproduced the Duchess’s jewels using Italian Renaissance goldsmithing techniques taken from sixteenth-century treatises (manuals).
Following her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University, Laura stated that she became “quite curious about Eastern Europe as it seemed like a part of the world less-traveled. Eastern Europe is closely connected to the influences of the Ottoman Empire stemming from Turkey.” To indulge her curiosity, Marsolek applied for and received a U.S. State Department Fulbright Grant to study adornment history and jewelry fabrication in Kosovo. “Kosovo is a part of the former Yugoslavia. It’s a complex country and a multi-layered culture with many different artistic influences, which is why I found Kosovar adornment fascinating.”
While in Kosovo, Marsolek apprenticed at a master’s filigree studio in the city of Prizren. “The studio was first established by the former Yugoslav Republic,” she stated. “At one time, they made filigree adornments as well as decorative and religious objects in every shape and size for all of Yugoslavia. Following the conflicts and breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the workshop dwindled to just a few artisans working out of a near-empty factory.”
Marsolek spoke limited Albanian, but the artisans welcomed her into their collective. “They were patient, showing me techniques of hand-curling silver wire to complete filigree patterns,” she detailed. “Fortunately, jewelry techniques often require little explanation and much demonstration.” Marsolek went on to say, “It was a fun collective. Each day, I looked forward to walking to the old factory and its one-room workshop on the upper level. We made Turkish coffee and sang old Albanian wedding songs on our breaks.”
Following her experience in Kosovo, Marsolek returned to Italy in pursuit of a master’s degree in art history. “My goal has always been to work in a museum as a curator of art objects and jewelry,” she stated. “I knew I needed a master’s degree in art history, so I applied to a few schools. My first-choice program was Syracuse University in Florence, Italy and I was accepted as a graduate fellow.”
Marsolek researched her MA thesis topic in the Florentine State Archives and in the libraries of Italian Museums, spending most days reading and translating sixteenth-century manuscripts. Over the three years of MA studies, Marsolek became fluent in the Italian language and embraced the investigative work of a researcher and an art historian.
Upon completing her master’s thesis, Marsolek was employed as a teaching assistant under a professor of Italian Renaissance Art History at Syracuse University in Florence, Italy. Additionally, she worked as an assistant instructor at Stanford University in Florence, where she worked under Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a noted scholar and Director of the Florence Cathedral Museum, better known as the Florence Duomo Complex.
When not teaching undergraduate students, Marsolek worked with Italian designers in a Florentine studio honing her skill in the art of hand engraving from a former Buccellati goldsmith. The house of Buccellati revolutionized the technique of hand engraving, an opulent style of covering pierced goldwork in richly ornate textures. “With hand engraving, you have to start on a flat surface,” she detailed. “My teacher would give me flat copper sheets and an image to reproduce. After a year, I graduated to hand engraving on a curved surface. It is a slow process that requires much patience. It takes four years, minimum, as an apprentice before one can be called a master of the technique.”
While living in Florence, Laura applied for and was awarded the Henry Luce Foundation’s Asia grant. In her desire to learn more about Asian art, Marsolek sought out this competitive fellowship awarded annually to 15 young scholars to live and work in Asia. Recipients pursue a cultural experience in areas of their interests. As a Henry Luce Scholar in residence at Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur, India, Marsolek worked as a museum curator and researcher. The historic structure was once a fortress and royal residence of the Maharaja of Jodhpur prior to becoming a museum in the 1970s. One of her first tasks was to inventory the entire decorative arts and jewelry collection at the museum. “Being tasked with inventory work was a wonderful introduction to Indian metalsmithing techniques and designs. I researched and documented nearly 600 different metal objects ranging from rose water sprinklers and vases, to necklaces and ankle bracelets. It was fascinating to work in the vaults of the fortress.” Additionally, Marsolek was the assistant curator for several small shows and was a valued English-speaker who routinely led private curatorial tours, including one for the CEO of Cartier, the French couture jewelry house.
Studying objects and jewelry in the museum inspired Laura to learn more about how they were made. During her time at Mehrangarh Museum, she sought out local goldsmiths in the city. “Goldsmithing is a male-dominated trade in India. Yet most days, after my work in the museum, I went to the goldsmiths’ studios and successfully found two artisans willing to teach me, a female metalsmith. I regularly went to their studios as an apprentice.” Marsolek learned how to make Kundan jewelry, a technique that uses thin sheets of gold embellished with rubies, and Thewa jewelry, a technique that fuses pierced gold designs to colored glass. Marsolek collaborated with area jewelers to create an artistic partnership. “I was interested in merging traditional Indian techniques with modern Western designs, creating a style of Indo-Western jewelry.” Marsolek’s jewelry is available to view online at www.lauramargaretdesign.com.
As an Art Historian, Marsolek also endeavored to document the experiences of female goldsmiths in Jaipur, India, who are breaking barriers by becoming masters in their craft and starting their own artistic businesses in a trade that is dominated by generational male apprenticeship. Her article is published in the June 2020 issue of the Society of North American Goldsmiths’ Metalsmith Magazine.
Marsolek returned to the United States in October 2019 and has since been studying gemology at the Gemological Institute of America’s world headquarters in Carlsbad, California, until the COVID-19 pandemic halted her education. At which point, Marsolek returned to Ortonville to stay with family.