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Repair Cafe of the Hudson Valley

One Jeweler's Experience of the Community-Sourced Pop-Up Repair Shop

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I work in relative obscurity in the middle of woods.

The wild turkeys roam and call out to me through the sun streaming upon my workbench. It is quiet. It is serene, and I have time to contemplate. This is right for me at this time in my life. I am no longer pulled by my dreams that wilt in daylight.

Am I lonely? No, because I have contact: Just the right amount of contact that I choose and that I value. I feel such gratitude now when I sit eating a sandwich at the local diner and watch the old man next to me sitting alone and staring at his gold watch. He looks peaceful. I can see that he’s lived a life that has been full. I love him silently and admire him. What were his choices and where did he stumble or astound?

My life is much smaller than it used to be and I like it that way. I moved to my cottage in the woods almost two years ago and it’s taken me that long to find the moonlight on the path when it’s dusk. It’s taken me that long to reach out and wander the perimeters of my town. That’s when I found the Repair Café. 

A safety pin by Barbara Klar
  • A safety pin by Barbara Klar

The Repair Café is an old concept. It happens in many incarnations in many communities. I remember when I was a child how I sat by my father’s elbow and watched him closely when he fixed a broken chair or metal shelving. When he drilled through the metal and attached nuts and bolts for stability it seemed almost painful, like a stay in the hospital. The drill through the metal screamed when it was mended. It sighed as it was sanded and repainted. We laughed when he was stumped by an engineering challenge and we wondered why the piece didn’t repair itself.

I’ve been making jewelry for 45 years and I like to take my time. I volunteered my time one afternoon several weeks ago at the Repair Café. I was there to advise and do small repairs on the spot in a large room at the back of a church. Volunteers were buzzing around, setting up tables and lamps. I worked a double task of sewing and mending as well as wielding my pliers to fix that broken clasp on a long chain.

The Café had barely opened its doors when a couple of real Woodstockers walked up to my small jewelry station. He was dapper and friendly. She was tall and monumental in her fuschia fake fur coat and purple hair. They were clutching a round cookie tin.

Putting the tin down, they slid it over the table to me and I opened it. Resting in a square of red velvet was a silver and semi-precious stone pendant, one of the largest pendants I’d ever seen. Immediately I knew it was modernist, from the 1950s, when many artists also made jewelry. It resembled a Paul Klee painting with fanciful and playful beaded silver wires sticking out randomly. It was odd and intriguing and a little bit garish.

“Can you fix this?” he asked. “It’s actually quite valuable, by an artist that used to live here in Woodstock: Rolph Scarlett.”

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I examined the big pendant and saw that it was in need of a solder job because one of the jump rings on the main, hollow form had snapped. Soldering a piece of jewelry is always a challenge when someone else has made the piece. Not to mention the care that is needed in preserving the original patina. Turning it over in my hands I could see that while it was somewhat primitive, it had been made with intention and humor. I liked this odd piece of jewelry and was intrigued with the person who had been Rolph Scarlett.

I could fix it. It would be a challenge and a bit scary, but I knew I could do it. Plus, I love the fantasy that I can be part of a bit of history in carrying on the tradition of artists that work in metal.

I carried the piece back to my studio and researched Rolph Scarlett.

“Scarlett was Canadian-born, came of age in the Midwest, and spent a few important years in Hollywood, where he designed stage sets. His work from this early period echoes Klee’s use of color, his confidence in naïve, primitive forms, and his blend of abstraction and figuration. In its flat spatial qualities it prefigures the Indian Space painting of the 1940s by a decade. He moved to New York in 1933 and eventually found his first great patron at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, directed by Baroness Hilla Rebay and art patron Solomon R. Guggenheim. Guggenheim would collect over 60 works by Scarlett for his collection, more than any other artist outside of Vasily Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer.”

It turns out that Scarlett was friends with Paul Klee and admired his work greatly. Scarlett’s paintings are beautiful and similar but he never really gained world recognition like Klee. He lost the support of patrons when his style changed and he retired to Woodstock where he lived in “regional obscurity” to the end of his life, returning to his original passion of making jewelry.

This week on a quiet day in the studio I said a prayer while I soldered the pendant. I had taken it apart to repair it. The patina changed when the piece was heated but I re-oxidized it back to its aged splendor. I reassembled the pieces and imagined Rolph stamping the piece with his nod to street graffiti. Street graffiti affected me tremendously when I first moved to NYC in the '80s. Samo and Keith Haring were my contemporaries. Rolph and I shared that fascination. I still incorporate graffiti images into my work.

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The pendant needed a “bale” from which it could hang on a chain. I chose one of my “beaded bales” that are part of my own signature. I thought about this choice. I knew that ethically I should choose a plain large silver oval jump ring in keeping with Rolph’s intention but I just couldn’t do it. On the inside of the bale is my triangle signature.

When I’m old and sitting in a diner, eating my sandwich and staring at my watch, I will hold the wish that in the future someone might discover a piece of my jewelry and bring it to a Repair Cafe. I hope my signature will be recognized. If another jeweler repairs my work and adds their moniker, it will continue upon it’s journey. I will know that in spite of my choice of relative and regional obscurity as a career path, I’d made a mark on the path well traveled.

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