In a low brick building behind the Button Factory artist studios in Portsmouth, Megan Stelzer takes a soldering torch to sterling silver.
“I want jewelry to accent the person. I don’t want it to be the attention-getting thing; I want it to be part of you,” she says.
After 15 years, Stelzer has honed her craft into an art form. But Stelzer believes “craft and art are different,” and claims her jewelry-making — which, most often, replicates her own original designs — is craft. Art, or making an original design, is a much more introspective process for Stelzer.
“There is something that I can’t get anywhere else that I need when I’m making something. It’s this kind of internal intimacy.
“I close my eyes and I get really quiet inside. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel like I’m breathing. And I imagine a specific person, and I imagine something on them,” she says, smiling. “That’s how I create something.”
Stelzer’s art and craft spring from unusual sources. Her father restored 18th-century American antiques and her mother restored antique paintings. But her traditional influences ended with her parents’ work.
“We were in the punk scene in Michigan, and it was a great place for a kid to be.” Stelzer says, surrounded in her studio by the manifestations of this influence. Pictures, post cards, and old band posters add color to a
desk flecked with metal shavings.
When she was 13, Stelzer began her jewelry-making career as an apprentice to Tom Mann at the Button Factory. More than a decade later, she found her way back to the building, this time to make her own mark.
Stelzer’s ideas come from her subconscious, drawn out by spiraling cephalopods she sees at the beach or the Celtic shields she saw while touring Europe. “I don’t do anything on purpose,” Stelzer says, but these early themes of old beauty and industrial modernity invade her art.
“I love systems in a place, systems with integrity, like rules that have a good reason. I feel free within those rules.” — Megan Stelzer
Around her studio hang hammered copper, brass, and sterling disks. Train-flattened penny earrings represent the fruits of her “Pennies for Poverty” project, from which she donated the profits to anti-poverty organizations.
“I like the idea of obliterating money and flaunting that,” she says.
Elsewhere, old keys are filed into sculptures. Sea glass is trapped in tiny cages. A necklace sporting dozens of long, sharp spikes dangles from a mannequin. “It’s kind of fragile … Most pieces like this would be surgical steel,” she says of the piece. Instead, she chose to make this brutal creation out of soft, supple sterling.
Walk down the alley behind the Button Factory after dark and you’ll often see the lights burning inside Stelzer’s studio. That’s because, for the past 12 years, her mornings have been spent at Ceres Bakery in Portsmouth, chopping vegetables or making croissants for hungry locals. “Ceres is so active. I’m moving, doing, all the time,” she says.
When it comes to creativity, Stelzer’s influences as a chef are not complicated: “I think about what I want to eat.” Much like her jewelry, there’s more to cooking than simply following a recipe. “If you make a mistake cooking, you have to be creative in your solution,” she says.
Stelzer has built a successful business despite dropping out of high school, and she traveled abroad alone at the age of 16. It’s hard to imagine her ever following someone else’s recipes. But she embraces the rigidity of cooking. “I love systems in a place, systems with integrity, like rules that have a good reason. I feel free within those rules,” she says.
Whether she is choosing which shape most flatters a friend’s collarbone or deciding what mix of flavors will be most palatable, Stelzer’s decisions are rooted in independence and authenticity. She’s proof that the world is more of art than craft. There is only one Megan Stelzer; no copies will be hammered out by hired hands. And we can be sure that, whether behind the counter at Ceres or at her workbench in the Button Factory, she’s making a lasting mark.
Top of page: Megan Stelzer at Ceres Bakery, and in her studio at the Button Factory.