Industrial aesthetic

From the flotsam and jetsam of the machine age, an Ulster County jeweler creates wearable artifacts

Author: Kelly Kingman
Posted: Friday, October 22, 2010

Connie Verrusio’s creative impulse has been with her since she can remember. “I was always making stuff. Even when I was a littler kid I was getting rocks and decoupaging butterflies on them and painting it with nail polish,” she laughs.

When she was in seventh grade, Verrusio started turning feathers from old hats into earrings. “My parents and I had this big fight back then — I was making earrings for pierced ears and my parents wouldn’t let me pierce mine until high school.” She made them for friends and one day she tried her hand at selling them at a neighborhood craft fair. She pocketed $120. “I was sold, and the rest is history. I’ve never really stopped.”

In high school, Verrusio claimed part of the basement, painted it purple and called it her studio. She now lives in Plattekill, where she works in a converted outbuilding next to her house that once housed equipment for the orchard across the road. The space is lined on one side by half a dozen sets of small drawers bearing labels like compasses, marbles, arcade tokens, watch gears. Stacks of old wooden folding rulers are scattered throughout and a box of tin type photographs is divided with cards variously labeled hands, eyes, mouths, small faces — these parts will likely end up inset into some of Verrusio’s pendants. She’s laid out several work stations around the room for: hammering and sizing, soldering, sawing, polishing.

She’s been crafting and selling her jewelry designs for over 20 years and is completely self-taught. She studied literature at the University of Rochester for her undergraduate degree. Even though she rented space in the student union to use as a jewelry studio, Verrusio says she wasn’t ready to settle on that alone. “My parents wanted me to get a liberal arts education and I was still interested in a lot of different things.” She dabbled in sculpture and photography.

Cocktails or the streets

In the summer of 1988, between her junior and senior year of college, Verrusio went to live in New York City for a few months. “The first thing I did when I got to New York was go to a restaurant and try apply for a cocktail waitress job,” she says. “I looked around and all the waitresses were models — I realized it was probably not going to happen.” Shortly after that she discovered an outdoor market where jewelry and clothing designers were selling their wares at Broadway and 4th Street. She decided to give it a shot. As soon as she graduated from college, she headed back to the city. “I was thinking I would go and wait tables if I had to, and I never had to.”

At that time, Verrusio had begun working with silver wire and pliers, but she had yet to experiment with soldering and other techniques. Her studio fit into an old makeup case. “I could go to Central Park, set up on a blanket and make jewelry all day and sell it on the weekends.” Verrusio befriended a jeweler who had a studio in Brooklyn. “When she was away I’d cat sit for her and I could use her studio. She showed me how to solder and I started just melting things,” says Verrusio. “All of my first work with that technique had these kind of melted edges. I was just figuring what the metal could do.” Slowly she began buying her own tools and turned a corner of her bedroom into a studio.

Love on Canal

Verrusio’s love affair with hardware and industrial parts began on Canal Street. She fell in love with a shop called Canal Surplus and others like it. “They just had all these little drawers and bins of stuff from old factories and machine shops and they’d sell it by the piece. Canal Street at that time was a wonderland of little parts stores.” Eventually, Verrusio left the East Village market to sell directly to people on the streets of SoHo as many artists were doing.

Unfortunately, she found herself in the midst of a crackdown on vendors by Mayor Dinkins and once was actually arrested. When a friend introduced her to some wholesale trade shows, she jumped at the opportunity to transition. “After being on the street, I was happy to be indoors, and not looking over my shoulder,” she says. Eventually she began doing more retail craft shows, and now she exhibits at about a dozen each year.

The antique remnants of industry and outmoded technology are the hallmarks of her work, as well as familiar hardware like nails and screws. There are delicate pendants of birds sawed by hand from foreign coins and bracelets made from large wooden letterpress type.

 

 

Verrusio says she grew up with a love for old stuff. “My parents loved antiques and I was dragged to so many rummage sales and garage sales as a kid. As an artist, I already had my aesthetic sense tuned into patinas, how beautiful old wood can be, or old brass.”

She says her creative process still starts by combing through flea markets like the Ultimate Yard Sale in Stormville. “Once I know what I'm looking for, I can find more of it online — eBay is like the garage sale of the country.”

The materials plant the seed, but the magic happens at her bench where it all comes together “somewhat spontaneously.” Generally she’ll come up with 15 or 20 new designs in the weeks leading up to a large craft show. “I always feel a little bit of pressure to show something new, and that’s the way to survive,” she says. “There are so many great jewelers and it’s so competitive to get into the shows that you have to have new things. That also keeps it exciting for me.”

Come see my etchings

Verrusio’s pieces are always conversation starters at shows. “People love guessing what the parts are from — which piece of machinery,” she says. Verrusio was on the leading edge of the trend known as “upcycling,” the act of repurposing found objects in artful or useful ways. As much as she loves working with these remnants of bygone eras, she is always conscious of wanting to evolve as an artist.


She recently began experimenting with photo etching on metal.

“That is a little bit of a return to my artistic beginnings in photography,” she says. “It still incorporates found objects in a way because I use photographs of objects, textures, and tools that I find meaningful.” Some of her new pieces are etched with patterns of wood grain and chain link fence — patterns she says keep the same industrial feel that people have come to expect. “Part of the fun of being a jeweler is there is an endless, endless array of things you can do and figure out,” she says. “There are always new things to learn.” 

Verrusio will be showing at the craft fair December 4th and 5th at Unison Art Center, New Paltz.

 

Kelly Kingman is a writer living in Beacon. Her latest iron in the fire is stickyebooks.com.

 

 

 

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