Lake Bluff resident Corinne Torkelson had an unusual request for local artist Mary Mowry last year, when she wanted to honor one of her father’s final wishes.
Torkelson knew of Mowry’s custom-made jewelry and thought she would be the appropriate person to convert a diamond made from her father’s ashes, and place it on a bracelet.
“I saw Mary’s stuff at a Lake Forest gallery a few years ago and I oohed and aahed over it because I think it was unique and organic and nothing like I had ever seen,” Torkelson recalled.
Torkelson approached Mowry about a project that would highlight the stone. It took several months, but Mowry pulled it off. One doesn’t have to look farther than Torkelson’s wrist for the proof.
“This is my uniform. I wear it every day, it is a phenomenal piece of art,” Torkelson said. “It is the best memory I have of my father.”
Making these customized pieces has allowed Mowry to excel in a relatively new career. She is one of only nine emerging artists selected nationwide by a professional jury to participate in the prestigious American Craft Exposition, held at Northwestern University starting Aug. 22.
Mowry’s presence in the show culminates an artistic career that started in northern Michigan as a child, when she painted flowers on driftwood to sell to tourists.
“My parents sensed I had a gift and they wanted me to act on it. So I had to paint,” Mowry remembered.
Mowry continued to paint even after she moved to Lake Forest, where she and her husband Bill, raised four children. But her painting days concluded when a rotator cuff injury got the best of her.
Then a light bulb went off. Actually, a torch light went off.
Mowry became intrigued by the idea of working with a torch, which had been a part of daily life for her brothers when they welded material in her father’s metal factory, coming home with a distinct aroma.
“All these years later, now in my 50s, to work with a torch and to have my Dad so excited that his daughter is now into the metal business,” Mowry said.
By learning how to effectively use the torch — which required a lot of late nights — Mowry created a custom jewelry business working with high karat gold.
“I mix ingredients from a recipe used by ancient artists,” Mowry explains. “After applying the 22 karat granules to the metal with a paintbrush, then I gently fuse it with a torch. Every piece is unique; they are all one-of-a-kind as there is no way to duplicate one. That is what makes it exciting.”
Like any business, it is a challenge some days, specifically when working with the granules.
“They have a mind of their own,” Mowry concedes. “They love to bounce around, they have to be dried just perfectly when you put the torch to them or they will fly — and they are not fun to chase around the floor.”
The chasing paid off, however, and Mowry was eventually able to open her own studio in downtown Lake Bluff.
Her studio hasn’t been open that much this summer as Mowry has been busy preparing for the 30th anniversary exposition at Northwestern, which promises to showcase top handmade jewelry and artists from throughout the country while raising money for breast and ovarian cancer research.
The exposition caters to the art lover looking to buy something unusual and provides some new opportunities for the artist, according to Mowry.
“Because I have been watching these artists grow in stature, I know what these shows can do,” she says.
Whatever happens at the Northwestern campus later this month, Mowry is thrilled that her work brings some pleasure to her customers, including Torkelson.
Mowry adds, “The fact that I can make Corinne’s day a little happier by looking at her Dad on her wrist gives me goose bumps.”