Cape artisans who work in jewelry and stained glass rely heavily on craft shows and stores to sell their work. With things shut down during the coronavirus crisis, and the outlook dire for the summer season, four local artisans have sought creative ways to keep going.
Elizabeth and John Best work together in their Wellfleet home and studio, guarded by a resin T. rex that John brought home one day. “We’ve worked side by side for 40-odd years and haven’t killed each other yet,” Elizabeth says. She makes intricate, art nouveau-inspired jewelry of sterling silver and glass beads, while John is a stained-glass artist and musician, who plays with the local band Black Whydah.
The couple retired to Cape Cod after 32 years of teaching middle school art and music in New Jersey, though they practiced their art throughout their teaching careers. “My wife got me interested in stained glass, because I was curious about historic types of art forms,” John says. “I took my first class with a member of the family of artists who maintained for generations the stained-glass windows in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” he says. Though John’s creations these days are abstract, “I learned very old-school methods that have stayed with me all this time.”
Elizabeth creates each of the unique glass beads she uses in her jewelry. “The bead process I use originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago,” she explains. “It was called lampworking originally and flameworking now. You melt the glass and wind it around a steel mandrel to form the bead.” Some of the beads she makes are incorporated into John’s stained-glass work. “When something goes wrong and she can’t use a bead, I always find a place for it,” John says.
The couple typically sell their work at craft shows and galleries on the Cape, including the Coastal Craft Gallery co-op in Orleans. Though they are concerned about the impact of the current crisis, it’s in their nature to seek the silver lining.
“I’m building up stock, and I have time to go in new directions and try different techniques,” Elizabeth says. “We’ll get through it,” John adds. “When something goes wrong, you can either throw up your hands or you can work something out. In life as in art.” (Their website is ejbeststudio.com.)
Lucy Jalbert of Eastham shares space at the Coastal Craft Gallery co-op with Elizabeth Best and nine other local artisans. She discovered a passion for using tools in middle school. “I was lucky to have been one of the first girls allowed to take shop instead of home economics,” she says. “I loved it. I knew I could never have a desk job.”
She went on to study at the Jewelry Institute of Rhode Island in Providence. “I learned a little bit of everything about jewelry making from the different manufacturers in Providence,” Jalbert says. Her sister invited her to visit the Cape for a summer when she was 22, and two weeks later she met her future husband, David, a Cape native.
Jalbert waited tables for many years, saving to buy equipment and materials for her jewelry studio. One day, she walked into the Glass Eye in Eastham, owned by John Knight. “He was a character,” Jalbert says. “He gave me a box of scrap glass. I didn’t know how to cut glass, but I knew how to graft the copper and solder from jewelry making.”
Jalbert now works full-time creating stained-glass pieces as well as jewelry in her studio. “It’s become a balance between the two,” she says. The jewelry is made of pure silver in clay form. “You sculpt it, texturize it, cut it, and then fuse it in a kiln at a very high temperature,” she says. “It creates a very distinct look.”
After selling out of a store in her home for 18 years, Jalbert joined the co-op in 2016. “I love being there,” she says. “I take care of the gardening and I’m on the display committee.” The co-op faces uncertainty going into the summer season, but Jalbert is determined to remain positive. “If it’s a slow summer, we’ll have a great Christmas,” she says.
The jewelry artist Jennifer Janaskie — who goes by JJ — moved from Manhattan to Wellfleet this past November, renting an apartment on the property owned by this reporter’s family. She studied metalsmithing at the Savannah College of Art and Design and has been creating her unique pieces for 28 years.
“I work with huge crystals, gemstones, and mineral specimens,” JJ says. “I select each specimen by hand and honor it with the metal. I use a technique that is not widely known anymore called reticulation. It involves a multistep heating process that makes the metal buckle and crinkle, so you get a one-of-a-kind piece every time.”
JJ’s Reine de Blanc brand has an established customer base, which includes the members of the U.K. band The Comet Is Coming and Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive. She’s currently creating a “magic wand” for a former actress. “I’ve never made one before,” she says. “I pretty much say yes to everything until I realize I can’t do it, which is hardly ever. I draw inspiration from nature, astronomy, and ancient artifacts.”
JJ feels fortunate to have moved to Wellfleet just months before the Covid-19 crisis. “In Manhattan, I was living in a shoebox with a roommate, so it feels like a huge privilege to have space, solitude, and quiet,” she says. She had been hoping to connect with local galleries for the upcoming summer season but is now simply grateful “to be here and to be able to walk to the beach. I’m fortunate in this strange time we’re in right now to have enough custom orders to float me through the winter. This is a special place to be, to create art, and I know it.”