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Rebecca Strzelec: The Familiar, Sentimental Journey of 365 Grams

365 Grams Exhibit

Shoeboxes of jewelry and an old, damaged writing desk form the foundation of jewelry artist Rebecca Strzelec’s new exhibition, 365 Grams, at the Baltimore Jewelry Center.

Strzelec, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the Stamps School of Art & Design, recently returned from Baltimore, where she carefully managed the installation of her new exhibit, which she says “…is part documentation and part reclamation.” It is a tribute to her grandmother who Strzelec called Gram. Betty Ambrow passed away in 2008. A few years before she died, she gave Strzelec two shoeboxes full of her old costume jewelry. After her death, Strzelec avoided opening the shoeboxes until, one day, she rediscovered them. 

While serving as the Penn State Laureate, Strzelec wore a piece of Gram’s jewelry daily for an entire year, documenting the project on Instagram. Wearing each piece was a prelude to reimagining them into new pieces. Strzelec believes her grandmother would approve and shares in her 365 Grams artist’s statement, I’m pretty sure that my Gram wanted me to give her gems new lives by making them into something else. It was harder than I thought possible to dismantle all of these things that were hers and respectfully include them into new meaningful wearables.” 

Using her talent as a jewelry artist and her 3D modeling and 3D printing skills, Strzelec dismantled and rebuilt the pieces of her grandmother’s jewelry into entirely new forms, completing the project in 2022. In titling the pieces, she draws on memories of her grandmother, such as her singing the old Doris Day song that inspired Bushel, Peck, Barrel, and Heap.

Bushel, Peck, Barrel, and Heap
Bushel, Peck, Barrel, and Heap

Stzelec took great care in structuring the presentation of 365 Grams, explaining, The exhibition is presented in two groups. There are the new interpretations of my Gram’s jewelry laid out on felt lined tables and then there are the forty pieces on the walls. I struggled with how to show my documentation, the selfies I took of me wearing my Gram’s jewelry every day for a year. Flat photos pinned or framed on the wall didn’t seem appropriate.

As she worked on determining the best configuration for the install, the solution was found in her collection of jewelry, inspiring the layout.

“It was another piece of Gram’s jewelry that helped me see the best format to share the photos. In the boxes was the first ever photo of me set in a gift shop bracelet that my parents gave to my Gram when I was born. I borrowed the form language from that pendant and via 3D modeling and printing replicated many more at a larger scale to house my photo documentation. My Gram’s necklaces hold those pendants and dangle around the perimeter of the gallery to inform the new work. It’s funny, even the day I wore my Gram’s partial dentures as a pin is in there – it was in one of the boxes so it had to be worn.”

Another item that Strzelec inherited from her grandmother is an old writing desk that, for years, had a piece of masking tape underneath it with Rebecca’s name. That desk, with the dents and breaks that come from a longtime piece of furniture, is part of 365 Grams and is revived with its jewelry in an artwork entitled Jewelry for/​from a Desk,” which includes other jewelry inspired by and made from pieces of the desk. The desk lives in Strzelec’s home and one day one of her two children fell into the desk during an especially rambunctious living room dance party. A shard of trim work cracked and broke free from the desk and after a brief period of mourning Strzelec decided to repair the desk using a visible mending philosophy. To patch the broken trim Strzelec fabricated a brooch for the desk, highlighting and celebrating the repair. It is quite possible that this is the first piece of jewelry made specifically for a writing desk. The broken shard was set into a neckpiece like a precious jewel.

Jewelry for/from a Desk
Jewelry for/​from a Desk

Viewers of the installation, both the exhibit and online, have a chance to listen to the conversation between three sisters as they sift through the various pieces of family heirlooms and fragments of memories in an audio accompaniment to the show. The three sisters are Strzelec’s mother Donna Ambrow Strzelec, and her younger sisters who are Strzelec’s aunts, Debra Ambrow Walters and Dana Ambrow Toczylowski. One sister talks about Aunt Ruth. Another remembers how she preferred costume jewelry. The family artifacts, reimagined by Strzelec, and the conversation between family members conjure up the warmth of shared family memories and the wistfulness of the past.

365 Grams at the Baltimore Jewelry Center is on display through March 29, 2024. Learn more about Strzelec and her compelling work at www​.rebec​ca​s​trz​elec​.com.