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Grandma's jewelry inspires grandiose creativity

July 12, 2007

Two things seem to be infused in everything artist Carmen Aponte of Bay View creates. The first is unbridled joy. The second is the gentle spirit of her "adopted" grandmother, Elsie.

There is joy in finding the perfect combination of delicate glass beads, genuine gemstones, sparkling crystals, and gleaming copper and silver wire; satisfaction in blending exquisite components into a one-of-a-kind pendant necklace, bracelet or set of earrings.

When she talks about the inspiration for her work, Aponte's eyes shimmer like the light dancing off the handcrafted jewelry pieces she carefully places on the 12-foot-long work surface in her home studio.

"My father was a doctor and one of his patients in the early '80s was a little old lady - her name was Elsie," Aponte said. "Because we're first generation in the U.S., we kind of adopted her as our grandma."

Starting with classic pieces

Aponte inherited Elsie's costume jewelry collection dating from the 1930s, '40s and '50s. She pulled out a vintage crystal necklace once worn by Elsie, now worn very little because of its fragile condition. She held a lovely part of Elsie's legacy collection in her hands - a pair of golden double hoop earrings, studded with an intricate marcasite inlay. Her first project was crafted from another of Elsie's marcasite double hoops.

"I took the two hoops apart and made my first set of earrings," she said.

At first Aponte made jewelry exclusively for friends and family. But with their encouragement, she began to make original pieces for sale to anyone who "wants something unique enough that you treasure it and want to hold onto it for 50 years."

Although mostly self-taught, Aponte said she has taken a number of classes to learn specific techniques and often collaborates with a fellow Bay View Arts Guild member, glass-bead maker Alice Konkel.

"We work together and play together," Aponte said. "We have play dates."

Making her creative mark

A hallmark of Aponte's creative process is experimenting with materials. She is surrounded by little sparks to ignite her imagination in her newly completed home studio. Behind each cupboard door are stacks of plastic boxes of beads, gleaned from catalogs, bead shows and other artists, and all carefully inventoried and sorted by hue.

She often begins a piece by choosing combinations of colors that do not seem likely to complement each other, such as garnet red and olive green, but by the time Aponte is finished with them, they seem to be perfectly matched.

"I think that's thrilling - what happens when you put colors together," she said.

She looks for the best in materials, like beads imported from Egypt and crystals from Austria.

"When I get on a mission to find something, I don't stop until I find it," Aponte said.

And if she can't find it, Aponte teaches herself to make it. That is how she began to make her own clasps and hooks, and the hand-painted polymer beads she happily bakes to a solid finish in her oven.

When the piece is completed, Aponte gives it a name, like "Scarlet," "Tuscan" or "Autumn" and a beautiful handcrafted tag all its own.

Opportunities abound

Aponte has recently begun to share her expertise by teaching classes in wire-wrapping at the Bay View Community Center. The next class is slated for September.

Her fondest dream is to combine her profession - occupational therapy - and her creative side into the development of a wellness center. She envisions a place that would offer therapies, classes in topics like the philosophy of art and science, art classes, yoga sessions and nutritional instruction.

In her new studio, Aponte has gathered hundreds of sources of inspiration. So much, in fact, she hardly can decide which projects to tackle first.

"I'm exploding!" she said.

Nan Bialek keeps tabs on the South Shore's creative side. To contact her about an art topic, call South Shore NOW at (262) 446-6632 or send an e-mail to

At a glance

WHAT: South Shore Frolic Festival of Arts - more than 60 local and regional artists showing and selling fine arts and crafts, including original jewelry, paintings, mixed media, drawings, pastels, fiber, sculpture, photography and woodwork

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, July 15

WHERE: South Shore Park, 2900 S. Shore Drive


SPONSOR: Bay View Arts Guild in cooperation with the Bay View Lions Club

WHAT'S MORE: Carmen Aponte's handcrafted jewelry can be seen at the Festival of Arts; at the Oconomowoc Art Fair on Saturday, Aug. 18, and Sunday, Aug. 19, at Fowler Park in Oconomowoc; and at Bay View Fine Art Gallery, 3391 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

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