April 20, 2019

Sense of discovery Portland artist translates life into tangible forms

She’s got the whole world in her hands.

Whether she’s soldering minuscule shingles on an inch-high house or crafting her own interpretation of the cosmos in silver, Lauren Fensterstock makes magic with metal. The 26-year-old Portland artist takes big ideas and turns them into small objects that make sense of the world around her. In her hands, the concepts of commodity, spirituality, point of view and scale become tangible, solid, real.

“When I was doing this work I was really looking at Jewish mysticism and mysticism in general,” Fensterstock said of a jewelry collection that recently was on view at the Hay Gallery in Portland. “I started using my work to try to make tangible models of these ideas so I could figure out what they meant to me. It’s also not only making tangible, but claiming things for myself that might be larger than me and bringing things down to my scale.”

For Fensterstock, “jewelry” means nesting domes of silver, edged in a ring of dried flowers or feathers, surrounding a moonstone orb. Or a bracelet made of pennies, sandwiched together back to back, their centers cut out so only the words “In God We Trust” remain, dangling like charms from a chain. Or a heavy, looking-glass pendant with interchangeable lenses that superimpose an image on whatever the wearer sees.

“Through looking, I overlap different elements of my life and see them in new ways and new contexts,” Fensterstock said.

This view translates into something more profound than diamond rings, dangly earrings and fancy bracelets. Her jewelry is less about adornment and more about exploration. It requires you to think and interact, not just to wear.

“She just blows my mind,” Laura Fuller of the Hay Gallery said. “When I saw her stuff I was just blown away. … I think she’s so thorough. The pieces are perfect and the ideas behind them are wonderful.”

Fuller’s colleague, Daniel Noel, agreed.

“Her work is unbelievably strong,” he said. “I think she’s probably one of the most talented jewelers I’ve seen in years. Her jewelry is more than just jewelry, though, it’s really art.”

The Hay Gallery was one of the first in Portland to show Fensterstock’s work after she moved there last June. A native of Katona, N.Y., Fensterstock finished her master’s in fine arts at SUNY New Paltz last spring. Before that, she earned her bachelor’s at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

During a break from school, Fensterstock and her boyfriend, Aaron Stephan, had come to Maine for his birthday and liked it so much, they decided to move here after she graduated. She figured she’d find a job and kick around for a little while.

“I needed a little bit of a break,” she said.

It didn’t happen that way. Though Fensterstock didn’t realize it at the time, Portland is one of the up-and-coming cities in the country for metalsmiths and jewelers. This is due, in part, to the metals program at Maine College of Art, where Stephan is doing graduate work in sculpture. So when the couple got here, they immediately became part of the loop.

“I found it was really a great pace here,” she said. “We were meeting people right away and it’s really rich culturally. … I think that since there’s such a tight art community, it’s really easy to meet new people.”

Shortly after she got here, she took a job at the Saco Museum as exhibition developer. Working at the museum, which has more of a historical than artistic focus, helped her meet people who weren’t artists.

“I feel good about it because I think there’s a tension between artists and culture so I think it’s important to get involved with the community to bring those two elements together,” she said.

She continued to make art, though she found that the issues she was trying to tackle with her jewelry were consuming her thoughts.

“I became like [a character in the movie “Pi”], always lying up at night, thinking of cosmology and myself and I felt like my mind was going to break,” she said. “I kind of re-evaluated things and thought, ‘I’m an object-maker. Let me see how I can relate to objects instead of looking at the whole universe. Let me look at objects and see what they mean to me.'”

First she took classical art objects, such as a Grecian urn, and re-created them in miniature, then she cut them apart, “just to see what the whole process would do for me.”

Then she started toying with the whole idea of miniatures and souvenirs. After spending a weekend in Atlantic City, she came back and created an old-fashioned-looking silver souvenir flask with “Atlantic City” scrolled across the front.

“[Souvenirs and miniatures] give you the sense of nostalgia that kind of goes beyond their form,” she said. “They give a memory to you that’s more important than a thimble that you bought in Paris.”

With Fensterstock, there’s always something more to the work than just the object – whether it invokes a memory or a sense of discovery, as her “installations in miniature” do.

These works, which were first displayed at the Filament Gallery in Portland, were selected for a juried show at the Maine Artists’ Space/Danforth Gallery that opens Friday and runs through June 23.

At first glance, they are just big, white pedestals like you’d see at any other gallery, only it doesn’t look like there’s anything on them. But when you get closer, you’ll see little silver focus points: an inch-high house, a tiny set of drawers, a bottle smaller than your pinkie finger, or a cork on a chain. If you get close enough to look through the window of the house, there is a giant hedge or a house floating in the water inside the pedestal. If you look into the bottle, there’s a huge model ship inside. Pop the cork and look inside the hole and you’ll see a small 19th century art gallery inside the pedestal. Open the three drawers and you’ll see a level of a house in each – the attic frame in the top drawer, an empty, bright living space in the middle drawer, and a dank basement in the bottom.

“It’s a metaphor for the self,” Fensterstock said. “The places that you show and don’t show when you interact with people. It’s almost voyeuristic, looking into someone’s life. The miniature scale makes it really intimate.”

The tiny sculptures also play with the whole idea of a gallery experience.

“You expect to go to a gallery and see a painting, but you don’t expect to have to look inside the pedestal to look at it,” Fensterstock said. “None of the objects are as important as that moment when you think, ‘Oh, there’s something in there.'”

That sense of discovery is what draws people to Fensterstock’s work.

“I really enjoy the world that she creates,” said Michael Branca, assistant to the director at the Danforth Gallery. “If you actually take the time to peek in the little hole on top [of the pedestal in ‘Uncork’] … it’s beautiful. It’s this whole little world inside the pedestal. It really messes with the whole idea of a gallery space – what you’d expect to see on a pedestal.”

In her current body of work, Fensterstock is still working with miniatures, but she wants to have people view them through a tube full of water or embed them in blocks of charcoal.

“Now I’m going for contrast,” she said. “Now, I’m trying to expand on what I did with these objects, but work on the idea of being nostalgic – The history of metalsmithing and charcoal is really rich.”

She had no problem making miniature umbrella sculptures for the pieces. She did have a pretty hard time finding big blocks of charcoal, though. She contacted the American Barbecue Association, to no avail. She tried making her own, by burning mushrooms in her oven, which didn’t exactly work.

“Aaron was going to kill me because it just stank,” she said, laughing.

She finally tracked down charcoal from a man in Russia. Because the monetary exchange was hard to do, they struck a deal. He’d send her charcoal if she’d send him Maine maple syrup.

While she’s content working with charcoal, umbrellas and water tubes for now, she may go back to jewelry at some point.

“A lot of people saw the work and responded to it,” she said. “It’s making me think of doing jewelry again.”

If she does, she won’t have a hard time finding places to show it. In a little less than a year, she’s gained quite a following in Portland.

“There are a lot of people who do different kinds of metalwork and different kinds of jewelry in Portland … but there’s no one who’s working with an esteem the way Lauren is,” Fuller said. “It’s amazing that somebody so young is doing these pieces that seem like they could be centuries old, but they also have a contemporary feel to them too.”

Fensterstock had no idea when she moved here that things would take off, but she’s enjoying life in Portland. She says it has all of the culture, appeal and opportunity of New York City, with none of the grime or crime.

“I’ve been amazed. I’ve been able to get a lot of shows since I got here,” she said. “It’s been really good. Paying three digits instead of four for rent is pretty amazing. And, you can have a car. … The pace is similar, it’s just less congested and cleaner.”

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