Ruth Chantrell has always loved making things with her hands, but she quickly found that didn’t include typing up messages as a secretary.
Though a career in the secretarial arts is what her mom had in store for her, Chantrell’s interest in art has now led her to become a successful silversmith in Qualicum Beach, her jewelry in demand this past holiday season.
“To this day (my mom) can’t believe I can make a living at this, and we do: both my daughter and I, we pay our bills this way. We need to make a living at this, and we do.”
Chantrell and her daughter, Jessica Lafontaine, work out of TOSH (The Old School House Arts Centre, 122 Fern Rd. West, Qualicum Beach), making a variety of jewelry with silver and precious stones, including one-of-a-kind pieces.
That Chantrell would make it as a maker of jewelry is perhaps no surprise to people who knew her in her 20s in Chicago where she was born and raised.
At about 23, she was inspired by a few friends who were making bead jewelry to try it herself. Though her friends stuck to selling the pieces to friends and family, Chantrell’s entrepreneurial spirit drove her to start a business.
“Right away I went out and I went to all the museums, so I was selling in the gift shops. The Art Institute of Chicago, I sold there; and the planetarium, I would do all like stars and moons for them; and then I also sold at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago… that was all sort of marine kind of things,” said Chantrell.
“I got so busy I had to hire people to help me. It just really took off.”
While painting and other forms of art were among her interests, she said it was never something her family supported.
“I was not encouraged to go into art at all,” she said. “There was no art classes for me. Nope, (just) secretarial arts,” she said with a smile. “I’d never last long at those jobs. I just got bored really fast.”
Despite her initial success selling her bead work, Chantrell said life got in the way of her artistic interests. Married in her mid 20’s, she eventually moved to Calgary.
“I’m someone who always likes to make things,” Chantrell said, which lead her to attending the Alberta College of Art and Design.
Though she thought about taking courses on painting, Chantrell had heard good things about the jewelry and metalsmithing program and chose to take that instead.
“I learned everything I needed there,” she said. “When I graduated… I wasn’t even making jewelry my last year. No, I was doing huge wall pieces of oil paintings with digital imaging and metal work in it.”
Though that kind of multimedia work remains something Chantrell is interested in, she said moving to Qualicum Beach about four years ago prompted her to begin her own jewelry business.
“I thought, ‘Oh, why should I get a job? I’ve got all this training behind me.’ So I started making jewelry,” she said.
To this day, Chantrell likes to use simple equipment to create impressive pieces of wearable art.
“Everything starts off as a sheet or wire,” said Chantrell of the sterling silver that she works with.
Ideas for new pieces come from a three-inch thick binder if designs Chantrell has put together over the years, or is inspired by a particularly unique stone, or just arrives as Chantrell works.
“A lot of times I’ll come here and not have any idea at all, I’ll just start playing around and just start making things.”
Designs can then be cut out with nippers or pierced with extremely thin, toothed blades, hammered, soldered, twisted, filed and oxidized to create anything from a ring to a bangle, bracelet, earrings, pendants and more.
“Everything is hand fabricated,” said Chantrell.
Some of her designs are silver renderings of nature, like Ginkgo and Salal leaves, though she said her own artistic tendency is towards more modern designs.
As a working artist, Chantrell’s time is split between creating things that she believes will sell, and following her own artistic interests.
She said she’s hoping to do some work in titanium and niobium, and to create more artistic pieces in the coming year.
“I like jewelry and paintings that have a bit of an edge to them, and I like them to have some kind of meaning rather than just a pretty thing,” said Chantrell.
In the back of her mind, she’s also thinking about those large multimedia pieces she did in Alberta, and has hopes of doing some more of that work as well.