Forest Park artist and jeweler creates high-concept work from found objects

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By JEAN LOTUS

In the world of Forest Park artist Elaine Luther, coincidence plays a starring role.

"I found this broken car glass on the street and I swept it up. It stayed on my work bench for years and years until I finally found a place for it," she said.

The detritus of life can be made sacred through art, she believes.

Luther is displaying her mixed-media paintings in the lobby at Classic Cinemas North Riverside through the movie chain's local artist program. Canvases are shellacked with recipe cards from estate sales, letters and postcards, quilt squares and pieces of vintage sewing patterns - which she says are a comment on female body image.

"Patterns are so bossy. They're always saying things like 'cut to unfold,' telling you where the darts go and how to be."

Luther, who teaches at the Marwen Institute in Chicago, is primarily a jeweler, and is trained as an appraiser. An avid thrift store shopper, she gets a kick out of casting doll shoes, tiaras and other plastic toys in silver or platinum. She also creates buttons, beads and tchotchkes with precious metal clays.

But lately, as a home-schooling, stay-at-home mom of two daughters and a son, ages 13 to 4, she finds it harder to use her blowtorch, stamps, awls, silicone molds and 20-ton hydraulic press.

"I'm working on painting more," she said, standing in her home studio, blocked off by a baby gate.

"Before I had kids, I had lots of time, but nothing to say. Now, with three kids, I have no time, but I have something to say, and I'm not afraid," she said.

Castaway trash can also open a window into the deepest of human experiences.

In a Day of the Dead shrine for her fourth daughter, Sophia, who died in 2005 at age one, Luther carefully lined up 13 disposable plastic oral syringes. Her husband, a painter, photographer and social worker, is of Mexican descent, so the shrine honors that heritage.

By a set of painful coincidences, she and her family experienced the deaths of eight people - family members, friends and an infant - in less than a year.

"Tragedy makes you more compassionate," she said simply. Still, death makes Americans extremely uncomfortable. "It's very taboo to talk about, especially the death of a child," she said.

"Making the shrine was like spending more time with her."

Luther's other more serious pieces have included medals for awards you didn't want to receive. These were displayed at Chicago's Harold Washington Public Library's Incubator Project in May.

"The contest was to create medals for your secret identity, but I misinterpreted that as medals you would have in secret, that you wouldn't want to [publicly] earn."

Her Disappointment medal is engraved with the words "I expected more of myself by now." Her Some Gave All medal features a silver-cast doll leg in honor of veteran amputees and her Mothers of Dead Children medal features a silver-cast tiny doll. Each was attached to a black ribbon, each with a tiny rip in the Jewish tradition of mourning.

And the shattered auto glass? It is attached to Never Recovered, a medal for surviving a car crash.

"I don't make art jewelry just to be pretty, because what's the point of that?" she said. "The handmade jewelry market is over-saturated and unbelievably competitive."

She has given talks on art history and home schooling at Forest Park Public Library, she writes an active blog and gives talks on "time management for artists."

"I quit Facebook," the busy mother, jeweler, painter and teacher said. "I realized all that time on the computer, I could be applying for [art] shows."

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