Nonfiction: Helena Writes #65_On jewelry-making and stepping into the cloud

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 65th post, Helena remembers Camp Fernwood, where she taught jewelry-making to teenage girls just before her father’s passing. Enjoy!


Solder: The summer I was 24

It was a mountain to climb, teaching fifty girls to transform sheet silver into their visions of rings and pins and bracelets. I’ve always bitten off big pieces of life, on instinct and a voracious appetite to understand something I somehow knew I could do—step into the cloud, flounder around until I find my footing and am equal to it. I needed complexity to make order of. I never doubted I could do that.

I had just finished a year of studying silver jewelry making, my last year at Pratt. I’d made a ring, with a cabochon piece of quartz set into a silver chased cup, joined, soldered, to a doubled band, silver wire, extruded to be square. I wanted a ring that imitated the gold ring, set with a green peridot cabochon, as beautiful as emerald, worn by my teacher, Judith Reese.  In the process of soldering that gold ring, she’d told us, the gold cup shifted, and was crooked. She could have undone that, soldered it again, but she left it the way it had moved, pushed off axis by the thrust of the propane flame. I admired Judy, she encouraged us to call her by that familiar name. I loved her class.

Part of my job that summer, the summer I was hired to teach at the camp in Maine, was to order, in the months before camp began, the silver, the stones, and the tools I’d need for my classes. I went to Tandy, in the city, the place, I’d learned from my father, was the place to order all my supplies. Tandy was a name spoken often by my father, who ordered supplies for his own classes there. I feel the sense of home when I say it now, when I write it here. I can hear my father’s voice, his Brooklyn accent, speaking it—Tandy. My father and I met in what I divine as the center of ourselves, our feelings, and we met in tools, crafting, making something beautiful from raw materials, something from nothing, something of substance, that could reflect the order inherent in things, from the beautiful semi-precious stones, labeled and wrapped carefully in white folded paper, the sterling silver, the pliers, the ring mandrels, the hammers, the files, the propane torches, the pencils, the paper, the erasers, that would be strewn in chaos on work tables, until all those things were put back into their places on shelves in the plywood closets at the end of a work day, and padlocked.

The girls that came to the wooden camp shack, up the three steps, into that space that sat all winter, and now smelled, damp, fecund, pregnant, with all that would materialize within those plywood walls, the visions that would come into being there—they, those girls did make the jewelry of their dreams, jewelry they might have thought was beyond their capacity to realize.

A painted sign hung above the door of that camp shack, a place that felt familiar to me from other camps I’d been to, every summer since I was a child—we were a camp family, my father was a teacher, paid for his summers off, but, like me, someone who needed to work, needed to teach—a teacher by vocation. The sign read, Jewelry, made for this particular summer, the course offered for the first time at Camp Fernwood, someone’s idea. They’d found me or I’d found them through Pratt. Those girls, 11- to 16-year olds, did make jewelry that summer, jewelry so complex that I wonder if anyone but me would have blundered their way through that kind morass to reach the mastery we reached that year.

I asked my students to draw on paper the things they wanted to make and we designed them, sorting out the steps to construct them three dimensionally, from flat silver, silver wire, and the stones they chose from the carefully folded and labeled packets I’d picked out at Tandy.

The level I had to function on took a lot of talking, explaining. It pulled me up and it pulled up my young students, the thing teaching wants to do. Pulled us all to a level we could never have experienced had I possessed the gift of sequential thinking. Then I would never have undertaken this thing, a thing like the one my mother called, about me going back to Pratt and graduating, after dropping out to have my daughter, “a Herculean task.” But I knew it could be done, and I wanted to implement the dreams of my students. And so we worked hard.

I came to love those girls and sometimes felt a moment of their admiration. I was leading them into deep waters and they were discovering their own capacities. After a week of speaking so many words in the service of explaining what we had to do, I sat at the head of the table in the dining room, one evening, where some in that group sat, and requested a silent meal, so I could rest my voice and my mind from all the labor that the work we were doing required. The girls at my table respected my request, and we ate silent meals for the next day and a half.

Loving the campers was the given. We were in sync. I wasn’t, after all, that much older than they were. I could have passed for one of them, had I worn a camp uniform.

Not so with the senior staff and with the administration. Camp rules didn’t interest me; more accurately, they didn’t register. They sailed right over my nonlinear, visual-thinking head.

It seemed an impossibility for me to dress in camp uniform, dark green shorts and a white polo shirt—the name Fernwood silkscreened in green capital letters. I did concede at times, and wore white shorts and a green polo shirt. But I mostly wore my own clothes, short, knitted skirts and tank tops, young, leggy and defiant. I must have known this would eventually count me out of the club of Fernwood Camp. I was an artist, managing the complex task of hammering and bending and polishing to high sheen, silver jewelry, real jewelry, not wire wrapped around stones or bead stringing, but building pieces of sterling silver and opal, garnet, tourmaline, that could have been sold in a gallery, passing that practice to the girls who came to that jewelry shop on its grassy hill. I knew in my bones I wouldn’t be invited back.

Early in the summer, in the first week, it might have been before the campers arrived, I’d run up against a problem. I couldn’t get the silver solder to melt. I’d done it for a year at Pratt. A propane torch, flux, painted onto the silver with a brush, so the solder would flow and join the two silver surfaces. I held the torch to the solder, but it didn’t liquefy! I panicked. I wondered if it was the altitude; Maine was not Brooklyn. I called my father. He had taught jewelry. I have his tools, “J. Steinberg” lettered in his hand in black ink, on all of them. No cell phones then, I crossed campus to the only pay phone, outside the camp office. I put in my dime to get the operator. I must have reversed the charges, called “collect.”  I heard the phone ring in Queens, where my parents lived by then, and at last, my father’s gravelly voice at the other end. I wonder if I wanted to cry. I know his voice brought relief, like waking from a bad dream. He was my tether, the rope, I think now, that I pulled myself along with, hand over hand.

“Daddy,” I said. “I can’t get the solder to melt!” Maybe I talked about the altitude; I only remember—a lifetime ago—waiting for his answer.

“Hold the heat to it,” he said. “Hold it there until it melts.”

So simple. Hold the flame to the solder until it melts. I didn’t know my father would be gone by October. I didn’t know that those words he spoke that day on the telephone would become a mantra I’d find again, floundering alone in the clouds, trying to make sense of things—struggling to find a foothold up there in the sky where I have always lived.

Hold the flame to the solder until it melts—until the silver pieces are joined to make one shining thing I could wear on my finger, or pin to my striped, knitted red tank top, and wear, like a badge.


Did you go to summer camp, either as a camper or a counselor or instructor? Do you make art with materials other than words? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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I love this piece Helena. I felt like I was sitting in your class making a beautiful ring. I think the wisdom from your father about holding it there till it melts is universal. We can share our words and gifts but they will only resonate when we add enough heat to make our words true and clear and polished.

What a touching and heart warming story! What an impact you made on those young girl’s lives and theirs on yours. What a unique experience. Your essay is rich with sensory details.

What I love best though is the relationship and closeness you had with your Dad. I love these lines: “I know his voice brought relief, like waking from a bad dream. He was my tether, the rope, I think now, that I pulled myself along with, hand over hand.” I, too, was close to my dad and found your words to be a wonderful way to express how I felt about him, as well. Thanks for sharing!

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