Teaching Jewelry at Sedge Island Natural Resource and Education Center
I arrived at 4pm on a Friday...
The sky was overcast and it was spitting on my fresh new storage bins I got from Home Depot the day before. I quietly prayed they were water tight enough to protect the precious cargo inside. I also hoped I remembered to bring everything.
The staff of Sedge greeted me and helped with all the gear. I was so thankful to be able to arrive the night before all the students, so I could get acquainted with the space, and plan out the workshop area.
A 15 minute pontoon ride brought us out to the cabin on the island. It was mystical in the fog, and a bit enchanting from the dimming light over the marsh. Upon entering the cabin porch you are surrounded by windows on 3 sides with marsh views, and a straight shot to Barnegate Light. The next room is the living room/library which holds a collection of historical images, a bookshelf of specimens from the bay, plus scientific books and field guides. I learned of the history of Sedge, and how Teddy Rosevelt and Babe Ruth were regulars out at the old duck hunting lodge for catered weekend trips. The middle of the cabin is a long hallway of bunk rooms on either side. Towards back of the building you find the dining room and kitchen, which grants access to a side deck and the two Clivus Multrum out houses. Yes, the famous composting toilet system! Since Sedge is only open for half of the year, during the off season, the waste breaks down in the holding tank and does not need to be taken off island to a waste facility.
After dinner and learning how to tie my first fishing lure/jig made from dyed buck tail, I set out a few sets of my own tools to teach my new friends how to make a little silver stacking ring. This allowed me to practice using all the new tools before the main students arrived tomorrow. We set up on the porch picnic tables overlooking the marsh as the sun went down.
The next morning I woke up to coffee and the sunrise through the misty clouds and began organizing the workshop tools on the big wooden dinner table. This 15ft table is original to the cabin, and either was built inside the cabin, or the cabin was built around it, as no one can figure how it fit through the doorways!
At 8:30am I hopped on the pontoon to pick up the first group of students and was pleasantly greeted by some familiar faces, both customers and friends of mine that were so eager about the next 24 hours ahead, that it calmed my nerves and I was instantly so excited to make some new friends too.
Months of planning, testing and hoping went into this idea, born from a marine biologist and a jewelry artist. Mae Skrba, biologist and educator for NJ Fish & Wildlife, reached out and asked me if I would be interested in being the honored guest teacher - on a remote island full of life and wonder, for an overnight retreat, in a historic duck hunting lodge. It’s solar powered, it’s low impact, it’s amongst the marsh and it was all me, and I jumped at the opportunity. After all, this was something new and exciting and I’ve never seen it done before. Jewelry in the marsh?!
I planned out the project to be inspired by the natural landscape of the marsh, growing up visiting NJ beach towns I was very familiar with the look I wanted. Using various hammers and files, I plotted a series of Salt Marsh Rings and let the students decide what pattern and imagery spoke to them the most so that each unique person could make a unique ring.
I was interested to learn about the students in the workshop, some were artists, some were in the science field. All of them loved nature, and this was the glue that bonded our time spent together. Science and Art aren’t so different if you really break it down, often they are harmonious when fused together in a common theme.
Everything was taken care of, from the fun and educated staff as our tour guides through the marsh, to our private chef who taught us how to shuck our foraged clams. We kayaked, bird watched, hiked, foraged and fished. Plus there was the bonus of some basic metallurgy and alchemy. It was SO. MUCH. FUN! I cannot wait to do it again.
For the first day of the students experience on Sedge we began with a tour of the island by kayak. Our brave and educated guides brought us to the different nesting sites on the marsh were peregrine falcons and osprey reside. One of the osprey posts that was put up only 5 days before, already had a pair Osprey nesting. The area was filled with life all around us. We got out onto the marsh and hiked the sedge grasses to learn about the multitude of flora and fauna that can be found, some of it edible like the pickle weed that tasted just like a pickle!
My favorite was the fiddler crabs scurrying across my toes as we stood and listened to the bubbling, chirping and sifting of the marsh. We felt water and air temperature changes as we walked through different marsh elevations and went for mud baths in the brackish pools that held about 2 feet of nutrient rich, detritus muck.
Upon return I explained some of the process with a light jewelry demo as lunch was being prepared, a gorgeous charcuterie spread - buffet style. I wanted the students to understand a few processes and options for finishing their rings before diving in, I wanted their experience on the marsh to cultivate their designs. After lunch we learned about ReClam The Bay, who owns a plot of clam habitats that Sedge staff and visitors are allowed to forage from. We walked out the back deck and into the waters and caught about 300 clams in under an hour with just our toes and a few clam rakes. After dumping the lot up on the beach to talk about size, age and the clamming project, we held up our fingers on how many clams we would eat and tossed the rest back out into the bay. Mae gave us a demo on shucking and clam anatomy and we learned how the quahog is one of the many mollusk filters the bay needs to remain clean and habitable for all the creatures that call it home.
Dallas, a young knowledgeable intern put an observation tank together for us to get a closer look at some of the specimens we discovered while we were clamming. We found a large Flat-clawed Hermit Crab within a Channelled Whelk shell, a sassy Spider Crab with an algae mohawk and a Bay Scallop with gorgeous blue eyes. We got to see and hold a live Moon Snail, a Purple Sea Urchin and observe miniature anemones living on an old oyster shell. I was ecstatic, these are the things I live for, learning and observing how the creatures of the sea live and survive. The Hermit was the highlight of my trip and I still think about him daily.
After all this stimulation we got to work at the old table, sizing our fingers, cutting our rings and beginning to texture and shape them. We spent about 3 hours working and talking about the many challenges in a simple task of making a silver ring, especially out of your element.
This whole experience came with many challenges that I loved figuring out. What was the bare minimum of tools I could bring for a class of 10 people? What is the best butane torch to use? Can I bring my mini buffing lathe? Where would I put my pickle pot!? (For those that don’t know, a pickle pot is a crock pot of mild acid solution for cleaning jewelry pieces after soldering with flux.)
Dinner was then served made from fresh tuna caught by the chef’s brother just a few days before. We ate our poke bowls and discussed our experiences of the day on the porch. Everyone was excited to finish their rings in the morning and was inspired and enlightened by the time on the marsh.
On Sunday we woke by conch horn and first light. We perched up on the overlook deck to watch the sunrise in brilliant orange and pink with our coffee and discussed life and creating. After an incredible breakfast we set off to the work table once more to finish our rings.
It is always exciting to share the ages old processes involved in making just one piece of jewelry. The surprise on my students faces is one of the many delights of teaching. Though jewelry making is precise and detail oriented, there are a multitude of tools and techniques needed to complete just a simple ring. I often say you’ll rarely get bored, since you are constantly changing pace, position, and focus. Like all craft, with practice you improve on your abilities. Craft is a skill that can be honed, artistry can come at anytime in the process. To be creative is a facet of what you make as a human, to be receptive of inspiration and then interpret or describe it in your chosen medium, whether it be in metals or words. Some of us even create art with food, others with our clothes. Art is available to anyone if you allow your natural ability to create out of your inspiration.
Things I learned at Sedge:
- Sedges have ledges, and diamond back terrapins hide under them!
- You can forage for pickleweed (salicornia) in the saltmarsh or buy it for $20lb at Trader Joe's!
- Female blue crabs mate with a male once in their lifetime, but she can store his genetics to continue to produce up to 18 different broods over the next 2 1/2 years of her life. Only 3 in each brood of 20k eggs reach maturity.
- Eel grass was used in the cushions of the old model T cars and insulation in many shoretown homes of the 1600s - 1900s due to its rot and fire resistance.
- Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal in the world, clocking in at over 200mph!
Please enjoy some of my favorite images from Sedge weekend taken by me, Mae and Susan Allen.
I plan to offer more retreats like this in the future so be sure you are on my newsletter for all save the dates!