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Washington Neighborhoods
The Arts: Jewelry maker creates art to wear

Sunday, June 15, 2003

By Dave Zuchowski

In honor of this month's Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, I thought it would be a good idea to feature in my column a Washington County artist taking part in the prestigious annual event in Pittsburgh. A quick phone call to the festival's public relations department turned up the name of Michelle Sabol, 34, of Washington.

Not only is Sabol a highly regarded jeweler, but her variegated career has taken her to Minnesota, where she studied sculpture, drawing and painting at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and to San Francisco State, where she enrolled in the general film studies program and produced, wrote and directed many short films.

Oh yes, she's also a published poet, she's written a play and she's done extensive work in theater, including a stint as stage manager and actress at the Olin Fine Arts Center from 1984-86. She also apprenticed at the Little Lake Theatre in North Strabane during that time.

I met Sabol in Washington in her studio-residence where she lives and works next to a gorgeous old house owned by her mother. The dynamism evident in her rather short career came across in conversation. It proved a very animated, information-packed interview.

In Los Angeles in 1998, Sabol had a been working as an assistant to a producer and director in the film industry, a job she said "took her to the edge" because she felt she was a little too artsy and independent to fit well in the studio system. A better career fit was soon on its way.

"One day, a friend cajoled me into going with her to the jewelry district, and I was immediately drawn in," she said. "During my first visit, I bought a couple of strands of semiprecious stones to make Christmas jewelry for my family."

After her friend showed her how to do basic jewelry craft such as attaching crimp and stringing beads, Sabol started going to the big international gem and jewelry shows. She went from buying $50 worth of beads to purchasing big orders worth $2,000 at a pop.

"As I worked on my jewelry, I realized that I had an affinity for a creative outlet that let me apply my art to an economically viable enterprise," she said.

Sabol's early success marketing her jewelry at funky, mid-level boutiques soon helped her graduate to more expensive, higher-end couture stores that feature cutting-edge designers.

Under the label Memphis George, a pseudonym she adopted in her previous film work, her jewelry has been featured in the Jennifer Kaufman emporium at the Beverly Center in L.A. Some of it also made its way into the private collections of Raquel Welch and Kim Hunter (the West Coast editor of W Magazine), and her designs were selected to appear in Women's Wear Daily, a fashion trade magazine.

Because her burgeoning jewelry business gives her the flexibility to travel, she moved back to her native Washington. She uses it as a home base to travel to places such as Florida, Rhode Island, Ohio, California and New York and market her jewelry in galleries and boutiques.

During our conversation, Sabol showed me some of the materials she uses in her creations -- Russian amazonite, yellow jasper, pink opal, blue lace agate and Swarovski crystals. Even more interesting items came out of other boxes.

To supplement her more standard materials, Sabol also uses found objects in her jewelry designs, scouring the woods and meadows for seed pods and sticks, pheasant and turkey feathers. A day before my visit, she toured the swap meet at The Meadows and bought several '60s plastic miniature space men and small glass radio tubes she plans use in her designs some day.

"I collect an amazing variety of things and keep them around until I'm in the right frame of mind to use them in my work," she said.

When I asked if I could see some of her finished pieces, she led me to a door that connected to her showroom. Once inside, I was as awestruck by the visual splendor of the hanging glass lanterns, the walls painted lime green, chartreuse and rust, and the bright gold, orange and rust colored throw rug spread atop a red carpet.

The real treat came when I looked inside her display cases and saw neck pieces and bracelets, rings and breast shields made of sea bamboo, fake fur, leather, bougainvillea stems, beads in a multitude of shapes, colors, and sizes, and more -- all often tied together with gold or silver wire.

Locally, Sabol's jewelry has been shown at the Three Rivers Arts Festival for the past three years. The past two times she's appeared, her artistry's been ranked in the top 15 percent by a panel of festival judges. When asked what it was about her work that made it so distinctive, she readily explained.

"My jewelry is non-technology based, and every piece is one of a kind. I design wearable art that I create from my eclectic findings, improvising my sculpture-like pieces with only a roughly drawn idea as a framework. My jewelry creates an immediate response and makes my customers stand out in a crowd. That's why they often return for more."

Michelle Sabol will be at the Three Rivers Arts Festival through tomorrow. To arrange a private showing in her showroom, call 724-263-0960 or e-mail her at msmemphis68@hotmail.com. To learn more, visit her Web site at memphisgeorge.com

Dave Zuchowski is a freelance writer who covers arts and entertainment for Washington Sunday. He can be reached by e-mail at: owlscribe@yahoo.com.

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