LANDMARK — Valentine’s Day is practically upon us, so let’s kick things off with a yarn sure to warm your pulmonary arteries.
Gimli resident Pat McCallum was attending a craft show in her community a few months back when she happened upon a booth belonging to Gail Penner, an artist whose area of expertise is fashion jewelry made out of upcycled cutlery. McCallum learned that in addition to marketing her own, one-of-a-kind creations, Penner also accepts custom orders from people who want a prized knife or fork transformed into a necklace or pair of earrings.
Don’t go anywhere, she told Penner, before rushing home to fetch what remained of a set of silverware she received as a wedding gift in 1968.
“After discussion with her she made me 10 beautiful bracelets that I am giving to my nieces and other special people in my life,” McCallum reports. “Each bracelet has been individually designed for each recipient. For example, one for a family friend who I often refer to as my ‘adopted’ daughter has blue beads and a special charm (which) she is going to wear when she gets married as something old and something blue.”
McCallum is thrilled her old silverware, which had been gathering dust in a basement cupboard, has been given a new lease on life. She adds that she hopes her loved ones think of her when they don theirs, in the years ahead.
Penner, 60, was born and raised in Landmark, located “26 minutes” east of Winnipeg. When she was three years old, her parents were involved in a horrific car crash that killed three of her seven brothers. Twenty-six minutes was how long it took relatives to ferry her to St. Boniface Hospital, where her mother and father spent weeks recovering from the accident, she explains.
She and her surviving siblings were raised as Holdeman Mennonites, a conservative sect named for founding leader John Holdeman (1832 – 1900) that eschews modern conveniences such as television, radio and, according to church literature, “improper use of the internet.” Also, attending school past Grade 9 is rare for girls, an edict that didn’t sit well with Penner.
“You’re basically expected to get married and start having rugrats, which never would have worked for me. I don’t cook, I’m not much for cleaning; my poor kids wouldn’t have survived,” Penner, who never married and lives in a home two doors down from the one she grew up in, says with a chuckle.
She didn’t have her parents’ permission but after getting her driver’s licence at age 16, she completed high school in nearby Steinbach, where she became one of two graduating students to receive a scholastic scholarship from the University of Winnipeg.
For someone who wasn’t even supposed to attend high school, Penner ended up doing quite well for herself, earning a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, to go along with four masters degrees.
OK, here’s a question: how does a person go from being a cancer research scientist at the University of Cincinnati, where she helped pen dozens of articles for various medical journals during her 20 years there, to transforming utilitarian objects into all manner of bling?
The answer to that begins when she was in her early 20s, and purchased a used camera from a family friend. (Cameras are also verboten if you’re a Holdeman Mennonite, she points out, adding she, along with her parents, now both deceased, and an assortment of cousins were excommunicated from their church years ago.)
Around her university schedule, she enrolled in a beginner’s photography class that was being taught at a camera shop on Portage Avenue. She dabbled with the hobby on and off and at one point during her time in Ohio, she was invited to display some of her work at a neighbourhood Starbucks. To her amazement, six of her photographs, all winter scenes, sold. That settles it, she told herself; when her postdoctoral position ended in 2006, she would return to Landmark, and devote her full attention to becoming a professional photographer.
“I make 10 different (keychains) and ‐ surprise, surprise ‐ the middle–finger one is always my most requested.” – Gail Penner
“Let’s just say it came as a bit of a shock that — lo and behold — I wasn’t able to make ends meet just by selling photos,” she says, taking a sip of her Coke.
One of her brothers has an earth-moving business and for a while she helped him out by driving a grader. (“Why, thank you,” she says, when we compliment her on her ultra-varied resumé.)
Everything started to change for her in an artistic sense, however, when she was visiting a gift shop in B.C. and spotted a grasshopper fridge magnet that had been made out of what appeared to be an old fork. Now that’s interesting, she thought. Faster than you can say Uri Geller, Penner began bending and manipulating pieces of cutlery she had sitting around the house, utilizing what she calls the science part of her brain to problem-solve and, over time, design her own set of tools.
It’s not like she was re-inventing the wheel, she stresses. People all over the world have been creating jewelry and whatnot out of cutlery for years; in fact, spoon rings, among her bestsellers, reportedly date back to the Middle Ages, when servants short of resources would often pilfer a spoon from their employer, and use it to craft an engagement or wedding ring for their sweet baboo.
What sets her handiwork apart, she believes, is an acute attention to detail combined with a side of snark. Spread out on the table to her left is an assortment of keychains she made by bending individual tines to resemble a peace sign, an I-love-you sign… even a Vulcan salutation, with the tines parted between the middle and ring “fingers.” Yes, passers-by often have a what-the-fork look on their face, when they realize what her trinkets are made from, she says.
“I make 10 different (keychains) and — surprise, surprise — the middle-finger one is always my most requested.”
In addition to craft shows and pop-up markets, Penner’s wares are available year-round at a number of spots around the province, including Lagasse’s Studio of Fine Arts in Souris, Inspire Studio in Minnedosa and Selkirk’s Gwen Fox Gallery. When she’s not busy preparing for shows or fielding orders from as far away as the United States and Europe through her website, she can be found combing thrift stores and second-hand shops for flatware and sterling silver to add to the hundreds of kilograms of “stuff” currently stored in her two-car garage.
Very little goes to waste, she says, noting if something is nigh-on impossible to bend owing to how thick the plating is, she’ll gleefully use it to make wind chimes or Christmas tree ornaments instead.
Along with forever thinking of what to render next, Penner is presently tossing around ideas for a fresh moniker.
Through Glass Images, the tag she’s operated under for a little over 10 years, is a direct reference to her penchant for taking photos of flowers posed behind panes of stained glass. She’s hoping to come up with a more suitable handle, something better related to her jewelry, which has definitely become her bread and butter.
“I have a few things I’ve been bouncing around, so we’ll see what I ultimately settle on,” she says, admitting she could probably try a little harder when she’s naming her output, too.
“Maybe that’s me being more a scientist than an artist, but no, I haven’t been too creative in that regard. This (bracelet), for example, I call, ‘the one with lots of beads.’ This other one is ‘stones across the wrist.’ Pretty pathetic, huh?”
For more information go to Through Glass Images on Facebook.
If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism. BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.