By Their Hands Alone

Photos by Lawrence White

In Saratoga Springs, presentation is everything. Whether it’s horse racing at one of the world’s top sports venues and world-class performances at SPAC in summer, or packed crowds and musicians on Broadway for the Victorian Street Walk and First Night festivities in winter, Saratoga knows how to put on a show for locals and tourists alike.

In the midst of the celebrations, some area artists prefer to create quietly, away from the maddening crowd, and express themselves with wood, clay, cloth, glass, gold and silver. These are the artisans of Saratoga, the craftspeople with a unique vision and a passion for getting their hands dirty and creating something that residents and visitors will remember. Not to mention something they can take home with them.

Here are just a few of the area artists whose work you can see for yourself.

 

A unique rocking chair. by Thomas Wetzel.
Thomas Wetzel in his Middle Grove studio.

THOMAS WETZEL

Like most people working in his craft, woodworker Tom Wetzel has a passion for the past. Unlike most of them, however, he’s still able to pursue this passion, working out of his own studio off the back of his home along Lester Lane in Middle Grove.

After working for years as a custom homebuilder and carpenter, Wetzel eventually turned his attention to the self-taught creation of Windsor chairs, following an 18th-century method to recreate highquality examples of the style.

“I was interested in American history,” he says. “I started to do my own pieces. I was drawn by the simpleness of the American Windsor; it’s very light and meant to be moved around the house. It’s a beautiful form. And I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to go that route, wherever it took me.”

Where it took him is to membership in the Northeastern Woodworkers Association, through which he displays his pieces in shows around the country, and teaches at schools in addition to the lessons he holds in his shop. Wetzel is aware, however, that he is one of the lucky ones in his field.

“Someone should write about craftsmen who aren’t making it,” he says. “The times have become so tough on them. The economy has a huge amount to do with it. It leaves us all a little fearful. People like myself don’t have a pension to fall back on, don’t have a job to go to. They have to be more creative. It’s very hard for many people.”

Part of Wetzel’s fear for the future of his craft is the lessening ability to pass down the skills needed, as fewer people are encouraged to do it. He cites the 2008 financial collapse as a  discouraging event for craftsmen struggling to make ends meet.

Despite the injury done to the business, however, Wetzel is determined to keep moving forward with his craft and to continue teaching the necessary skills.

“I’m teaching the continuous arm designs and youth chairs for ages three to five,” he says. “I’ll be teaching five students in my shop, and everyone will go home with the chair. When you’re creating new forms with it and you don’t know where it’s going, you can think about it all you want. You’re usually wrong, and you don’t know until you get there.

“It’s all about the tiny details. No one detail is going to make the piece. They all work together. It’s similar to what Mark Twain said: ‘The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.’ There’s so many people interested in woodworking. It’s fun, and I’m looking for any way to bring them in.”

Thomas Wetzel   |   21 Lester Lane, Middle Grove   |   (518) 605-0541   |   thomaswetzelwindsorchairs.com

 

Dennis deJonghe in his Broadway store.
Susan Genco soldering at deJonghe’s studio.
A custom yellow gold brooch accented with diamonds and pearls, created by deJonghe’s Original Jewelry.

DENNIS DEJONGHE

Since 1975, Dennis deJonghe has been designing and fashioning his own unique brand of jewelry composed of gems set in precious metals. Since 1982, his shop on Broadway has provided patrons with some of the most stunning handcrafted accessories in Saratoga, from earrings and necklaces to wedding bands. The shop is also known for its Saratogainspired pieces, engraved with iconic images such as Thoroughbreds, the racetrack and the Spirit of Life statue in Congress Park.

deJonghe finds that, even after his passion turned into a business, his heart and soul are still in the creation. “I was an art major, so I’ve always been influenced by the arts,” he says. “When I took jewelry, it fell in love with me. I loved the craft of it. Business became secondary. It’s still first and foremost the creation process, the artistic quality and integrity.”

Part of this integrity is a dedication to keeping green, and not just with emeralds. “I started with any materials I could afford,” he says. “Now I work exclusively in gold and platinum. All my metal is recycled. I’ll work with customers: They’ll come in with a shoebox from grandma, and I’ll recreate what they give me.

“I build relationships with different dealers from different areas. I know my sources, and one of the key words is ‘natural.’ I only work with natural gemstones. It’s a very important ingredient for me. For all my diamonds, I know the sources.”

Despite a tedious construction process, deJonghe says the finished product and the enthusiasm of his customers are worthwhile rewards. “It can be very a very dirty and gritty process,” he says. “You can always tell a true jeweler by looking at his fingers. The very rewarding part is seeing a final polished piece, and seeing someone who equally appreciates it as much as I do. But to get through that process the hard part is the beginning stage. You have to have a lot of patience.”

One of deJonghe’s goals as a custom jeweler is to create pieces that are not only high quality, but also affordable. “I think people recognize the sculpting of my work,” he says. “They recognize it’s different from what they see commercially, even just the style itself. The apprehension of some people is that it’s custom: it’s out of reach, or way too expensive. To have uniqueness and quality, it’s not something that should cost more: it’s something that should be expected. I’m very conscious of making pieces that are very affordable.”

Though deJonghe’s craft may have started as a solo pursuit, it has since evolved into a true family business as his daughter Sarah and son Evan have followed in his footsteps. “My kids grew up in the shop,” he says. “They not only played there, but ended up working in my studio. My daughter is in the jewelry trade in New York, so it’s something we’ve always supported. My son recently won an award for one of his pieces, and I was like, ‘Where’s your 10 years of rejection like I had?’ But he stays humble. Even through osmosis, my style has influenced them.”

deJonghe Original Jewelry   |   470 Broadway, Saratoga Springs   |   (518) 587-6422   |   djoriginals.com

 

Fishon-Kovachick at the Saratoga Clay Arts Center in Schuylerville.
Jill Fishon-Kovachick works on the pottery wheel.
Jill Fishon-Kovachick’s handmade clay artwork.

JILL FISHON-KOVACHICK

Ceramic artist Jill Fishon-Kovachick has loved and worked with clay since she learned the craft at age 11 at a summer camp in Connecticut. Pursuing her interest through high school, college at Skidmore and grad school at Vermont College, she eventually earned an MFA in Visual Arts and has taught a Continuing Education ceramics program at Skidmore for 17 years. When the school dropped the program from its curriculum in 2011, her students needed a way to continue their work. Discovering an old guesthouse along Hayes Road just off Route 29 in Schuylerville, she renovated it into the Saratoga Clay Arts Center. Since then, the center has become both a factory and home to the works of many aspiring and professional clay artists young and old, some of whom have had the chance to display their works in the center’s own gallery. For Fishon-Kovachick, the opportunity to share her passion with others is both a fulfilling and educational experience.

“What’s great about the center is that the area is full of clay artists,” she says. “We also bring in people from all over the country who do workshops for us and have national exhibits in our gallery. That part of business, for me, is very exciting. I get to learn from them, as well. It’s fantastic.”

Fishon-Kovachick’s passion for clay work stems from its uniquely wieldy nature, and many would attest to the near-biblical sight of watching a piece form beneath her hands on a pottery wheel. “The medium itself is so forgiving,” she says. “You can do just about anything with it. Clay is so tactic. The wheel centers me, puts me in a place where I’m focused. I love making one-of-a-kind pieces. They each have a theme, which is the cycle of life. Each piece can change with a simple gesture in the form.”

Given the way that clay has shaped her life, Fishon-Kovachick is eager to give the same opportunity to local youth and students. “I’ve had kids come up to me and say this is what they want to do,” she says. “I have a couple of high schools who have rented spaces, and kids are continuing their work. I was a kid and started young. For me, teaching people how to work with clay is the most rewarding part of this process. They don’t have a lot of it in the schools, so we can give that back to them.”

Saratoga Clay Arts Center  |  167 Hayes Road, Schuylerville   |   (518) 581-CLAY   |   saratogaclayarts.org

 

A table with a toy boat that Ray Faiola made for his grandkids;
Faiola with canoe paddles he created
A handcrafted canoe
detail of a wooden chest

RAY AND KIM FAIOLA

Ray Faiola is known around town for his 40 years of work as an electrical contractor. His wife, Kim, is the front-of-the-house manager of Mrs. London’s Cafe and Bakery, where she has worked for 17 years. In their off time, however, the pair serve as the production and business ends of their own woodworking trade, designing and selling products from tables and chests to breadboards and cheeseboards. After a time designing items for his family—from toy boats for his grandchildren to his own home on Brower Lane—Ray transitioned from hobby to business to supplement his electrician work as he enters semi-retirement. Even after entering the modern marketplace, however, the Faiolas’ work remains very traditional.

“I work in traditional joinery as opposed to modern techniques using nails and screws,” he says. “It’s an old-school way of doing things, and seeing that as something that we should bring back.”

The Faiolas remain old-fashioned in many respects. Their advertising is done purely through word of mouth, forgoing a website or online advertising. But in an increasingly mechanized age, it’s become more and more difficult for their craft to find its place.

“Manufacturing of furniture today has become completely mechanical,” says Ray Failoa. “The whole joinery process is gone.”

“We don’t mass-produce here in our shop. Maple and oak are two of the woods we’ve harvested from our own back yard,” says Kim Faiola. “There’s very little profit because of the hours of labor put into one piece of furniture.”

Even with the pressures of competing with the mass market, the Faiolas find the greatest satisfaction lies in pleasing their interested buyers, who vary from locals visiting their garage sales to collectors in England and Japan. And what these buyers all seem to have in common is a true appreciation for the art of the woodcraft.

“It’s the wood that people appreciate—and how it is used to create something beautiful,” she says. “Wood is so diverse: The forest all looks the same from a distance, but the diversity in it is incredible. We’re in awe of God’s creation. Ray’s works and his choices of wood are one of a kind.”

“Like Mrs. London’s,” she says, “it’s all about understanding what real food is like, and why to preserve something that is fading. Mrs. London’s is to Entenmann’s as hand-done woodworking is to mass production. We have such a passion for people to understand real woodworking, it takes little effort to try to sell it.”

“We all lose out when you don’t use your Godgiven gifts,” adds Ray.

Ray Faiola   |   15 Brower Lane, Saratoga Springs   |   (518) 584-6614   |   rkfaiola@gmail.com

 

Nancy Magnell creating a one-of-a-kind reverse glass painted lamp.

NANCY MAGNELL

In the world of independent artists, Nancy Magnell is a rarity. Operating out of her home on Liz Ann Drive in Saratoga, she’s a specialist in the art of reverse glass painting. Very few people in the country practice this artform, and even fewer use it to paint landscapes. Working initially on canvas, landscape painting has been her specialty since her 20s, when she replicated the works of Hudson River artists.

Born into an art-loving household, Magnell was inspired by her parents’ antiques collection, especially their set of painted Handel lamps. The craft dates back to 1876, when the Handel Lamp Company was founded by renowned manufacturer and artist Philip Julius Handel. Magnell decided this antique art style was her calling, and began teaching herself the art of reverse-painted lamps: a method involving painting on glass and then viewing the image from the other side. After a few years, she had mastered the technique and found her feet in the art world, making a name for herself by advertising her own unique style. Even in the thorny marketplace of independent art, her work has kept her self-employed for the past 14 years.

“I’ve developed a following,” she says. “People drove days to see my work. It’s been really humbling. People compare me to Handel. Some say I’m better. That’s very flattering to me, that people collect my work.”

Even in the small market for her particular craft, Magnell is keen on making her own style stand out. Sticking to her specialty in landscape painting, and using her own distinctive paint mixtures, Magnell creates works that reflect her own artistic vision. In developing this vision, she has often stepped out of her comfort zone and learned a few more tricks of the trade.

“I’ve trained myself to be an electrician,” she says. “I’d like to learn how to weld, to make iron work for myself. The hard part of being self-employed is I like to have control over all aspects of creation. I’d like to do all different styles, maybe get into painting some abstract work and getting away from the rigidity of landscapes. But I know I can’t do everything in one day.”

Ultimately, however, Magnell finds she is too creative, and too ambitious, to let pressures and time constraints slow her down. “I don’t see it ending,” she says. “I’ve got too many ideas.”

Nancy Magnell

Liz Ann Drive, Saratoga Springs   |   nancymagnellstudio.com   |   f i n e a r tame r i c a . c om/ p rof i l e s /nancy-magnell.html

 

Carol Conklin at work
A Batik tapestry by Carol Conklin

CAROL CONKLIN

In her small home along Route 40 in Fort Ann, Carol Conklin is a regular mythmaker. A longtime practitioner of the ancient Eastern art form known as Batik, Carol’s work involves the use of a variety of dyes and heated waxes laid on cloth in order to create stunningly vibrant and intricate portraits that glow in the light like nothing else, often depicting mythological imagery.

Discovering Batik in the ‘70s, when it and similar art forms such as tie-dye were popular, Conklin’s fascination with the craft prompted her to read up on it and teach herself the methods. Though intrigued and inspired by techniques from countries such as Bali and Indonesia, her preferred style is very much her own creation.

“I just love Batik,” she says. “I never got to Bali or Indonesia, or anywhere where they do Batik in mass production. I like to work with bleaching out of color, so dyes are translucent. I wouldn’t say I get my style from any of them. It’s more my own interpretation of Batik.”

Many of the creatures and images Conklin depicts in her work originate from classical mythology, including the goatish nature god Pan, the phoenix, centaurs, unicorns, the sea king Poseidon and the legendary horse, Pegasus. Some of her inspiration, however, comes from more modern mythology.

“Another thing that has inspired me is the Lord of the Rings books,” she says. “I was inspired by them in the ‘70s, but it’s only recently that I saw some of the drawings that Tolkien had done. I’m glad I didn’t see them first, or they would have been absorbed into my subconscious.”

Conklin met the other love of her life, her husband Richard, in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. Together they bought a farm in upstate New York at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains, where they remained for 28 years. Her time and experience there permanently influenced her work, and the landscapes and wildlife—including the llamas she still owns— have been preserved in the mythos of her work ever since. Conklin believes working with Batik has brought her in sync with nature.

“I enjoy painting with the wax,” she says. “I have to move fairly quickly when the wax is flowing. I have to flow with it. The way the wax flows reflects the wind and energy from the earth and the sky. I find it to be a beautiful art form, with qualities you can’t get any other way.”

Carol Conklin  |  8958 State Route 40, Fort Ann  |  (518) 642-9406  |  amityfarmbatik.com