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Where Tradition Meets Cutting Edge

By Ed Lawrence, Communications Director, Kentucky Arts Council

Did you know that people adorned themselves with jewelry made from animal parts as long as 30,000 years ago?

Did you know that as we enter the age of e-books, there are still books hand-printed on letterpresses just like Gutenberg's 1436 model?

Imagine an arts marketplace where you could meet artists who are practicing these ancient arts in very contemporary ways. Imagine a place where you can purchase paintings, prints, jewelry, wearable art, home decor, furniture and artisan foods along with books, CDs and DVDs. Well, imagine no longer. The Kentucky Arts Council presents Kentucky Crafted: The Market—where tradition meets cutting edge.

Literally cutting edge, because that's what Melissa Senetar does as she creates exquisite jewelry from wings cut from insects. While she has become an accomplished metalsmith in making cases for pendants and earrings, the real art (and science) is in creating resin and placing the wings to best illuminate nature's colors and abstract designs.

The resin is precisely mixed in a two part formula and then carefully poured as a backdrop for the delicately mounted wings. After a top coat of resin is added, the pieces are dried in a vacuum oven to preserve clarity and remove any bubbles and then precision die cut with a stamp especially designed and built for that purpose. With the strength of glass, the newly created gems of nature are mounted to produce earrings, necklaces and brooches.

The colors vary widely from the pinks and greens of giant grasshoppers from Madagascar to the oranges and browns of the Viceroy (Kentucky's state butterfly). Senetar does not use any endangered species. While she does buy some insects commercially, she mostly harvests her own, with occasional help from birds, bats and the grills of cars.

So how does someone with a Ph.D. in biochemistry become an artist with such a unique product? While completing her doctoral studies, her husband encouraged her to pursue a hobby to relieve her of the stress of research work. Senetar joined a local bead society and learned all about beads as well as experimenting with different beading techniques and even making beads—thus the genesis of her business name, PhBeaD. As she looked around at different ways to distinguish herself from other jewelry artists, she thought about how she loved pressed flower art and did a bit of experimentation.

In 2008, shortly after Senetar moved back to her native Kentucky, there were cicadas everywhere. Those lacey, luminescent wings inspired her to make jewelry, much like pressed flowers but with the wings of insects. With only one set of cicada wings left from the thousands she and friends harvested, she anxiously awaits the next year of the cicadas. But in the meantime she will continue to harvest some of the most beautiful wings Mother Nature creates.

While at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, you can also meet a man of letters, Gray Zeitz, the printer, publisher and owner of Larkspur Press. While studying at the University of Kentucky, Zeitz started the literary magazine "Hansel" and worked in the library as his student job. He learned that the library's director of special collections had a rare treasure, a working wooden hand press that was a replica of the original Gutenberg press. He apprenticed with her for three years in the art of letterpress printing and fell in love with the notion of combining great contemporary literature with the oldest traditions of printing.

He started with one letterpress and a drawer of type. The type drawer has compartments for each letter, yet they are not labeled. Gray knows where each letter is by memory, much like using a keyboard. There are very few foundries still producing type, so purchasing a new typeface costs about the same as a good used car. To set type, each metal letter and space has to be placed by hand in a metal form called a chase.

Once the chase is set, it goes into the press and is inked. In letterpress, the metal of the type prints directly into the paper. Any illustrations are printed with woodblocks, requiring additional feeds in the press. Elaborate, colored illustrations are created with a separate woodblock carving for each color, and the single sheet of paper has to be fed for each woodblock.

After the pages are printed and dried, they are assembled, folded and hand sewn into signatures at Larkspur Press by Leslie Shane and Carolyn Whitesel, who also bind the books. Each edition has a paperback version, a cloth-bound version and a limited special edition. These special collectors' editions are often printed on more exotic papers, using rare typefaces and handmade cover materials.

Because of the wealth of literature in Kentucky, Zeitz works almost exclusively with Kentucky authors. In the past four years, three Kentuckians have received the Yale Younger Poet awards. Kentucky's Nikky Finney won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Larkspur Press has published the work of six Kentucky Poets Laureate, either as individual books, broadsides or as part of an anthology. Gray chooses to publish local writers because he enjoys working closely with them. As a collaborative process, the final product is a blend of literary art, printing art and bookmaking art.

Make plans now to visit Grey Zeitz, Melissa Senetar and 150 other artists creating cutting edge work with time honored traditions of craft. Kentucky Crafted: The Market, at the Lexington Convention Center, Lexington, Ky., will be open exclusively to buyers from retail establishments on March 1 and 2. It will then open to the public on March 3 and 4. Detailed information is available at 1.usa.gov/Market2012.