The entryway to Sylvia Youell’s home – a space neatly outlined with glass display cases – acts as her personal gallery, Sylvercroft Studio, nestled in a forest near Sister Bay. On the walls of that space hang laminated clippings from various newspapers, profiling Youell and her work, while the cases hold a variety of necklaces, bracelets, and pendants. A few pieces of jewelry contain colored stones, others contain sea shells, and some are made completely from the material Youell has made a life out of studying, manipulating, and teaching about: silver.
Past the gallery, in a corner of the home is her workshop, a space lined with plastic tool organizers, small Rubbermaids, and a series of varying wooden-handled hammers. On a shelf that wraps around half the room, beneath a large window revealing the green forest, is a dust buster, Jelly Belly dispenser, WD-40, a small box of shells, a hydraulic press made from a car jack, white paper with pencil drawings of various jewelry, along with sheets and pieces of silver.
The array of materials strewn about the workspace beg the question, where does one even begin? For Youell, it was “Art Metals,” a class she took as an undergraduate at UW-Madison, saying “The minute I took that class, I was hooked. I took all kinds of metal classes. I learned basic skills then moved on to learning different techniques.”
She became a high school teacher in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, and began to use her Door County home as a summer gallery in 1977. When she retired in 1992, she became a full-time Door County resident.
“I like Door County,” she says. “It’s like a secret you don’t want to tell too many people about.”
Youell has no qualms, however, about sharing her skills when it comes to art metals. Since 1982, she has been teaching at the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek.
“They wanted a silversmith and a friend of mine said, ‘you should do this!’” explains Youell. “They didn’t have much for art metals at that point, so I carted over my gear.” Since then, the department has grown and the school now has its own metal room and facilities.
Youell teaches basic classes for beginners as well as intermediate classes which focus on special techniques. She describes many of her students as “people close to retirement age. People who thought, ‘I always wanted to try that.’” She continues, “The school is a wonderful place, a marvelous school.”
As for utilizing Youell’s skills and techniques to create her own pieces, she finds inspiration by a variety of means, including elements of drawing and design.
“If I use a stone, I look at the stone and try to decide what is going on,” she says. “I try to imitate the stone’s lines and abstract nature through the silver. When I see commercial jewelry, production line jewelry, they just have a stone hanging there. You have just wasted a stone!”
Youell also finds inspiration in those that came before her, as is evident from the bookshelf packed with various books about art metals and jewelry along the wall of her living room.
“It’s fun to look at history,” Youell states before explaining the inspiration for today’s safety pin. “Romans needed to pin their togas, so they used fibulas – like a safety pin – and wanted to make them pretty.”
Just as Youell may borrow inspiration from the past, current fashions or trends may also inspire her, influencing different lines and shapes in her work.
“Jewelers are inspired by other industries and adapt them,” she says. “They look at things, like corrugated cardboard, and think ‘let’s try that with metals.’” But above all in her own work and in her teaching, Youell stresses a realist approach to any piece.
“You need to do some engineering, to understand how you will put it together,” she says. “What will the steps be? You must ask yourself, ‘How will it be used? Where will it be used?’ It’s like a dress pattern.”
Aside from considering how technically to create a piece, one must also consider weight. Demonstrating with a pendant pinned to her yellow polo, Youell says, “You don’t want a pendant to be so light it looks like tinfoil, or to be so heavy that it pulls at your clothing.”
Using silver, Youell’s medium of choice, she can afford to experiment and create larger, elaborate pieces without drastically increasing the price.
“Silver is cheaper than gold,” Youell explains. “Goldsmiths have to make small pieces, while silversmiths can do a bit more. Silver is never lost.”
Recently, Youell began working with a new kind of sterling silver, Argentium. Unlike standard sterling silver, which contains copper and therefore is susceptible to tarnishing, Argentium contains geranium and alloy and will not tarnish.
Jewelry buyers may no longer have to worry about tarnish, but they will always find a stamp distinguishing Youell’s work.
“I tell all my students to stamp their artwork,” she says. “It is a potential heirloom!”
Sylvia’s artwork can be found at Woodwalk Gallery in Egg Harbor, Clay Bay Pottery located north of Sister Bay, and Sylvercroft Studio located at 1848 Highway ZZ in Sister Bay. For more information, call Sylvercroft Studio at 920.854.2789 or the Peninsula Art School at 920.868.3455.