'Beloved' exhibition features many metal jewelry pieces referring to artist's Amish, Mennonite heritage
ARCOLA – For years, Kristin Diener collected things that most people would discard — wisdom teeth, miniature scissors, candy wrappers. She eventually began to combine them in her art with precious materials and stones.
"I think of it as elevating the ordinary to the sacred, and often the objects created allude to reliquaries," she wrote in an artist's statement. "The relics may be mouse bones, a small plastic wrench, photographs, smashed bottle caps, Georgia dirt or a bit of cotton from Cotton Plant, Ark."
Most of her artworks are jewelry and other adornments that are not easily wearable yet come to life in their relationship to the body, she wrote. They come to life as well in the fascinating solo exhibition, "Beloved," on view through April 19, and possibly longer, at the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center in Arcola.
Diener's paternal grandfather, Ruben Diener, was from the Amish community in nearby Arthur, and her mother was Mennonite. Ruben Diener left the Amish community when he was 21, but Kristin Diener's family continued to regularly visit the Arthur area.
At a family reunion in 1997, Diener met her second cousin, Wilmer Otto, board president of the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center. Later, she contacted him about having an exhibition at the center.
"Although it could be said that my artwork and this installation would have a wider and 'more informed' audience in a metropolitan area, I am certain it is exactly where it is supposed to be," the artist wrote.
"Many of the pieces refer directly to my Amish and Mennonite heritage, some incorporating family or family-related objects. Many of these pieces I have held on to for years in order to view them all together and in context. To me, what could be more appropriate and fortunate than having a body of artwork installed so beautifully within the geographical, cultural and familial context of the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center."
The exhibition, curated by Katherine Bartel, an associate professor of art at Eastern Illinois University, features 30 pieces — all bold and elaborate necklaces, anti-war medals and ritual objects mainly of cut metal sheets on which Diener obsessively soldered bezels to hold tiny objects.
The lists of materials in some of her pieces are nearly as long as a poem. For example, "New Orleans & Alabama/Mississippi Gulf Coast Love Story: Loss & Lament: Fertility Reliquary II" (2005): sterling silver, fine silver, brass, eyeglasses, road atlas, antique buttons, beer-bottle caps, Route 66 guitar pick, newspaper fragment, photograph, fossil print, pearls, garnet, citrine, moonstone, mica, candy wrapper, resin, 1920s glass cabochons, beach pottery, silver bells, assorted stones, toy scissors and Plexiglass.
Bartel had cases built to hold the artworks, one of which is a tiara for which Diener said she was offered $1 million. She declined, wanting to keep and eventually see her pieces in context.
Displayed near the tiara is the whimsical "The Coast is Clear Eyeglasses for Divination of the Future," featuring artificial eyeballs in the appropriate places.
Diener, 47, was born in Normal. She attended first grade in New York. Then she and her family moved to Georgia. By 10th grade she had attended seven different public schools. She went to five universities and colleges, including Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Ohio. Her MFA is from Bowling Green State University.
She recently has shown her work in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Tucson, Ariz., among other places, and is one of the artists featured in the book, "Fabulous Jewelry from Found Objects," by Marthe Le Van (Lark Books, 2005).
"I am greatly influenced by historical as well as contemporary objects, artworks, books, popular culture, politics and the natural world," she wrote. "I am from an Amish and Mennonite background that greatly influences who I am, how I perceive the world and what I create."
Diener, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., recently went full time as an artist to make metal jewelry and teach the craft to others, mainly through the continuing education department of the University of New Mexico.
Her main tool is a torch with an acetylene tank.
"It does everything from the dinky to the giant," she said. "I love working with the torch."
She loves fine metals, too. But, with the cost of gold and silver tripling and even quadrupling, she is now using a lot of sterling silver, copper, brass and nickel in addition to some fine silver.