by Lou Mancinelli
His goal is to connect wearers of his hand-crafted jewelry to ancient ideas and designs. While he comes from a background outside of the art world, metalsmith and Chestnut Hill resident J. Rudy Lewis has submerged himself in that world both behind the scenes and at the exhibition table.
Since December, jewelry created by Lewis has been displayed for sale at The Museum Store at Woodmere Art Museum, and it will be there for the indefinite future. The collection offered at the store features a mix of sterling silver, 14-carat gold and rough diamonds and other stones. The pieces were created between 2001 and 2009.
It was around 2001 when Lewis, 47, began making jewelry. That’s when he engaged in studies with local jeweler Caleb Meyer, owner and operator of the Caleb Meyer Studio at 8520 Germantown Ave.
“I want the feeling someone’s hands were in it,” said Lewis about his fabrication process, which he undertakes at his Chestnut Hill studio. “[…] There’s something alive in it as opposed to manufactured.”
Perhaps that life he is searching for is the yang to his archaeological and anthropological background, making his studies in the remnants of the dead, his yin. Lewis has also worked in photography, mosaics and handmade books, but he insists that “only in the designing and making of jewelry have I found a place where all my skills come into focus.”
According to Stephen Kerzner, Director of The Museum Store, “I decided to showcase Rudy Lewis’ jewelry because of his unique designs, his interesting use of sterling silver, gold and other semi- precious stones and, simply, because I thought it would be great to be able to offer it to my customers.”
Lewis was raised on the Main Line and attended The Haverford School (’84). He studied archaeology and anthropology at Cornell University and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1988. Lewis was a serious rower and after college worked odd jobs while he trained in Philadelphia with the Undine Barge Club on Boathouse Row. He ultimately participated in the University Games with the club.
While an undergrad, Lewis flirted with photography and in 1991 pursued the craft further when he enrolled in a two-year program through Maine Media, a workshop college. When the program concluded he moved to Philadelphia.
Here, Lewis started to work in the art world at Locks Gallery at Washington Square in Center City. He continued to work various odd jobs and began to develop his interest and skills in creating mosaics. His designs were often informed by ideas he’d learned as a student of cultures past. He also dabbled in creating handmade art books.
In 1999 Lewis married Elie-Anne Chevrier, herself a player among the Philadelphia arts scene who would eventually work as registrar for the Philadelphia Art Museum. She is now a board member at Woodmere. The couple moved to Chestnut Hill three years ago with their children, William, 11, and Claire, 7, from a three-acre farm located in Blue Bell.
“I just wanted to live in a place where you could walk instead of drive everywhere,” said Lewis. “A community.”
As a jewelry maker and designer, Lewis eventually parted ways with his teacher, who taught him how to forge and cast metal and carve wax. Lewis realized his teacher focused more on the quality and cut of the stone, whereas Lewis’ interests caused him to be more intrigued by design.
He strives to create a rustic feel; something old, as if his bracelets or earrings, cuffs or pendants themselves were uprooted from the soil by an archaeologist. His ancient coin pendant, part of his Bespoke series, is based on a style he’s dated to 400-350 B.C.E. Envision a silver necklace hung round the neck of the wife of Alexander the Great.
Some of the pendants and rings look as if a woman has danced off an ancient Egyptian wall and offered her jewelry to be modeled, as if it carried an aura of enchantment and the wisdom of years; like the metal itself hummed with tiny messages. His women’s dinosaur bone and garnet earrings could have just as well been worn by Cleopatra as she traveled to one of her lascivious affairs.
There’s also his Recess collection, inspired by children’s drawings. His whalebone earrings, part of his Moods collection, are based on a design discovered at a Native American site located in Alaska.
For Lewis, the designs represent symbols. They represent culture and how a people once survived. “I do not come from a traditional art, craft or design background,” he explained. “My main interest in making pieces for adornment is in the exploration of human culture and history.”
In addition to continuing to develop his line of rustic-themed jewelry, Lewis is in the process of evolving a low-end fashion line. When we talked to him over the phone he was engaged in work to that effect, cutting leather with a laser in a warehouse along Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia.
For more information visit www.JRudyLewis.com.