Picking Up The Pieces: Britta Kauppila Turns Glass Shards Into Jewelry in Duluth Studio

By Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune

Britta Kauppila returned to her studio at the Armory Annex after a long Fourth of July weekend to find that someone had destroyed one of her windows.

No one had entered. Nothing had been stolen. But the concrete was covered with broken glass, and there was a lone brick in the middle of it. The jewelry artist-metalsmith saw more than a seemingly random act of vandalism. The shards, she noticed, were pretty.

“I started collecting some of the pieces,” Kauppila said. “I wanted to create something beautiful out of that destruction.

“I knew I wanted to change it into jewelry.”

Kauppila got a tutorial from her grandfather-in-law, Ron Johnson, a stained-glass artist, and created five unique pairs of dangling earrings. She shared the story on Facebook and, unintentionally, found customers. Kauppila sold out her small stock and raised enough money to pay for more than half the cost of a new window.

“She didn’t have to do that,” said Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center, which owns the building.

Kauppila knew that. But she also knew the cost of a window repair would have been a significant setback for the nonprofit organization she rents space from, she said.

“You work so hard to bring things up,” Poirier said. “We don’t need backward progress when we’re trying to move forward.”

The space

Kauppila is one of a handful of artists who share the converted Perkins Restaurant adjacent to the Duluth Armory at 14th Avenue East and London Road. The crew includes blacksmiths, glass artists, a piano technician, a sculptor and Poirier.

Kauppila spends business hours in an L-shaped studio in the southwest corner of the 7,000-square-foot building, her work station strategically positioned in front of an open window with the best vantage point for a Lake Superior view.

The windows — which run both lengths of the space — were the selling point for Kauppila.

“Look at this light, look at this view,” she said.

Kauppila has a display of her jewelry on a countertop inside the door: sterling silver rings with rose-cut sapphire, necklaces made with clusters of gemstones, silver earrings shaped like tiny branches. Her tools, which include forming blocks and dapping punches, are lined up along the windows and she has recently added on a back room for storage.

She sits at an office chair and bends over a bench pin, filing the sides of a wedding band-in-progress.

To her right: an array of pliers and brushes in a bin. To her left, a slow cooker for heating citric acid. Behind her: a stump with an anvil — made for her by the resident blacksmiths.

Kauppila’s first job was at Bagley & Company Jewelers, though it wasn’t until years later that she realized jewelry-making is an art form and a career.

She favored three-dimensional, hands-on mediums while studying art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Eventually, her interests in history, geology and art collided. She went on to work at Stephen Vincent Design in Minneapolis, where she learned multiple layers of the industry, and eventually moved into a shared studio space with three other jewelry artists.

She’s been at the Armory Annex for about two years.

The work

For a while, Kauppila navigated the weekend art fair scene. But over the years, she has relied on word-of-mouth referrals from her loyal client base. Most of her jobs are commissions.

Kauppila said she recently has found herself making big, bold pieces that empower the wearer.

“Jewelry is not a static art form,” she said. “It’s meant to have life, to have motion. The way the body reacts and moves with the jewelry, the way it makes the wearer feel. It’s like putting on your armor for the day to feel ready.”

She is inspired by the natural world, but chooses a more abstract translation. She pulls together different pieces and different textures.

“The one thing I love about nature and find inspiring is the accumulation of all these small little parts that arrange perfectly and then become something bigger than themselves,” she said. “That’s what I want to do with my work as well.”

In recent years, she has forged a friendship with fellow jewelry artist Scott Hanson of White Cedar Studio in Superior.

“I would categorize Britta’s work as very minimalist, very Scandinavian,” he said. “Simple and earthy and clean. She uses a lot of techniques to just show the nature of the material, hammer texturing and raw gemstones.”

During a recent visit to her studio, Kauppila opened a box to reveal a few more shards of glass from the broken window. The demand is higher than she can accommodate. Her waiting list, she said, is about 40 customers deep.

While making them was a personal exercise that she never intended to share, Kauppila liked how they turned out and even kept a pair for herself.

“It was a very powerful thing for me,” she said. “It was very cathartic. It just really made me reflect on a lot of different things — not just from destruction comes beauty, but also very personally:

“Everyone has an event in their life where you feel shattered and broken, but it’s through the process of picking them up, putting them back together and assembling that you make something beautiful.”

To check out Britta Kauppila’s work, go to brittalynndesign.com

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