Kids grow up so fast these days.
Jewelry designer Melissa Stiles made her pint-sized debut during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Children and Youth Day, where she participated from 1982-89.
Now she’s coming back with a seat at the adult table — more accomplished, more experienced, taller — and with a whole host of handmade earrings, bracelets and brooches ripe for the selling.
In advance of her triumphant return to Arts Fest as a sidewalk sale vendor, the Portland, Ore., artist talks more about her company, StubbornStiles, LLC, and the joy she takes in interacting with customers.
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Q: Do you remember the first moment that you realized you were an artist?
A: Honestly, I don’t really consider myself an artist. I think I’m more of a designer. Being an artist is very difficult because you have to rely on a self-driven vision that you want to express. Being a designer is more about solving a problem through design. I view my work as being a blend of designing a wearable object with the functionality of how that object is made.
Q: What was the first thing you ever remember making with your own two hands?
A: It was probably a mud pie. I remember playing in my yard in Pennsylvania Furnace and being amazed that I could create a mass of mud into a deliberate shape. They didn’t taste very good and it just looked like a lump of mud — but they were mine and I had a blast making them.
Q: Can you describe your first impressions of the festival as a kid?
A: My dad was a professor of music education at Penn State and he set up a booth on Allen Street for children’s day that was full of all types of home/handmade instruments. I remember getting my face painted and spending most of the day banging on the random collection of noisemakers. It was a great place to explore and express myself. I loved the excitement on the street and how the festival transformed the town into a magical place where the streets were transformed into performance and gallery spaces.
Q: You received your degree in architecture. How do you think that has influenced how you approach your work?
A: I often give people in my booth a little time to look at my work before telling them that I have a background in architecture. They typically react the same way, responding with, “Oh yes, I can see it in your work!” I think that the discipline of becoming an architect gives you a critical eye and a sense of balance in your work. Oftentimes people mention that my works looks like it has a Scandinavian influence or minimalistic design with bold geometric patterns, and inviting colors that are found in architecture. I think there is a direct link in my design training as an architect to my jewelry work. I utilize many of the same tools and materials as I did in architecture. It’s just at a different scale with and worn on the body instead of the body inhabiting it.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the process?
A: I really enjoy the design aspect of my work. It’s like solving a puzzle as you figure out how pieces work together and create a piece of jewelry. Every piece has a special personality that it takes on that speaks to the person wearing it.
Q: The last time that you presented your work at Arts Fest you were a kid. As an artist, do you think that your work benefits from the additional life experience?
A: I’m not as scared about talking to people about myself or my work (and I think I’m a little better at making change). I was a shy kid and forcing myself to talk to customers was pretty painful in the beginning. Once you realize that people like your work and want to learn about your process, it’s easier. I really enjoy the work I do so I enjoy talking to people about it. I feel confident about it and enjoy sharing that experience with my customers.
Q: How would you say that your technique has evolved?
A: Well, I don’t make purses or light switch plates any more, but I still work late keeping company with a TV playing in the background. My technique has evolved though the years and with each new tool I learn to use.
Q: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when designing jewelry?
A: There’s a balance between material, color and esthetic that plays into my jewelry design. I love designing new work but I have to keep a similar voice throughout my portfolio that includes existing and new work as one cohesive body. You want to design jewelry that people feel good about wearing and that complement the fashion they are comfortable in. Nothing makes me happier than when a customer tries on a piece that completes their outfit without looking out of place and makes them smile.
Q: It seems like festivals like this one afford artists the opportunity to interact directly with the people who may be purchasing and living with their art. Is that interaction something that you enjoy?
A: Being at a festival is a great testing ground for my work. It’s great getting feedback from customers about the colors and designs that they like. I always strive to get the attention of a crowd in a place like the Arts Fest where there are so many great artists with great work to purchase. It’s always an honor when a customer chooses to purchase my work. It’s great vote in confidence to keep making the work I do and to continue to develop my line further.
Q: Is there anything in particular that you’re looking to check out at Arts Fest this year?
A: I haven’t been back to State College for 16 years. I’m excited to see how much the town itself has grown and evolved. I have a feeling that traveling so far as an artist to come to Arts Fest is going to provide a whole new perspective for me. It’ll be interesting to compare my childhood memories of the festival to the actual experience. I get an adrenaline rush any time I walk into a large festival and realize that I get to be a part of something involving so many great artists from around the country and the CPFA support staff who work all year to produce such a great festival.