Mavis Smentkowski is a lover, not a fighter. "I know how to shoot if I had to. It's not a hobby, though," she says. "However, recycling things that seem impossible to recycle is a hobby." Among the materials Smentkowski re-uses are bullet shells, which she repurposes into jewelry.
Smentkowski says she's long been interested in using recycled materials in her metalwork and started seeking eco-friendly materials and processes when she started to get serious about jewelry-making about eight years ago. "I thought that would be a nice selling point, and I liked the idea of being a little more eco-friendly because often metalsmithing is not," she says. "There's lots of chemicals and fumes."
When a friend asked her a couple years ago if she could do anything with a bucket of .22 shells, that got the gears turning. She experimented by finding crystals that would fit inside the discarded shells. The resulting jewelry kind of looks like lipstick, and Smentkowski says she likes the duality of masculine and feminine qualities in her work.
"I do like the badass aspect, and I do love the design of it, and making something neutral or positive out of something that could have negative connotations," she explains.
Smentkowski started by using a wire-wrapping style but wanted the jewelry to be sturdier. Now she has a process where she solders the shell to rings. She says her pendants are popular due to their versatility.
Smentkowski says her fans are a mix of gun aficionados and people who don't even recognize the shells as bullets — they just think it looks cool. "My foot traffic, people at an art fair — they see it, and they might not get what it is at first," Smentkowski says. "They might be more drawn to the sparkle, or the fact that it's recycled."
In keeping with her goals of eco-friendliness, Smentkowski removes all lead residue from her bullets. "I've seen other bullet jewelry out there that still has lead in there, and that scares me," she says.
Smentkowski has a small workspace in the 555 Gallery and Studios in Detroit, and describes her own space as being in "full-blown holiday production mode right now," as she gears up for holiday shoppers. "I'm a little factory right now," she says.
The 555 Gallery is housed in the former Third Precinct police station — Smentkowski's studio was the holding area. She shows us a rail she used to balance metal tins and boxes. "You can see, people were cuffed to this," she says. "You can see all the carvings. There's lots of girls' names carved on here, which I think is so darling. You come here to sober up, and then your wife would get pissed off and pick you up the next day."
Smentkowski says she lives nearby in Mexicantown and works at Slows. "It's a little silly how close it all is," she says of the community where she lives, works, and creates art. She logs in most of her studio time after dropping her daughter off at school, which is a bit of a different schedule than most of her studio-mates who work 9-to-5. "It's a great community, though," she says. "There's a lot of inspiration, being in a space where people are making stuff all the time. We have a weekly staff meeting — it's more like a show and tell. We used to kind of talk about the building, but we switched it more recently to, 'What have you been making this week? What did you promise to make? What are you making next week?' That's really thrilling to me, because I like having the assignment."
Recently, Smentkowski started making jewely based on old alchemical symbols. "I like old mythology and blending it with a modern, clean-looking design," she says. She shows us her own earrings, which she says are emblazoned with the symbols for "piss" and "vinegar" (you know, as in "she's full of piss and vinegar").
"I figured I'd have to make up my own symbol for piss, but I thought, 'Wait a minute! Those wizards were smart,'" she says. "There's got to be a symbol for urine. So I went digging through all these archives of old books, and I found it."
You can see more of Mavis Smentkowski's jewelry online at sparklegarden.etsy.com, or at Tulani Rose, 4201 Cass Ave, Detroit; 313-832-2477; facebook.com/tulanirose, and Parker Street Market, 1814 Parker St.; 313-458-8867; parkerstreetmarket.com.