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Michelle Davis Petelinz uses polymer clay to make ethnic masks and shadow boxes. She often embellishes them with acrylic paint before adorning them with beads or other decorative accessories.
Artisan at a Glance
African heritage inspires artist's work
Published: Jul 01, 2006 12:30 AM
Diane Daniel, Correspondent
Michelle Davis Petelinz has long had both an artistic bent and an entrepreneurial spirit. When she was a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, studying art history and studio art, she and other students started a business designing posters for campus events.
"We got to become a little organization," she said, "and we turned out original silk screen posters."
In Boston, Petelinz, 49, worked as a textbook designer for several years, and then, staying home to raise her son, Jordan, now 13, she started to make jewelry. That later evolved into functional and decorative objects for the home, initially children's furniture and now boxes, mirrors, masks and shadow boxes.
As the only African-American person in management in her last publishing job, it was important to her "that things like depiction of kids of color were accurate and that there were no stereotypical images."
Her pride in her heritage now shows up in her art, which Petelinz says is inspired by African tribal motifs. "I try to adapt them and be inspired by them, but not copy them."
New dimension: Petelinz was surprised that she became drawn to sculptural objects. "In school I always felt my two-dimensional sense was good, but my three-dimensional was awful." She learned she was mistaken when she took a polymer clay course in the mid-1980s and really loved the process of making tiny sculptures to wear as jewelry. "It was the first thing I did as a business. I was wearing a piece I made and a woman said, 'Where did you find that necklace?' She then ordered five for relatives. And when Petelinz delivered them to her during a party, partygoers became customers."
Going global: After a trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan with a friend, Petelinz bought Asian inspired jewelry findings and beads, which opened up new ideas and invigorated her business, she said. Eventually, an Asian influence led to an African one, though she hasn't yet visited the continent.
Masks and more: When Petelinz's first marriage ended, she moved the Triangle six years ago to be near her sister, Melanie Davis-Jones, vice president of marketing at Exploris Museum. When not making art, she teaches it to children at various programs throughout the year. Petelinz has since remarried, and credits her husband, Stan Petelinz, with the idea of making shadow boxes, her newest artwork. "He's very good at conceptualizing. He paints for fun. We were roaming around Michaels or A.C. Moore one day and I told him that I wanted to do something that was more three-dimensional. He suggested masks with wall hangings, and on top of boxes, and then we added shadow boxes."
Her polymer past: At first Petelinz wasn't sure she could make the masks, being a painter. Then she recalled her work with polymer clay. "Some are made only with polymer clay and some are painted with acrylic paint or I emboss them with a powder that changes the color. Now that I'm into this, I can embellish them and make them more elaborate and sophisticated. Going back to my jewelry roots, I decided to do some with beads and cowrie shells."
Out of the shadows: A friend told Petelinz that her shadow boxes, filled with faces and rich with imagery, have a life. "She said, 'people want to know about them, how you feel about them, what you put into them.' " With the ones she decorates with adinkra symbols from Ghana, she gives buyers a piece of paper with the symbol meaning, such as wisdom or prosperity. She has turned the female masks into what she called the ancestress series and gives them African names, "It's a way for me to get my head around starting a new one. Part of art really is letting serendipity happen," she said. "And I do feel like this is an important part of the art for me and I want to share it with people."