Guest blog by Natasha Wozniak
13 years old.
What does that age invoke?
Adjusting to high school, the mood swings of adolescence, trying on new identities?
For me, age 13 came with an event that turned my life upside down.
Christmas time in 1989. My mother tried to create a normal Christmas, but since we spent the holiday gathered around my father’s hospital bed, it wasn’t anything like the holidays I knew.
The hospital worker dressed as an elf gave me some chocolate and told me, “See you next year at home, where you all belong.”
I believed him, and imagined the next year when we would be gathered around the table with the cheerful green and red plaid Christmas tablecloth.
This was the second time around with lymphoma for my father. The first time, I was in elementary school, and everybody in my life created a protective cocoon around me. I had curiosity about the strange treatments, but I wasn’t worried.
At age 13, I was much more aware of the details of the illness.
The tumor that had taken over part of his heart wall, and the presence of cancer in his nervous system, no information was withheld.
On Dec 28th, we were awakened by an early morning phone call.
My mom told me to hurry up as I pulled on a raggedy sweatshirt. As I ran out the door, I heard her give the “do not resuscitate” order on the phone, and knew exactly what that meant. Yet, sitting in silence in the back of the car, I told myself that this wasn’t happening, that I still believed he would get better, that his hair would grow back.Aas if the power of my wishes were enough to prevent his death.
We were too late to say goodbye to my father when we arrived at the hospital.
My brother looked at my face and clearly knew that I was not prepared for this moment. Knowing the details of the treatments did not mean I could connect the dots.
I was still on the edge between childhood and adolescence where wishful thinking overrides a clear view of the facts.
In the aftermath, I slid into a nearly unshakeable depression.
Upon waking in the morning, the only thing that I lived for was the moment when I could crawl back into bed at night. I had always been involved in creative activities, from drama and dance, to music and art. For at least a year, I dropped out of all activities that brought me joy, making a silent vow that enjoyment wasn’t for me.
My role in life was to suffer more than anyone else.
My classmates felt uncomfortable around me, they didn’t know what to say, and I was such a black cloud that they didn’t want to talk to me anyways. They had yet to experience or understand loss.
Two years later, as I was wearing this determined shroud of depression, a little voice spoke softly from inside. It reminded me of those days when I was young, when it was a sculpture-making day in art class and I leapt out of bed, so excited to touch clay or wood. There were the late nights of elaborate handmade projects for the classes at Fine Arts elementary school, and the junior high project that included making jewelry for a tribe of my own creation with copper weather stripping. From this soft voice, reminding me of what made my heart sing with joy, I declared that I was going to become an artist and work in metal.
My father had gotten his first degree in art, before continuing on to business. Looking at his work around our house, I would often say, “Dad, maybe you can go back to your art when you retire.” Even though he no longer yearned to make art, that was my dream for him, and at the age of 15, I transformed it into my own dream.
With the very clear understanding of the brevity of life, I was ready to get started right away.
Knowing my determination, my mother invited me to demonstrate my commitment to this dream. My hometown had a museum that offered jewelry-making classes, and I snagged a rare open spot. At the start of the next semester, I began daily classes in metals at my high school. Creating my own pieces was exciting for me, since I was never satisfied with what was available on the market, and I was able to make my own accessories.
As I began to make some elaborate necklaces, displayed in glass cases in the hall when I wasn’t wearing them, classmates with whom I had never spoken began to approach me and tell me how cool they thought my jewelry was.
I even had a little business selling pendants made out of tin solder that I found in my father’s workshop area.
I found joy and solace in the process, and found connection to a new group of friends through my jewelry-making. I got a job in a local custom jewelry store, polishing gold rings and having a lot of responsibility, while my classmates were stuck in fast food jobs.
At the start of my senior year, I decided that it would be ok for me to be a little happy again, and I continued to attract a loving group of friends.
My mother saw how I was blossoming and threw her full support into my choice.
Fast forward 23 years, and I have had my own successful jewelry business for ten years.
Through the wonder that is facebook, I have heard from many classmates and they are delighted to see that I have stuck with the dream that I declared for myself at age 15.
I just completed a custom ring for a woman who bought one of those tin pendants back in high school.
Yes, I have cried lonely tears along the way, because my father wasn’t able to witness my achievements, or offer his guidance to me. However, he gave me many gifts before he departed, and I can see his presence in my life.
He had the most gentle and kind character, and as soon as I found another man like this, I married him.
I also carry with me my father’s creativity, vision and curiosity about the world, and I bring those qualities to both my life and my work.
About the author
I began my journey as an artist during my teenage years, working in a custom jewelry shop and taking classes in as many mediums as possible. I decided at the age of 15 that I was to become an artist working in metal. That decision led me to study metalsmithing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Included in my education are the two years I spent in Nepal making sculpture alongside the makers of Buddhist statuary in the Kathmandu Valley, both as an exchange student and as a Fulbright Scholar. I also spent time as a bench jeweler in New York, turning out rings and earrings by the hundreds (and occasionally thousands) for various designers.
Now that I work every day in my own studio, I have chosen the gratifying process of hand-fabricated jewelry. My day to day schedule includes making one-of a-kind rings, new work for my current collections, groups of work for the galleries that represent me and most recently, wall pieces that incorporate jewelry techniques.
When I am not making jewelry, I enjoy studying various dance styles and practicing capoeira. I also love to explore the food, language, music and art of many countries in Asia. I currently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband Jun Ishida, who is also an artist, and an adorable cat named Sano.