By Clare Kolenda
It’s a small apartment a block away from downtown Albion. There’s a quaint kitchenette, with small, out-of-the way sleeping quarters off to the side. Light floods through the windows facing the street, illuminating the space and creating a warm atmosphere, despite its simple decor. What grabs your attention right away, however, isn’t the small collection of ceramic owls that sit proudly on his coffee table, or the warm wood paneling surrounding the room. It’s the workbench in a corner, an old wooden desk that creaks and groans with every opened drawer and labor of its owner.
Sitting at the desk is Steven Stark, who breaks the silence with faint clicks of his tweezer, as he pinches a bracelet clasp. He hums softly, even as the pesky wire slips from his grasp. Stark, 53, doesn’t let it deter him from finishing–he’s been in the business for seven years and has had plenty of practice. His brow furrowed in concentration, he finally crimps the end of the piece, attaching the clasp to the bracelet. Pinching delicate jewelry wire can be difficult for anyone, but Stark has a unique disadvantage. He has had to learn how to create jewelry with just one hand.
He wasn’t always a jeweler, though. Before the loss of his hand, he lived throughout the country, from the south of Mississippi to west Michigan, where he is originally from. He worked at an ice rink there, sharpening skates and helping run the arena.
In 2006, Stark became sick with cancer and developed a blood clot in his leg. Doctors prescribed a common blood thinner, heparin, which instead of dissolving the clot, did the opposite. The drug triggered a dangerous and rare reaction called heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, or HIT. This caused Stark’s right hand, the dominant one, to turn from pink to gangrenous black, and doctors amputated it. He spent three months at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids relearning basic activities, like how to make a meal and button his shirt with only his left hand.
“They put me through the ringer there,” Stark said, recalling the frustration of having to remaster simple skills. His family helped him stay motivated during that time.
Now, Stark finds refuge in his jewelry. “This is my therapy. It keeps my mind clear,” he says, gesturing toward his workspace, where hundreds of beads are scattered over the top of the desk. Heart-shaped clasps, bright indigo, gold, and translucent pink beads made from lamp work glass (a special kind of bead named for the method that is used to melt the glass) mix together, all seeming to vie for Stark’s attention while he makes his latest piece.
Stark was introduced to jewelry-making shortly after moving to Albion from Hudsonville, Mich., in 2008. He qualified for Social Security disability payments, and well-meaning friends and family tried to convince him to sit back and relax. But after joining the Christ Apostolic Church, he met Bob Glover, who’d been running his own jewelry business since the ’70s and was interested in passing along his knowledge.
When Glover originally introduced the idea of making jewelry, Stark didn’t believe he’d be capable of doing it. But Glover had other plans. He fashioned up jigs for Stark: long pieces of wood with metal loops that provided leverage and anchored wire thread used in making a piece. Even so, it took hard work and stubborn dedication to learn how to make the jewelry with only one hand.
“I think he’s got the talent [to make a business out of it],” Glover said, recalling when Stark was a student of jewelry-making and fascinated by the business of selling it. Stark would accompany Glover to craft shows and help him sell his work.
Among other things, Glover taught Stark techniques in bending wire and the “crimping” method of finishing a piece, which involves pinching the ends of the wire to hold the beads in place before attaching a clasp.
“The first time I did it, I was throwing beads across the room, frustrated because of this,” Stark said, raising his limp sleeve. “But I said, ‘No, sit down, step back,’ and did it again. I wasn’t about to sit around and let it [being an amputee] take over me.”
Stark eventually began selling his own pieces, a first step toward also distributing his work in local retail stores and online via his Facebook page. Indeed, now Stark can make 20 to 30 pieces of jewelry in a good week, and with a much simpler jig than the one that Glover constructed years ago.
Stark’s pieces showcase a diverse range of styles. For some, he uses Swarovski crystals, that have multi-faceted sides that capture the sunlight with their every movement. Some are Native American influenced. He’ll also use old lockets, incorporate glass blown beads, and he experiments with different color patterns. Beside his work desk is a small dresser filled with beads of all shapes, sizes and colors, all to be used whenever the inspiration hits. Lately, he has been experimenting with shades of blue–aquamarine to indigo–and cocoa-colored garnets, another favorite of his.
Stark works tirelessly on new designs. He has been known to wake up in the wee hours to create a piece he can’t stop thinking about. Inspiration, he said, tends to come quickly. Yet just as with any other creative activity, he’s also found generating fresh ideas isn’t always easy. “There are times,” he said, “I don’t even want to go to the table, because nothing is coming.”
But he does anyway, because waiting for inspiration isn’t exactly a business plan. Stark’s work ethic propels him. He’s also a perfectionist, working on a piece until it is right. “I could spend an hour taking a piece apart. If it doesn’t look right, I take it apart.”
You can find Stark’s latest works at Illusions (213 S. Superior St.) and also across the street at It’s New to Me (177 N. Superior St.), which is owned by his friend Lorene Gant. In addition to finding a loyal local following, he’s also starting to receive out-of-state orders, and plans on traveling throughout Michigan to show his work at local craft shows and fairs. He’ll even be participating in a Renaissance fair that requires him to dress up. His choice of costume? A pirate with a hook.
At the heart of his business is a passion to do what he enjoys. Stark not only finds solace in his art, but freedom in the ability to create without obstacles in his way. His determination has helped him accomplish what some have only dreamed of.
Photos by Clare Kolenda.