Grab Bag: Amelia Toelke’s Exploration of Jewelry on and off the Body

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In the Baltimore Jewelry Center’s latest solo exhibition, Grab Bag, recent resident artist Amelia Toelke examines jewelry as a powerful art form both on and off the body. True to its title, the solo show features a playful sampling of Toelke’s varied mediums and practices—from bold, colorful works on paper depicting jewels to actual jewelry, such as pendants, rings, and a new take on the vintage charm bracelet. Working with jewelry in both two-dimensional and wearable formats, Toelke probes the medium’s historical, aesthetic, and social functions.

Entering the BJC gallery, I was immediately drawn to Toelke’s works on paper, which fill the entire wall space. Two pieces, “Treasure” and “Amulet,” are particularly compelling as the only works that showcase two-dimensional charms, chains, and gemstones against black backdrops.

Other works on paper of comparable scale feature similar jewels and jewelry-related objects rendered in lustrous 24-karat gold leaf and gouache on white, blue, and pink backgrounds. Toelke’s two-dimensional works have a wonderful graphic quality—emphasizing the flatness of these traditionally three-dimensional baubles. 


Amelia Toelke, Amulet, gouache, latex paint, and gold leaf on paper, collage
Amelia Tolke, Treasure and Amulet, gouache and gold leaf on paper
Using traditional components of adornment as a point of departure, Toelke’s works on paper reimagine recognizable jewelry elements off the body as two-dimensional design elements in dynamic compositions. 
Erin Riggins-Hartlaub

“Treasure” features a variety of two-dimensional gold-leaf charms, including a shooting star, a cloud, and a gem-set heart. Self-taught in the art of gold leaf, Toelke admires the medium for many reasons. “Like most humans throughout history, I too am enamored by gold,” she says. “Gold is luminescent, malleable, endlessly recyclable, and it doesn’t tarnish.”

Toelke is also attracted to gold leaf because of its rich historical applications: illuminating spiritual texts and decorating sacred architectural spaces. In her work, Toelke’s use of 24-karat gold leaf—gold in its purest form—and her commitment to this labor-intensive process demonstrate her reverence for the 3D craft-based practices in which she was trained, while also allowing the artist to explore her own graphic style.

In “Amulet” a disembodied gold arm connected to a cable-link chain bears a multitude of rainbow-colored gems in various shapes and sizes. Toelke’s formal training as a jeweler at SUNY Paltz is immediately apparent in her precise depiction of gemstone facets which take the form of carefully arranged triangles and rectangles radiating out from a central geometric table.

Charms suspended from the chain suggest a bracelet form, but the object’s function remains ambiguous. Using traditional components of adornment as a point of departure, Toelke’s works on paper reimagine recognizable jewelry elements off the body as two-dimensional design elements in dynamic compositions. 


Assorted silver brooches by Toelke
Gold Leaf and gouache on paper with Toelke's wearable works: rings, bracelets, charms, and rings at the BJC
Amelia Toelke, Charm Necklaces at the BJC

Toelke’s wearable silver jewelry rests on pedestals in the center of the gallery. Pendants, rings, and a bracelet feature chaotic arrangements of vintage charms. A central theme in Toelke’s two- and three-dimensional works, charms reached the height of their popularity among women in the 1940s, when they were traditionally collected as sentimental milestone markers: a graduation cap, a tiny calendar with a diamond set on an important date (usually a birthday), a palm tree purchased on a tropical vacation.

The artist sources vintage charms from online marketplaces like eBay, and she appreciates the dual functions that are reinforced by this manner of acquisition. “The charms themselves are generic,” she says, “but I love that they can be both collectible and personal.”

Charm bracelets typically take the form of chains with different charms attached to each link. In Toelke’s version, “Untitled (Charm Bracelet)” an assortment of silver vintage charms—such as a rocket ship, a tiny Empire State Building, and an ice skate—have been soldered together to create a cuff bracelet, lending the charms a new structural function that alters their significance as individual trinkets. While the charms are not necessarily personal to Toelke, incorporating them into her work allows her to participate in the tradition of heirloom jewelry, passed down through families and across generations.

Grab Bag is a truly delightful exploration of jewelry and its various functions and messages. Toelke’s lively works on paper and recycling of vintage jewels ask viewers to reconsider jewelry in new contexts—as a design vehicle, object of sentimental and material value, and point of connection to the jewelry lovers who precede and follow her. 


The exhibition is on view at the Baltimore Jewelry Center through September 29th.

Toelke’s fine art has been widely exhibited across the world, including in New York, China, Australia, and Thailand, and her wearable jewelry can be purchased on her website and at the Baltimore Jewelry Center.

She has held numerous residencies at institutions such as the Arrowmont School of Crafts and Women’s Studio Workshop, and, most recently, was a mid-career resident at the Baltimore Jewelry Center.

Toelke earned her BFA in Metal at SUNY New Paltz in 2005 and graduated with an MFA in Visual Art from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2011, where she adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to art that allowed her to explore both concept and utility in her work. The bodies of work on display in Grab Bag reflect this dual focus, examining jewelry in both fine art and functional contexts.


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