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Alum’s road to success paved with granulated gold

Jonathan Lee Rutledge

The path people follow to arrive at their career destination is not always – or even often – a straight one.  One person in particular worked with sheet metal on military jets, studied political science in college and served as a firefighter before reaching his professional artistic calling.

When Chicago artist Jonathan Lee Rutledge ’98 hears art festival patrons “ooh” and “ahh” when viewing his beautiful and distinctive jewelry, he must sometimes flash back a little more than a decade ago when he was repairing and painting sheet metal on F-16 Air Force jets in Germany.  He received an Air Force achievement award for his sheet metal work, so the signs were there early.

“I was interested in art from childhood, when I liked to draw,” Rutledge said.  “My parents were always encouraging and supportive.”

Rutledge, who won the People’s Choice Award for emerging artists at the 2004 American Craft Exposition, was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  During his European military tour, Rutledge continued to indulge his love of art, visiting countless museums throughout Europe.  “I sometimes joke that I did it backwards and should have visited all those museums AFTER college, so I would have known what I was looking at,” he said.  “I did all that traveling and then became interested in studying world politics and language and art.”

After being honorably discharged, the Evanston, Ill., native decided to study political science at Illinois State University, but his interest in creating art never left his mind.  He had been interested in carpentry as a youngster and tried to take a woodworking class at ISU.  But the seats in the that class were limited to art majors, so one day during his junior year he was in the Center for the Visual Arts and introduced himself to Dennis French, who heads Illinois State’s jewelry/metalsmithing program, and who became his mentor.  French agreed to let Rutledge take a class in his studio, and the proverbial die was cast.  Rutledge’s talents were immediately apparent and he ended up enrolling in the master of fine arts program even though his undergraduate degree was in political science.

“There was a clear moment for me, sitting in a coffee shop after I graduated,” Rutledge said.  “I had taken four undergraduate classes with Dennis, but had a bachelor’s degree in political science, and was considering going into federal law enforcement.  I had started to go to Drug Enforcement Agency orientations when I realized that I loved working with my hands and that I was good at it.  So I went back for a year and a half in the MFA program.”

“Jon was technically gifted,” French said.  “He paid great attention to the detail in his work.  But he had problems conceptually, so we helped him push the envelope conceptually because he really wanted to become a custom goldsmith.”

“After his first year in the MFA program, he was making some fabulous pieces, but I realized that the MFA was not for him.  I suggested he go out, to continue to develop his concepts and his work, and to attend workshops,” French said.  “Six months later, I saw him and was stunned by the quality of his work.”

After leaving Illinois State, Rutledge went into firefighter training and became a firefighter/paramedic in Rolling Meadows, and spent nearly all of his spare time making jewelry.  After a few years of refining his work, Rutledge launched his professional jewelry/metalsmithing career at the 2004 American Craft Exposition.  There were 900 submissions in the event and Rutledge, in the first public showing of his jewelry, won the People’s Choice Award in the jewelry emerging artist category.  Many of his regular clients discovered him there.

Now a full-time jeweler, Rutledge works only with 22-karat gold and uses a 4,500-year-old Greek Etruscan technique called granulation.  Granulation is the art of fusing sand-sized granules of gold into a design on the surface of the jewelry.  It takes enormous skill to solder the grains onto the surface without melting them.  Each granule is meticulously placed on the piece.  Rutledge’s woven gold ropes also are done by hand.  Among other things, he designs and creates brooches, rings and necklaces.

Last month, Rutledge was one of a few jewelry artists featured in Chicago magazine’s article, “The Gold (and Silver) Rush,” and later this month he plans to visit and share his experiences with Dennis French’s students.  In December, he will participate in the One of a Kind Show and Sale at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart which features 400 juried artists and is attended by more than 30,000 visitors.

Rutledge, who is busier than ever creating and selling his work, is unlikely to get a break from it soon because his gold star is rapidly rising.

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