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People and Projects

Isn't it iconic

Painters of religious icons believe that the archetypal roots of those icons lie within us to discover. That’s why metalsmith and jeweler Sharon Church ’70 practiced painting icons while on sabbatical last spring from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. She was in search of “increasingly poignant imagery through iconic form” for her one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces.

Church, a nationally exhibited artisan, had never thought of jewelry as an art form until she took Earl Pardon’s class at Skidmore. But now she’s come to believe that it’s “psychic armoring for the human form.”

For visual inspiration, she looks to her garden’s flowering beauty as well as “the scary, loamy underparts that support it.” (Two 2004 brooches, exquisitely made of carved boxwood, silver, and old European-cut diamonds, are shaped like a slug—“Shimmer,” pictured here—and a snail.) Using a Dremel-like drill with a flexible shaft, she carves bone, leather, deer antlers, exotic woods, and other organic materials into renderings of leaves, vines, seedpods, and fruits that “appear formed by interior force rather than whittled down,” as American Craft magazine marveled. Forging complements the carving: the repeated hammer blows, as she shapes silver and gold, resonate in Church’s work like a heartbeat. Indeed, wearing her Foliate Harness, the thickly sensuous silver-leaved necklace featured on a 1997 cover of Metalsmith, “is like crawling inside foliage,” one critic observed.

“Great jewelers tease us with illusion,” proposed a recent reviewer, “offering us objects that rest in our hands yet exceed our grasp.” That was the paradox Church sought in studying icon painting and a leathery, road-flattened frog (an ancient symbol of resurrection) that she keeps in a tin in her studio. Says Church, “I’m interested in life, death, rebirth, and transformation. I’m interested in how a frog disintegrates and becomes plant life.”

Since forging her own link between art and jewelry, Church has made countless necklaces, brooches, pins, and bracelets—and she sells every one. As it was for her mentor Earl Pardon, her most important piece, she says, is always “the next one.” —BAM

Aid to Iraq

Rebecca Maestri ’79, who works for the US Agency for International Development, has helped with private-sector development in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Recently, as regional program manager for USAID’s Bureau for Asia and the Near East, she has been involved in reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Working in both Baghdad and Washington, D.C. (where she’s been assisted by legislative liaison Christine Lewis ’99 and health advisor Mary Segall ’62), Maestri says, “It’s been anything but business as usual. Working alongside our Department of Defense colleagues was challenging and often frustrating because we’re of two different psychologies whose objectives don’t naturally play well together. But ultimately it was a good learning experience.” And the net results of USAID’s efforts, she notes, are “regional stability and goodwill.
“Think what you will about how and why we engaged in Iraq, but the Iraqi people need our assistance in many areas: education, health, employment, democracy and governance, and agriculture programs in particular. With US government assistance, private enterprises are springing up everywhere, electricity is becoming more reliable, hospitals and schools are being built, and—for the first time in the country’s history—Iraqis will participate in free elections. I’d say that’s an accomplishment.”

Americans, she adds, shouldn’t be “so naïve as to believe everything they see on the nightly news—which tends to focus on what sells: violence and the sensational.” Maestri, impressed by the Iraqis’ “gratitude and appreciation,” describes them as “wonderful—by and large a peaceful people who merely want a better life for their children.”

In designing and developing any foreign assistance program, Maestri keeps in mind one thing: “When I became a career federal employee, I took an oath to serve my country to the best of my ability. And that’s what I’ve strived to do for over sixteen years.” —MTS


This place rocks

You wouldn’t know it by the sprawl of retail chain stores and housing tracts near the Adirondack Northway, but Clifton Park, N.Y., south of Saratoga Springs, does have a heart. And Margaret Lilley Kinosian ’83 is right at the center of it.

Kinosian is proprietor of the Jonesville Country Store, a restored landmark on Main Street, fifteen minutes from the nearest mall. The building, a social nexus for the quiet hamlet for 150 years, had been vacant for ten years and fallen into disrepair. “I drove by it every day,” Kinosian recalls. And one day, cruising past with her two daughters in the back seat, it dawned on her: getting the place up and running again would give her something to do when the kids were a little older.

She and husband Hank ’81 bought the building five years ago. They gutted it and put in a new foundation. Then they rewired, replumbed, installed a septic system, and added a new tin roof on the back half. The business opened in midsummer 2003 and now employs three full-time and several part-time workers. It features a charming natural foods emporium, café, lunch deli, gallery, and upstairs reading room—all the while retaining its old-fashioned general-store appeal.

“There’s a real community feeling about this place,” says Kinosian. People arrive at the store riding bicycles, leading dogs, pushing strollers. They sit on the porch to eat their lunch—described by one patron as “nutty crunchy healthy veggie (though there is meat, too”)—and chat with neighbors.

Running a country store may seem like a radical detour from her geology major. But Kinosian says Skidmore helped equip her with the creative and organizational skills required for entrepreneurship. Geology professor Dick Lindemann, for instance, would “give us a problem to solve and show us where to find the answers. He taught me to how to gather information. And if there’s anything I needed to do, it’s that.”

Kinosian never lost touch with Skidmore, either. On a counter by the cash register, her college rock hammer features prominently in a display of novelty soap “rocks”—a nod to her geologic past.

That's original

What would it be like to have Clifford the Big Red Dog hanging around your house? There are some kids (and grownups) who know, thanks to Susie Saitow Allen ’87, who sells the original artwork of children’s book illustrators through her online business, Besides Norman Bridwell (creator of Clifford), Allen represents Caldecott Award winner Marjorie Priceman (Princess Picky), Peter Reynolds (Judy Moody), and several others.

Allen, married to Scott Allen ’83 and the mother of two daughters, lives in Brookline, Mass. As a volunteer fundraiser for the nonprofit Horizons Initiative, which provides services for homeless children, she helped coordinate an annual auction of works donated by children’s book artists. In 2001, after working eight auctions, she decided this largely “unknown, underappreciated” art form deserved a wider audience.

About a dozen artists of varying styles sell their work through Allen. “Almost every piece offered is the actual one that was published in the book,” she says. Prices range from $400 to $2,000 and are set by the artists, all of whom are in the US. Allen would dearly love to sell works by some of her favorite British artists too—like Lauren Childs (I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato), Helen Oxenbury (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt), and Anita Jeram (Guess How Much I Love You)—and she would, if it weren’t so “tricky to work with artists overseas.”

Her customers include art collectors, interior designers, and ordinary parents looking to spruce up their kids’ rooms. Occasionally, someone will request a specific picture—in which case Allen, for a small fee, attempts to track down the artist. She often has good luck (they’re “flattered and willing to sell”), except when people are hoping for work by “legendary artists like Maurice Sendak, William Steig, or Eric Carle. Generally, when illustrators reach that level of fame, either their original art is not for sale or the prices are very high.”

So you may not have the good fortune of seeing the Wild Things gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes at you from the family-room wall…but there’s always Clifford. For other options, e-mail Allen at —MTS

Outside the box

When a typo ruined a lab experiment, researcher Jonathan Brody ’92 didn’t just edit and start over. He scrutinized the whole procedure—and discovered an important new tool in biotech research.

A postdoctoral fellow in the cancer-research lab of Scott Kern at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Brody (at right, pictured with Kern) was making a standard electrophoresis gel for separating strands of DNA. DNA is fed into the gel, and then an electric current slowly pulls apart the larger and smaller pieces of genetic material. When this particular gel failed, Brody caught the error in the recipe he’d used. Then a critical question struck him: Countless researchers had long relied on the hand-me-down recipe, but was it the best tool for the job?

Electrophoresis gels have been based on compounds called TAE and TBE, which buffer acidity and increase electrical conductivity. They were used for protein and RNA separation in the 1950s and ’60s, and when genetic research took off in the 1970s, the same gels were put to work for DNA separation. The manufacture and sale of premade gels to laboratories is now a multimillion-dollar industry.

A history major (and Filene Music Scholar), Brody avidly delved into the scientific past and ran some tests. During a short leave from his cancer research, he found that TAE and TBE aren’t very good buffers and, worse, that they create excess conductivity and damaging heat. A far better formula is sodium borate, a common salt. As the magazine Hopkins Medicine described it, “It produced crisper, easier-to-read, staggered lines in the final snapshot and…cut the time for running the gel from more than an hour to 15 minutes. It also cut production costs from 27 cents [or more] to 7 cents…. For Hopkins alone, using the salt could shave as much as $40,000 from the budget.”

Brody and Kern patented the new electrophoresis medium and published a report in February’s BioTechniques journal. Several research labs have already adopted the new formula. So far, Brody told Hopkins Medicine, “the only complaint we’ve received is that the gels are so efficient, we’ve ruined what used to be researchers’ lunch break.” —SR


One more detail

Aformer cop in Washington, D.C., Greg Huska ’94 is now a special agent with the Department of Defense’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a federal law–enforcement agency that protects the Navy and Marine Corps. When the DOD established the Coalition Provisional Authority as part of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Huska was sent to the Middle East to protect one of several high-profile Coalition officials.

In June 2003 his four-person “advance team” began a seven-hour road trip from Kuwait City to Baghdad. Navigation proved a challenge because many roads lacked names, numbers, or other identification—and often featured travelers driving in the wrong direction, piloting a donkey at breakdown speed in the fast lane, or stopping for no apparent reason. But the team arrived in good shape.

They were stationed at a compound in al Hillah, north of Baghdad. Their protectee, a US dignitary who is fluent in Arabic, met daily with religious and political leaders at their offices, mosques, and homes throughout the region. “During the first four months of the detail, we logged over 11,000 miles,” Huska notes.

Whether traveling to tiny villages or large cities, he found that Iraqis were mainly kind and readily offered food and drink at their homes—“many of which were nothing more than cinderblock or wood huts in the middle of nowhere.”

But in strife-torn Fallujah, Huska’s team had to scurry their dignitary out of city hall when the building came under fire from mortars and AK-47s. Despite several more harrowing incidents, the team and their protectee escaped injury.

During his five-month stint in Iraq, Huska saw “the positive sides of Coalition reconstruction efforts”—including schools and hospitals being built and repaired—and appreciated the chance to work with police and other protective service teams from around the world.

He also experienced “the August phenomenon known as the ‘cooking of the dates’: the temperatures rise, and the tree-grown dates (one of Iraq’s principal exports) ripen. On the hottest day, it was 145°F,” says Huska, who was weighted down with body armor and thirty pounds of equipment.

Now back in D.C., he provides full-time “dignitary protection” for a senior DOD official. —MTS