Artists often say the canvas decides what it wants to become.
For jewelry-maker Carolyn Wells, an avocado pit occasionally calls out to say it would rather be a smiling sloth.
The 25-year-old Greenport High School graduate uses dental tools and other carving implements to turn avocado stones, which she said start out with the consistency of cold butter, into tiny statues. The pits harden as they dry and, at that point, she coats them with linseed oil and polishes them with Renaissance Wax. The process can take anywhere from a day to two weeks.
“Every little pit is like a little mystery,” she said during a recent interview in her airy, plant-filled Southold studio. “You kind of know that this one wants to be a scarab or an octopus.”
But these eye-catching carvings are only a part of what Wells creates. She also fashions intricate chain mail pieces, tiny knife-shaped pendants and other wearable pieces of art in her line, Wai Jewelry.
The business name is significant. It’s Wells’ middle name, as well as the maiden name of her Cantonese maternal grandmother. Wai is also Hawaiian for “water,” and she chose that name because she discovered her love of chain mail while visiting Hawaii.
“I guess that’s my biggest inspiration. Just water in general,” said Wells, whose father, Thomas, is a shipwright. “Its properties. The fact that it has the ability to mold in any vessel.”
Largely self-taught, she said carving the avocado stones carries a steep learning curve and that she’s broken many along the way. As for the chain mail, she said she’s fascinated by how the different patterns are formed and hang together.
“All it is, is little circles,” she said.
Wells studied fashion and textiles at SUNY/Oneonta and Fashion Institute of Technology but concentrated on the business side of the industry during school.
“I need to be making things with my hands,” she said. “It’s my calming, meditative activity and it brings me so much joy I couldn’t think about doing anything else.”
If her work has a common theme it’s that it evokes the ancient and primal with a modern twist. Rena Wilhelm, owner of The Weathered Barn, a Greenport store that specializes in artisanal goods, carries some of Wells’ pieces. She said the artist’s earthy style, and outfits accessorized with her own jewelry, make her a walking advertisement for her work.
“I’ve never seen anybody work like this,” Wilhelm said. “Who works in that medium? Who thought that was something you could carve? Who would have thought that?”
Wells began by whittling tiny feathers out of driftwood, but noticed that avocado pits have properties similar to wood.
“And as you watch them age, they kind of dry or shrivel,” she said. “And they end up being something as hard as almost wood. I thought, why not try to carve this as well?”
Charmaine Strange, a friend and the owner of consulting company SAYSO NoFO, said she feels lucky to own a few of Wells’ pieces.
“It is incredibly impressive to watch her form these detailed small sculptures from something that is casually discarded every time we make guacamole or avocado toast,” Strange said. “She takes an idea and executes it in such a unique way that I am continually impressed by her creativity.”
Wells describes her craft as “an exercise in potential.”
“What I kind of like about it is you can make something beautiful out of things that people walk right by,” she said. “It’s endless. It’s boundless. It’s wonderful. You can take it anywhere you want to go.”
This is the second article in a northforker and Suffolk Times series about young North Fork artisans.