Ivy Leaf - Spring 2004

Art Imitates Life

Rebecca Strzelec


There are many different ways to cope with a loved one's illness.

Some people need to talk about their emotions.

Others may learn all about the disease and potential treatments. Still others may become activists for prevention.

But for Rebecca Strzelec, she needed to create.


It was while attending graduate school at Temple University that Rebecca Strzelec learned her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first reaction was to put her studies at Temple's Tyler School of Art on hold, but her mother would not hear of Strzelec quitting school. So instead, Strzelec threw her emotion into her art and began creating jewelry that expressed her family's struggle with this illness.

The first piece that Strzelec created drew its inspiration from an unusual source: the image of her mother's tumor after biopsy. This brooch, resembling the tumor image, had an unusual trait: it was designed to be attached directly to one's skin rather than to clothing. Strzelec states that she was not concentrating on the brooch as traditional jewelry that needed to be worn. Rather, her focus was on the ways in which wearable objects interact with the body's surface.

A major concern was exactly how to attach the brooch directly to the skin. With the aid of medical adhesives, this became possible.

And with the creation of this piece, Strzelec began her continuing exploration of the interaction between wearable objects and the skin surface. However, this focus has made the sale of these pieces impractical, as one must be shirtless to wear them.

But Strzelec's goal was not commercial sales; rather she characterizes her work as being "for me." Ultimately, Strzelec's mother was deemed cancer-free and Strzelec graduated with a Master in Fine Art in metals/jewelry/CAD-CAM from Temple. And she stopped creating brooches with this theme. States Strzelec, "She's better now, so it's done."

A New Media Artist

But Strzelec's work had only just begun. Hired in 2002 by Penn State Altoona as an assistant professor of visual arts, Strzelec is inspiring students to look at art and its creation in new ways.

Characterizing herself as one of the "new media artists," Strzelec steps over the border between art and engineering by utilizing CAD (computer aided design) and Rapid Prototyping to create and to teach. Because of the emphasis on computers and CAD, Strzelec sees many engineering students, in addition to art students, enrolled in her classes. They are given two major assignments to complete. One is the creation of a chess piece, the other can be of their own choice. But in making that choice, they are told that the object must be new and innovative. States Strzelec, "if they can get it in a store or on the web, they can't do it."

Students enrolled in Strzelec's CAD for Artists class are given a rare opportunity. The College's purchase of a Stratasys fused deposition modeling rapid protyping machine in 2003 allows students to not only design their pieces on the computer, but then to see the machine build the design in plastic right before their eyes. Strzelec notes that few educational institutions have purchased this equipment due to its expense. Instead, the manufacture of the designs would have to be outsourced.

Redefining Her Craft

Being a new media artist, Strzelec has endured her share of skepticism from more "traditional" artists. Although she is invited to speak at various conferences, she finds that her role often is one of devil's advocate.

"There exists a stereotype that what I do is a 'shortcut', that the computer does the work for me. Because I don't use 'typical' tools and my work is not 'handmade' in the traditional sense, I am often argued with. However, the computer doesn't do anything that you don't tell it to do," states Strzelec. She views her work as redefining her craft, not shortcutting it, by taking two things that never were meant to meet and forcing them to interact.

And her art again imitates her life. Strzelec has used her hard-to-categorize role in the art world to inspire her latest series of brooches. While in a bookstore with her mother, she stumbled upon a Gregg Shorthand Dictionary. She immediately saw the connections between shorthand and her own work. Although shorthand is often thought of as simply a shortcut, in actuality it is another language. Similarly, Strzelec describes her work as "another artistic language and not an artistic shortcut."

Similar to the pieces inspired by her mother's illness, the individual pieces in this new series mirror Strzelec's current emotions. The first piece is entitled "Apology," as Strzelec finds that she's making a lot of productive changes in her life which are not always the most popular answers with those around her. "Autopsy," the second piece, represents what she's trying to do with her art. By definition, autopsy means "to see for one's self." Strzelec explains that this is what she is doing when she strives to prove her media's validity in the art world.

Strzelec does envision a time when her artistic medium will be widely accepted. But, states Strzelec:

"By then I'll be doing something else. I can't see myself as one of those people making art in this one way for the rest of my life. If mashed potato sculpting was the best way for me to express my art, I would use mashed potatoes. To me, art is about problem solving, not about specialization."


About the artist and her art:

Strzelec describes her recent work as a continuing investigation of the ways in which wearable objects interact with the surface of the body. While she has investigated different types of wearable objects, most of her work consists of brooches — pieces of jewelry that are worn on or around the chest.

Using a variety of medical adhesives and wound-treatment devices, she has created brooches that are applied directly to the skin. The adhesives provide an armature that accepts and supports the objects she creates via CAD and Rapid Prototyping.

Every aspect of each piece is created and conceptualized within the virtual building environment of a CAD application. When the brooch has been designed within the CAD application, it is then manufactured through the use of Rapid Prototyping technologies. Her recent self-adhering brooch series is built using Fused Deposition Modeling, an additive process that builds ABS plastic layer by layer. The plastic is lightweight and allows for large-scale wearable objects.

Stzelec's involvement with the computer as a media has allowed her the freedom to design objects which she could not create by traditional means. When creating, ideas transfer to digital sketches though the manipulation of a computer mouse. A digital archive of each significant change in the piece is maintained. If at any time the piece has strayed too far from her objectives, she can revisit any point in its creation and begin again from there.

Because she creates in "virtual" materials, she cannot accidentally damage her work. This allows for more risk taking. When the piece is completed within the CAD application, she can turn to both 2D and 3D output technology to create tangible functional objects, imaged representations, renderings, prints, animations, and photographs of the work.

Strzelec describes the relationship between her brooches and the body as one of an echo. She uses the shape and surface of bone, muscle, and ligament as artistic guidance. While drawing inspiration from the female body, she strives to create forms that resist direct identification. Eliminating the traditional need of clothing as the attaching surface, she asks the viewer/wearer to see the brooch in the context of the naked female form.