She crafts art from birch bark and junk copper

  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 5:19 PM
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Deborah Bushinski

Every year around this time, Deborah Bushinski leaves her Minnetonka home studio, pulls on her rubber Wellington boots and tromps through a marshy birch grove west of Duluth. The trees she seeks are doomed, about to be logged.

She'll take out her knife and cut enough sheets of white, lichen-covered birch bark to fill a few garbage bags before the day is over.

"It's physically demanding," she says. "And I end up wet and bug-bitten."

But she scoffs when people suggest she hire others to harvest her bark. Her 14-year-old business, Tessoro Jewelry, is successful enough with its glossy catalog and slick website (tessorojewelry.com). Her earrings, pins and brooches are selling in gift shops from the Minnesota History Center to Chicago's Art Institute, from Alaska's largest airport to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania.

After she gets back to Minnetonka, she'll clean the bark, then weight it down to flatten it, using a paint scraper to pry loose any unwanted debris. Bushinski insists on doing all that bark work herself. But she isn't as picky about the other major component in her creations: copper salvaged from junked car radiators.

Ken, her husband of 12 years, is the vice president, financial figurer and operations chief at Tessoro Jewelry.

"And I let him deal with the junk yards," she says.

The daughter of former St. Paul legislator Walter Hanson, Deborah grew up in the St. Luke's parish in St. Paul and attended now-defunct Brady High School, where her yearbook predicted she'd own her own business.

After graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she moved up north near Sandstone with her first husband, raising her two now-grown kids and focusing on studio painting.

She spent some time as an ad exec for advertising firms and enjoys the sales aspect of her art business. As she morphed into jewelry, she found similarities in composition and the play of contrasting light and dark. She uses gemstones such as Dalmatian jasper to add pizzazz. She formed her company in 1998, naming it after the Italian and Spanish words for treasure. At first, she was manipulating and embellishing her pieces.

"As I've developed, I've learned to let the natural and organic elements lead."

She attends so-called buyers' markets, where thousands of her jewelry pieces get bought up and sold to retail shops, including five in Minnesota. Her jewelry sells for $50 to $100 at the Art Dock in Duluth's Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace.

"They're light and natural and unusual -- all that good stuff," says Art Dock merchant Marlene Kettula.

And Bushinski loves the small-world stories that follow her birch-bark earrings.

"I had one friend wear them to a job interview and the woman across from her had on a similar pair of earrings," she says. "I even got a call when a newscaster wore some of my earrings during a live shot."

CURT BROWN

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