Cara Wolff: My Journey from Wildlife Biologist to Jewelry Designer
Editor's Note: Cara's studio and boutique is at 4 Elliot St., near the corner with Main in Brattleboro. The shop's display tables and shelving were designed and crafted by Cara using metal and live-edge planks; moss, bark, and stone are decorative elements. Jeweler Julia Tadlock, ceramic artist Rob Cartelli, and fiber artist Vale Burns are also showing work. See www.carawolffjewelry.com for more info and hours.
If it weren't for cancer, I would not have become a professional jewelry maker. Not my cancer, but my sister's cancer. And my mother's cancer.
I lost my sister, best friend, and only sibling, Melinda, to breast cancer three and a half years ago. It came on like a freight train in the night, and she was gone within a year at the age of 43, leaving behind two young children and a wonderful husband. The devastation of her loss was enormous, is enormous. She was so full of life—bright, funny, beautiful, talented. There are still days when the pain of her death leaves me feeling like I've been kicked in the stomach and I can't catch my breath. Her death made me question everything I thought I knew to be true and left me grasping to fathom the impermanence of life.
And then the call came. Exactly two years later, almost to the day, from my sister's death. There was a lump ... the words, all the words, that I never knew before that had now become part of the the most dreaded lexicon that I never wanted to know: needle-punch biopsy, 2.7 centimeters, Stage 3, ER/PR negative, high proliferation rate, taxotere, paclitaxel, adriamycin. My mother had breast cancer.
The shock and stress of my mother's cancer diagnosis, on the heels of the second anniversary of my sister's death, was almost too much to bear. I knew my own life had to change dramatically, or I too would one day hear the dreaded words. At the time, I was working as a wildlife consultant on highly charged natural resource issues. As a consultant, I was always "on"—emails and phone calls, regardless of the hour received, were expected to be responded to. Like any good consultant, the word "no" wasn't in my vocabulary. I was overwhelmed with work, while also trying to be a mother to two young children, aged 1 and 3 at the time. My husband had recently begun his career as a family practice physician, so he was also under incredible stress and rarely home.
After my mother's diagnosis, I decided to leave my job. I had spent the previous 20+ years working as a professional wildlife biologist, travelling all over the country working with a diverse array of species—wolves in Montana, mountain lions in California, sage grouse in the intermountain West, and bats all over the eastern United States. Being a wildlife biologist defined me for most of my adult life and was the only career I had ever known. I wasn't sure what I would do next, but one thing was certain, I needed to slow down, be with my family, appreciate my life, and nurture my physical and mental health.
I gave myself one year to live without expectation about what my next step would be professionally. While I came from a family of artists, I never defined myself as one—I was the scientist, not the artist. That title belonged to my sister, my mother, and my grandfather. I grew up playing at my mother.s feet as she tirelessly worked in her studio creating oil and pastel portraits for commission. From the time I can remember, my sister was the one who was supposed to fill my mother's shoes as the artist in the family, which she went on to do. Melinda pursued an education and career in art, studying illustration at Syracuse University and later working as a freelance illustrator and art buyer for several advertising agencies. She was an incredibly talented painter, photographer, and interior decorator.
Despite being "the scientist" in the family, I have had a life-long love of art and an inherent drive to be creative. I was always particularly drawn to jewelry as an art form. Growing up outside of New York City, my family often visited the Museum of Natural History. I was fascinated by the gemstone exhibit—on one particular trip, the Hope Diamond was on display, and I felt such a thrill when the security guard finally ushered our group in to see its sparkling brilliance. Excursions to the Big Apple weren't complete without a trip to Tiffany's to see my Aunt Sylvia, who worked there—I was awed by all of the gemstones, shiny metals, and beautiful designs.
My beginnings as a jewelry maker started in middle school, when I organized my fellow classmates in Junior Achievement to make beaded bracelets to sell at a student concert on our local beach—Weed Beach (affectionately known as "Weedstock"). I later moved from beads to metals when I took a semester of metalsmithing at Humboldt State University while in graduate school for wildlife biology. I received subsequent training in other "homes" along the way at the Maine College of Art and the Denver School of Metal Arts.
One of my ideas about my future career was to have a jewelry studio and combined retail space if I could find a space that was relatively small and affordable but with good foot traffic. It was exactly one year after I left my job that I happened to be walking past the space that is now my jewelry store. I had been eyeing it for some time, thinking it would be perfect for my store if it weren't so large. It had once been the lingerie store Life's Little Luxuries, and had been vacant for some time. On this day, there was lots of activity, and they were putting up a wall to divide the space.
I happened to be the first person to inquire about the new space and later came to find out there was a long list of interested renters. I am not a religious person, but there have been several occasions since my sister died that I felt she was somehow influencing the events of my life. This was one of those times. After a few days of pondering the possibility, I decided to go for it. The lease was signed four days later, and I was open for business a few short weeks later, in the middle of January.
Cara Wolff Jewelry has now been in business seven months, and I am still surprised at how much fulfillment I get from my new profession. Each morning I wake up excited to go to work and channel my creativity into making jewelry. I also love being part of the Brattleboro community and being able to talk with interesting and caring people every day. The fear of cancer still looms in the background, but most days it is crowded out by the gratitude I have for all the beauty I see in this life. My sister's gracefully rendered pencil sketch of a lily hangs on the wall of my jewelry studio, reminding me of her love and the power of art to connect people, and to connect us to ourselves.
Copyright 2018, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont