Artist mines Jewish novels at Fort Mason Metalsmiths Fair

There were treasures buried in Gladys Schmitt's historical novel "David the King." It took metalsmith Esther Davies to dig them out.

Patient as an archeologist, the Berkeley artist sifted through the chapters, uncovered a chunk of silver, mined it, soldered it, polished it and bent it into the shape of an ancient biblical musical instrument that evoked still waters, green pastures, and the valley of the shadow of death.

Her "David's Harp" pin, inlaid with semiprecious stones and fashioned with a clasp so it may be worn on a lapel, will be on display, along with her other works of Judaica, at the eighth annual Metalsmiths' Fair Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 4 and 5 at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center.

"`David's Harp' isn't really David's harp," said Davies. It's from her imagination, stimulated by the words of Jewish writers.

She read about the fall of the temple in Lion Feuchtwanger's "Trilogy of Josephus" and began producing silver mezzuzot incorporating miniature architectural features: a column, a wall, a gable, a little door at the bottom that opens up.

"You live, you experience things, you make connections that somebody else may have never made," she said.

"The ability to bring that to fruition in some way is from your training," the techniques she learned while pursuing a master of fine arts degree from California College of Arts and Crafts in 1977.

Other musical instruments in her collection include "David's Lyre," "Miriam's Tambourine," and an ancient fiddle, all meant to be worn as pins or necklaces.

Her pieces are on display at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, the American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia and in galleries, museums, and Jewish Community Centers nationwide and in Canada. Her work is included in a show titled "Heaven on Earth" currently on display at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md.

When she was asked how long it took her to create one pin, Davies replied, "72 years."

She was born in New York in 1923. Her mother, Rebecca Saltzman, immigrated from Poland to escape pogroms.

"She came on the last ship that came from Germany" before World War I broke out, said Davies.

No one was here to greet or help her mother, who got a job selling gas masks for the U.S. government. Her three brothers and a sister fled to France, and all but one survived. Her own mother, Davies' grandmother, died in a Polish concentration camp.

Saltzman ultimately became a dressmaker in the sweat shops of New York's Lower East Side.

Davies became a number of things, from a sheep farmer to a department store display designer to a secretary for a detective agency.

"It's called making a living," she said. "I've always been an artist. I spent most of my working years working in offices and hating it."

Sometimes it helps to escape with a good book. "When I started doing the readings," she said of the Jewish historical novels she's been studying, "I just became more interested in making things that have value."

Another creator of Judaica jewelry appearing at Metalsmiths' Fair is Eva Strauss-Rosen. The Willits resident who was trained in Tel Aviv specializes in lockets made of gold, sterling silver and precious stones.

The fair, sponsored by the Metal Arts Guild of Northern California, of which Davies is a member, will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. A total of 36 artists will present jewelry, furniture, sculpture and decorative art.

Admission is $4 adults, $3 seniors. Children under 12 get in free. Fort Mason is located at Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard. For information, call (415) 221-8494.