artist advent calendar : michelle engel bencsko

Today we're visiting Michelle Engel Bencsko, who runs the wildly successful Cicada Studio. She shares a warm and lovely story about the handmade Christmas ornaments her mother created for the family tree years ago.

When Stephanie asked me to be a part of this clever blog project, at first I thought.... oh no! I have nothing to share! But then I remembered... yes, yes, I do. I can share my mother's work with everyone. The precious delights of my youth- the artistic example with which I grew up- my sentimental journey. I asked my mom to write a little bit about what got her started making them:

"(It was the early 1970's), I lived in a trailer (in Florida, while my dad was in the Air Force) with 2 kids, had no car, no money and Christmas was coming and I had to decorate the tree. So, I started a hobby while you guys played next to me. You were so good together, you let me work."

Decorating the tree is probably the one thing I'm passionate about at holiday time. I load up the tree with too many light sets so that it's so aglow that there's barely a need for any ornaments at all. When I was growing up, I would help my mother decorate our tree- something I should've felt honored to do because she had such an exacting eye for perfectionist detail, only a few hands are allowed this privilege! My favorite decorations to hang were the ones she made herself when my younger brother and I were babies. They were always set aside from the other decorations and we tended to put them up higher on the tree is "spot light" areas so they could really shine. Below are photos of a few of the ones that are still intact and remain cherished.

Little "nut people"- on the left are skaters, which used to have red pistachios shells for feet and had little skates fashioned out of the same wire that the little coiled yarn earmuffs use. Pipe cleaners that are attached into small holes drilled into the bodies, tuck into pompom ball muffs. How sweet is the orange felt cap?! On the right are choir boys. I could (and have) spend so much time just looking at each delicate brush stroke of the oil paint to create wisps of jet black hair. She gave everything a final coat of gloss, which is now beginning to flake on the nuts.

These little skiers have certainly taken their share of spills. Once upon a time they had skis cut from aluminum soda cans. Today, I've replaced them with basic paper (with the intention of one day restoring them!). The little acorn cap makes such a cozy hat. I love their little ski poles, too. Everything about these little people are so imaginative- and inject imaginative stories into the minds of little ones.

My tree topper is a clothespin angel. She has wings, also made aluminum and pipe cleaners for arms. I had to replace the halo and the skirt a few years back. When she sits upon our tree, I make sure an amber light is below her skirt which illuminates her. To the right, a quirky little starfish man with a shell for a face. He sort of reminds me of something from Mummenshantz!

Below are two reindeer from the herd my mom still possesses and keeps on her mantle all year round: A Rudolph papa and baby. I have never seen anything quite like them and I hope you will be as equally impressed by them as I am. My mom writes:

"When Pop-Pop (her father) took us to a restaurant down the shore, its specialty was duck, and we would come in thru the kitchen (it was an old reconverted house), and the wishbones of the ducks were all hanging on a wire overhead. I asked if I could have a couple as the idea of using them to make antlers came into my head. The tails are teensy mussel shells I found on the Jersey shore beach. Chicken wishbones and cornish hen bones for the baby. Pins for eyes and noses, toothpick for a neck, and corks for the head and body."

All of this, of course, has encouraged me to make my own ornaments, which are very different and I also cherish... but that is another story... I hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane!

Thank you Michelle for the wonderful, personal holiday story that you and your mom have shared with us today! No wonder you are so creative :)