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For artist Robin Lehto, it started with a gift.
A friend of hers, an 8-year-old girl, had to leave her cat behind when she moved from one state to another. Lehto wanted to do something to help her cope with the loss.
“She loved lockets. And I wanted to make her a cat locket, so I drew a picture of her cat,” Lehto said. “I made four or five bad prints before I figured out how to get it on there.”
The little girl, and others, found the locket enchanting.
“I got from her mom and from the people she knew, and from her, this huge response,” Lehto said. “I was out of work at the time and I thought, ‘Maybe I could sell these.' ”
Since 2011, Lehto, who moved to Wilmington recently from Portland, Ore., has sold about 2,000 of the lockets, adorned with her images of animals, people, geometric shapes and objects, through retail outlets and her Etsy.com store, where she made her first sale.
Abstract vs. cuteness
When Lehto was studying art at Portland State University, one of her professors encouraged her to set aside her “cute” drawings of animals and objects and focus on her abstract expressionist paintings, which is what she did for 10 years after she graduated with an art degree in 2000.
“I got a job talking on the phone, and all night I worked on my big ol' master pieces in my one-bedroom studio,” Lehto says in her Etsy.com profile. “But all day, at the phone job, I'd draw cute little animals. Foxes, dogs, birdies, raccoons, girls riding elephants, aging actresses drinking martinis, kittens in a basket. All day long.”
Her larger paintings, however, were not selling like she needed them to for the amount of time that was put into them. For a while, inspired by the movie “Being John Malcovich,” she made papier mache puppets. But eventually, shifting to something more affordable and marketable made sense after the response she got to her first locket.
“I get to be a professional artist because of having learned to access a broader audience,” Lehto said. “I do that by making the kind of images that make people happy.”
While she doesn't want to give every detail of her process away, Lehto explains that she makes her creations by transferring her art to vintage oval or circular lockets, bought from a company in New York that sells overstock jewelry components. She prefers the lockets from New York, not so much for their vintage look as for their origins.
“I have some concerns about labor practices, how things are manufactured now. Eventually I might run out of vintage lockets and I don't know what I'm going to do,” Lehto said. “I might take one as a sample and try to find my own manufacturer here in the United States or learn how to make them. I don't know. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
She develops one out of every five or six drawings into lockets.
“Sometimes things come from dreams,” she said, showing an example of a girl holding geese aloft with strings. “Sometimes I'm just really eager to please, and I make what I know people will like. And then sometimes I try and do stuff that is really from inside of me. Either one is pretty satisfying.”
After Lehto transfers the art, usually done in ink and watercolor or gouache, she then seals the image on the locket with resin, a liquid that hardens into a transparent solid. The necklaces sell for $32 each at two local Aqua Fedora stores and on Etsy.
“During www.starnewsonline.com/section/holidays02">http://www.starnewsonline.com/section/holidays02">Christmas, every time someone would come in and not know what to get I was like, ‘You should get a locket because they're perfect. Everyone loves them,'” said Jordan Allen, a sales associate at Aqua Fedora.
Lehto makes lockets in a rented studio at Acme Art on North 5th Avenue in downtown Wilmington. From start to finish, the process takes four to five days. She does not take custom orders.
“Because I'm such a perfectionist, I don't know how long it's going to take me to be satisfied,” she said. “Making what somebody tells me to make on a timeline is just not possible.”
In addition to the hours she spends each week on the lockets, Lehto continues to paint larger pieces.
“I'm considering restarting my puppet phase because it seems like there's some want for that in town,” she said.
Doing what she loves
Lehto said she really liked the movie “Annie,” in which a locket figures prominently.
“I wanted a locket, but I didn't get my own locket until I was like, 25,” she said. “There's also a Tom Waits song, ‘Innocent When You Dream,' that mentions a locket and that makes me feel really romantic about them.”
Some customers buy them for bridesmaids' gifts.
“People pick out ones that represent each of their friends to them,” she said.
Lehto wears her own lockets to show people what she does for a living when they ask.
“Since I have my own business and that's something that people really like, people want to know how I did that … What's made me able to do this are two things: I started out by doing something for someone else, and then I added to that what's special about what I have to offer,” she said. “If you add something that you have to give from your heart to one of your talents, then that's kind of the money spot of finding out what you need to do.”
She then added, laughing, “But I live in a tiny little apartment, and I have calluses.”
They're available at Aqua Fedora stores at 30 N. Front St., downtown Wilmington, and in www.starnewsonline.com/section/topic9967">http://www.starnewsonline.com/section/topic9967">Lumina Station, 1900 Eastwood Road, Unit 40, Wilmington. Online, order from Locketfox.etsy.com