EFLAND — When Anna Kurtz traveled from Uzbekistan to Greensboro to visit her sister, she spoke little English and planned to return home when her tourist visa expired.
Six years later, Kurtz, 37, lives in Efland with her Raleigh-reared husband, Eric Kurtz, whom she met because he worked for her brother-in-law's software company.
"It was just pure luck," Kurtz said.
She had another stroke of luck a few years later when Eric was doing computer work for Larry Favorite, a longtime Mebane artisan who makes ironwood bowls, vases and sculptures.
"Eric had mentioned how I do sketches," said Kurtz, who studied Russian literature and language in college. "All my life. I've been drawing and doing sketches."
"Larry told him, 'Ask her to stop by. I want someone to do some sketches of the trees for my work.'"
At the time, Kurtz, who was still mastering English, was studying to be a graphic designer, but her heart wasn't in it.
"When I stepped into Larry's studio, he was showing me all this crazy equipment he has, how he's doing inlay of turquoise into ironwood."
She was intrigued with the process and the material, one of the Sonoran desert's largest and oldest trees, growing up to 45 feet and living up to 1,500 years. The ironlike wood is said to be one of the planet's densest materials.
Favorite, 70, was so impressed with Kurtz's artistic ability and enthusiasm that he offered her a job as his apprentice.
"He said he had a lot of work lying around and he couldn't keep up with everything and would I like to become his apprentice."
Kurtz was game, but her learning curve was steep.
"He asked me to sand a piece of wood, and I sanded all my fingers," she recalled with a laugh. "I thought, I will never be able to do this. I had no idea I can do woodworking. I thought it wasn't something for me."
Meanwhile, Kurtz had abandoned plans to study graphic design and was making and selling beaded jewelry.
"I love jewelry," she says. "I've been buying items for myself, mostly beaded jewelry. I started like so many jewelry makers, by going to a bead show. Larry said, 'It's all nice, but you've got to do something completely different to stand out.' And he told me he used to make jewelry from ironwood."
Kurtz was intrigued. She had learned the basics of woodworking by then, and Favorite had taught her how to inlay silver, turquoise and other materials into the cracks in ironwood.
"Inlay isn't as complicated as carving something," Kurtz said. "Gradually I started doing more and more. When I made my first piece of wooden jewelry, people were impressed, saying, 'It's so different, it's so nice.' Then I just started to experiment."
She started making the jewelry in late 2006 and says her work really matured a year ago.
Her attention-getting necklaces contain several elements and shapes, often with dangling parts. Along with silver and turquoise, inlays might be of mother of pearl or amber. Favorite also showed Kurtz how to cut silver with a handsaw, and she plans to take silversmithing classes this year.
Kurtz isn't sure what informs and inspires her creative designs.
"I cannot even explain it. I've always had it in my head, I guess," she says. "The beading helped me, and that I can draw helps because I can sketch it out first. But it's mostly my imagination. It's important how it looks, but also how it feels on your neck."
She credits Favorite for not only teaching her the craft but also helping her show and sell her work. "Larry helped me out a lot. When I got to the point that I knew what I was doing, he'd drag me along to the art shows he was already in."
When it comes to design, however, Kurtz has her own ideas.
"Sometimes Larry tells me it's not going to work and I do it anyway, and it usually works."
Meanwhile, she's taught him a thing or two about design.
"I still do drawings for him all the time, and he's grown, too, because of my sense of design."
Kurtz says she still cannot believe her luck.
"I'm so fortunate," she says. "Just today I told Larry how I never had real work before. I started college, had my daughter, and never really applied myself. Now I see I can do something, and I love what I do. Larry has been my mentor, my second father and my friend. I'm very fortunate."
Favorite considers himself equally fortunate, amazed that he's sharing his workspace and time with anyone.
"I'm fiercely independent, and I like to work alone," he said. "One of the things I like is we can say most anything to each other."
The veteran artist holds his apprentice's work in high esteem.
"In the last year she's really come into her own," he said. "She has a really high sense of design."
The two ironwood artists are showing their work together, including sharing a booth at Artsplosure on May 16-17 in downtown Raleigh, where Favorite will display his inlaid ironwood objects and Kurtz her jewelry.
"It really works because our work is similar," she said.
If people don't know what Kurtz's jewelry is made of, they're surprised by the outcome, she said. And if they're told before seeing it, they're surprised even more.
"When you say to someone you're doing wooden jewelry, people have a picture in their head, something chunky, something completely different from what I'm doing."
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