Take a stroll along via de’ Mezzo, in the Sant’Ambrogio neighbourhood of Florence, and you’ll come across a glass-fronted studio. Welcome to Sara Amrhein’s creative space and boutique, lovingly dotted with her artisan jewellery and artwork, bursting with colour and life.
Born on Long Island, New York, and raised in Southern California, Amrhein initially studied Renaissance art history, coming to Florence on a study-abroad programme and staying for four years. Following that experience, she moved back to the United States and acquired a second degree in fine art from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
‘I was totally convinced that I was going to be this great painter, and that I was going to sell my paintings to galleries and make thousands and thousands of dollars. But things don’t quite work out that way,’ says Amrhein, in the company of her cat, Michelangelo. After graduation she continued to feel that something was missing from her life, and she eventually returned to Florence.
Her return to creating jewellery came about in 2007, out of creative curiosity but also practicality: she was looking for an art form that would work well inside her tiny monolocale, and once she discovered polymer clay and the potential it held for jewelrymaking, she was hooked. She fell in love with polymer clay as a result of an Internet search while seeking a way to make her drawings come to life and to oblige them to ‘come off the page.’ Her joy stems from the texture of the clay and the fact that the experience actually feels more like sculpting than making jewellery. She explains the process: ‘Sometimes I’ll do a drawing first to get the ideas going. I make the big flowers, taking different coloured pieces of clay and mixing them together, like paint. I start placing and putting things together and arranging them to figure out what works best. Often I use a felt background and string and sew things onto it.’ Her pieces are baked at 110°C for 30 to 45 minutes in a tiny domestic electric oven in Amrhein’s studio.
Amrhein is one of the co-founders of the Creative People in Florence group on Facebook, a community that meets offline as well as on because, as she observes, ‘it’s really important to be around other creative people.’ She finds that it helps her both to understand better her creative process and to deal with those times of solitude, working alone in her studio. This 170-member community allows people to pose and gain answers to practical questions, such as where one can find a specific type of paint or material in Florence.
When it comes to sources of inspiration, Amrhein is specific yet vague at the same time. For her it depends on variables, such as the time of year. ‘In the spring and summer, I’m inspired by the iris and rose gardens up at Piazzale Michelangelo.’ She also draws inspiration from the fashion in Florence by looking in shop windows. One of Amrhein’s permanent sources of creativity, regardless of the season, is a well-known Florentine jewellery designer: ‘I am always, always inspired by Angela Caputi. I love the way she’s so bold and unafraid to be herself.’
Her studio is an ordered, peaceful haven, but it was not always the blissful place it is today. Previously it was used as a storage space by her husband for his masonry business, piled floor to ceiling with an array of types of tools, saws and cement mixers. Amrhein remembers, ‘There was even an Ape truck parked inside.’ After three long years of cleaning out and cleaning up, Amrhein opened her studio in via de’ Mezzo in April 2013.
Best bar for an aperitivo?
Plaz in piazza Ciompi. I love sitting outside, watching people pass by. There is live music in the evening during the warmer months and a good spread.
One place in Florence that makes you happy?
The bike path along the Arno: I usually run along it. I love running away from the center. It clears my head and puts me in a good mood. Then I love running back and looking at the view of the city from Ponte San Niccolò.
The biggest difference between Italians and Americans?
Food! Everything is fresh and just tastes so much better here and I am healthier as a result.
Where would you take a guest who isn’t into art?
Mercato Centrale! Who doesn’t love good food and wine?
Favourite view of Florence?
From Piazzale Michelangelo: it never gets old.
To learn more about Sara Amrhein, visit her website www.sara-amrhein.com
*This article was originally published in print in TF issue 189. The October 2015 video and some editorial updates were added October 16, 2015.