A Place for the Arts

Enthusiasm flows from St. Peter goldsmith Patty Conlin. The owner of Stones Throw Gallery and Studio describes herself as an “artist who collects artists” and her galleryas “a place for the arts.”

Stones Throw is first and foremost a jewelry store that features Conlin’s unique creations, including gold necklaces, chains, pendants, rings and earrings. Her creativity pushes her to design pieces that can be worn in various ways, as a pendant, a chain, or a pin. She also sells loose gems.

Conlin also showcases the works of other artists at Stones Throw. Her apprentices, Lolly Hinkle, Sacha Bliese and Kristin Musser, create jewelry. Then there are stained glass works, blown glass pieces, hand woven scarves, leather goods, wooden artistic pieces, photographs, 3D beadworks, paintings, handmade greeting cards, pottery and prints.

When Conlin travels to art shows around the country to showcase her work, she always takes time to check other artists’ work. When she sees something that complements the jewelry in her gallery, she invites the artists to display and sell their work at Stones Throw.

At one point, Conlin had the work of upward of 120 artists in her gallery. During the shutdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she took stock. She realized her gallery had become “visually confusing.”  Now, Conlin limits the number of artists she features to 25 to 30, in addition to herself. She is happy with the results: everything is bright, colorful and a good fit with her jewelry.

The GSR Fine Arts Festival
As a veteran of art shows, Conlin and some friends and apprentices decided to stage a fine art show locally. Twenty years ago the GSR Fine Arts Festival was born. GSR stands for Gold Smiths’ Reunion. Initially it featured works by Conlin and her apprentices — artists who worked in metal, specifically gold. After a few years, the festival expanded to include all fine artists and the event grew.

The festival debuted at Harpies’ Bazaar in Mankato and ran there for several years. Then it moved to the YWCA, before moving again to what is now the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in downtown Mankato. There it started in the small Ellerbee room and expanded to fill half the ballroom.

Eventually the festival grew to fill the entire ballroom with fine arts vendors. Many of those vendors are friends, Conlin said. “It’s developed into a great community.”

The GSR Fine Arts Festival is staged in the late fall. With the holidays approaching and family coming to visit, it’s Conlin’s busiest season. She has stepped back from the day-to-day planning of the event, but remains involved.

“Sometimes I forget to say no,” Conlin said with a laugh.

A Passion For Gold and Stones
Conlin’s first love in jewelry is gold, although she can work in silver. She illustrates her point by telling the story of a friend who is a wood carver. He is interested in carving intricate designs into old-fashioned chairs. Although his chairs were beautiful, they were not big sellers. One day Conlin asked him, “Do you want to eat, or do you want to carve?”

As Conlin tells the story, she laughs, recalling a business partner who once asked her if she wanted a paycheck, or if she wanted to buy more gemstones.

“I wanted to buy more gemstones,” Conlin said.

If Conlin’s first love is working with gold, her second love is working with stones. Though not a gemologist, she knows her stones. Walking through Stones Throws’ showcases, she points out opals from at least seven different countries, each with its own distinct appearance. Trays of fiery opals gleam in colors from red to orange to purple. Conlin knows all their properties.

“There’s so much more than the milky opals from Mexico,” Conlin said.

Conlin often works with diamonds. She considers them “sparkly neutrals” and good to put by another stone to add pizazz.

“I can set everything from a diamond to a fossil,” Conlin said.

She gives one example of a woman who came to her for a wedding set and wanted to use a stone from her future husband’s farm.

“I hit it, broke it into small pieces and picked one piece out,” Conlin said. “I asked her what she thought, and it became her wedding ring, set next to a very sparkly stone.”

A Collaborative Process
Much of the jewelry Conlin creates is custom made.

“I used to make things, then push it toward someone and say, ‘Here. This is beautiful. Buy it,’” Conlin said.

Over the years, her approach has changed. Now, she prefers a collaborative approach with her customers. She stays in touch with them throughout the creative process.

“Before I finish something, I will initially make a drawing to show the customer. When I’m close to finished, I send a photo to make sure they like it,” Conlin said. “If they want a stone in a different place, it can be hard to redo. It’s hard to pry a stone out of a piece you’ve just pushed it into, especially if it’s an opal. Opals are very soft stones.”

To help people understand the wide variety of gemstones available and how they might be used to make jewelry, Conlin hosts gem roundtables at Stones Throw Gallery. When she started hosting the events, pre-pandemic, she’d have as many as 16 people at the table. Now, she has five or six, and finds that’s a great number of people. It ensures they all get their questions answered.

At the roundtables, Conlin picks out stones to show participants. She provides a description and information about each stone, such as where it is found and the properties that make it good material for jewelry.

The stones are passed around the table, with everyone getting a chance to hold and examine them.

If someone chooses to purchase a stone that day, they are given a discount. If they also commission Conlin to create a piece of jewelry, they receive a discount on that, as well. Conlin offers wine, chocolate and cheese along with stones at her gem roundtables. She calls it a “lovely thing” for rockhounds.

As a goldsmith, Conlin fabricates jewelry, but she doesn’t cast it.

“I take the gold. I alter the shape of it,” Conlin said. “I forge it, I heat it up with a torch, I bend it, and I solder it.”

Conlin explains the difference: Someone who casts jewelry works with a wax mold. They melt the gold, then force it into the mold.

“Casting jewelry is working with wax. I like to work with gold,” Conlin said.

Conlin in her creative workspace.

Creative Roots
Conlin started her college career intending to become a graphic designer. As she neared graduation, she was student teaching a class on jewelry making. Metal arts and jewelry making captured her attention and led her in a different direction. It changed the course of her career and her life.

She cut her teeth after college working in commercial jewelry stores, where she learned the trade. As a jeweler in commercial stores, she sat in a back room or a basement “making and restoring jewelry.”

Through attending workshops, and just by virtue of the experience itself, she picked up many useful skills during those times. Creativity, however, was lacking.

“I’ve always told my children to never give me a mother’s ring from one of those stores,” Conlin said.

Mother’s rings traditionally set small birthstones representing each child into a ring in a specified order. That’s not how Conlin defines jewelry design. She prefers finding inspiration in her materials and creating one-of-a-kind designs.

For several years, Conlin was an artist in residence at Harpies’ Bazaar, a longtime boutique in Old Town, Mankato, where she had a good following. When the store closed in 2005, she lived in West Mankato with her husband, Chris Conlin, and their three children. At the time, she figured her customers would remember her and she could do business from her home. But people forgot her, she said. Only a very few came by her house seeking her expertise and her creations.

“I liked Mankato,” Conlin said.

She entertained hopes of setting up shop in Old Town again, as it was thriving at the time. But her search for a place, preferably in Old Town, just didn’t turn up many prospects for staying in Mankato. Conlin also had her eye on “the Big Blue House” in St. Peter, but she had some reservations.

“It was my husband’s idea to give this a try. It was already rezoned for business and residential,” Conlin said.

The house, at 420 Minnesota Ave., had been intended as a retreat for scrapbookers in the past. It was perfect for her needs. Conlin loved the idea and loved the house. Soon it was home to the Conlin family and to Stones Throw Studio and Gallery.

Some of the art available at the Stones Throw Studio and Gallery.

The Big Blue House
Conlin’s Big Blue House sits on a corner lot nestled among other homes in a residential neighborhood. It is situated just a few blocks out of the downtown area, right on Highway 169/Minnesota Avenue. Conlin considers the location both a blessing and a liability.

“We don’t have a lot of walk-in traffic,” Conlin said. “We’re more of a destination shopping place.”

Before Highway 169/Minnesota Avenue in St. Peter was reconstructed, people would stop when they noticed the gallery sign or the “Open” flag in front of the house. “I’ve even had semitruck drivers stop,” Conlin said.

But now, no parking is allowed on the street in front of her house, and Conlin warns people they may be towed if they try.

Although there may not be a lot of walk-in or foot traffic to Stones Throw Gallery, the house itself is hard to miss. The massive early Queen Anne architecture house was initially built in 1873 and finished in 1874. It was known as “the Gault house,” named for Zuriel S. Gault, who built the house for his bride when they got married. Gault was the Nicollet County register of deeds and auditor at the time. Later, he became the second president of the Nicollet County Bank. In 1882, the turret was added to the house, along with an addition to the back.

The house remained in the Gault family for over 100 years, until the last Gault to reside there, the daughter-in-law of the original owners, passed away in 1978.

“It took a while to become the Stones Throw Gallery after being the ‘Gault house’ for so long,” Conlin said.

A far cry from the basements and back rooms many jewelers are destined to work in, the Big Blue House features arched windows, letting in lots of natural light for the displays in the gallery and for Conlin’s work bench.

The house was able to withstand the tornado that ripped apart most of the city of St. Peter in 1998, though it was heavily damaged. But like the rest of the community, Conlin said, it came back.

That’s part of what gives Conlin her enthusiasm. St. Peter came back from the tornado, stronger than ever. Conlin compares it to the 1980 television movie “The Comeback Kid.” St. Peter and its residents are never beaten. They always get back up, and the community becomes more vibrant.

“I love the people here. I like the people who work here. I like the city manager, who listens to my ideas,” Conlin said.

The Conlin Team
Conlin is in every way a creative artist, while her husband is a scientist and an ordained Presbyterian minister. It was his job teaching microbiology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, that brought them to the area many years ago.

Though at first glance an artist and a scientist may seem an odd pairing, Conlin said they work well together as a team. It was her husband who encouraged her to give the Big Blue House in St. Peter a try as a home and a gallery. Meanwhile, she is interested in science, especially rocks and physics. The lines are blurred between hard-core science and hard-core artistry.

“I’m kind of like a little engineer. And I’ve always had a little bit of practicality,” Conlin said with a laugh.

After 20 years of teaching, Conlin’s husband has retired from the university and has taken over the bookkeeping for Stones Throw Gallery. It’s a job Conlin said she was always terrible at doing and never enjoyed.

The couple has three children —one son and two daughters. None of them is an artist, Conlin said. She describes her son as “a math/banker sort of guy.” As for her daughters, one is a doctor and the other is a lawyer.

The child she thought most likely to follow her into the world of fine arts was her son, Conlin said. “He liked art classes and art history. But he said, ‘Mom, I have to make a living.’”

As for Conlin, she has found a way to merge her creative work with a rich and vibrant life in Stones Throw Gallery and Studio. She welcomes visitors to come and explore the beautiful and imaginative works that have found a home in her Big Blue House.

When approaching the Stones Throw Gallery’s front door, a natural inclination for visitors is to knock. On the Stones Throw Gallery website, Conlin has posted a video in which she tells visitors there is no need to knock.

“That happens,” Conlin said. “That’s why I posted the sign that says, ‘Please come in.’”

The Essentials

Stones Throw Gallery & Studio
420 N. Minnesota Ave.
St. Peter, MN 56082
Phone: (507) 934-5655
Web: stonesthrowgallery.org

Photography by Jonathan Smith

Jean Lundquist

A freelance writer from Mankato.