As students hover over the lapidary equipment, working on their precious jewelry designs, other students are laughing and swapping information on where they go to collect beautiful rocks and gemstones. The students all know each other well because they have taken Russ Lunders’ jewelry making class at Centralia College many times over the past 15 years.
Lunders offers seven different three-hour classes each quarter. Each class fills every quarter with nearly 100 students enrolled. Many students like to take advantage of the equipment provided, equipment that they would not be able to afford to buy on their own, such as the hydraulic press.
“The class has just really exploded from when I started teaching it,” says Lunders. In the class students learn both lapidary (using rocks and gemstones) as well as silversmithing skills.
The classes on making jewelry are offered through the Continuing Education program at Centralia College. It began as the brainchild of Lunders after he retired from teaching at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, where he was an art teacher, offering art, painting, drawing, sculpture and pottery. Then one day he found some jewelry-making equipment in a back room, left over from when a class had been taught there many years before. So he started teaching jewelry at the high school, and it was popular with both the students and their parents.
“We would go to student conferences and parents would say, “I wish I had a class like that,” he laughs. So with that in mind, he began thinking about where he could offer a class that parents could take, and was thrilled to connect with Centralia College. “I knew I wanted to be in the continuing education area. I didn’t want to conflict with the art program, I also didn’t want to worry about grades or taking attendance,” he says.
Over the years, the class has been taught at four different locations. It began at the high school in the evening. “Linda Smith, the principal at the time, loved the idea of bringing adults in at night,” says Lunders. Next, the class was housed at the Lewis County Mall. “We went through two floods there,” he adds. Then they moved to the old Art Annex. “That was like coming home,” says Lunders. “When I was at the high school, I used to come over and talk pottery with the instructors there.”
Now the class is located at the college’s Technology Center, a location that works well, according to Lunders.
Students come from far and wide just to attend his classes. People show up from Bothell, Mineral, Morton, Raymond, Cathlamet, Rainier, Oregon and even from Eastern Oregon.
Lunders appears to enjoy the class as much as the students. “It’s exciting to be able to go to class and know that I’m able to help people create their own designs,” he says. “The student work is tremendous. I’ve been very proud of their work. Some have set up own studios, several are involved in ArtTrails. Some students have gone on to sell their designs through websites and craft fairs.” A lot of the students are rockhounds, collecting their own specimens and bringing them in to put into settings. “That just enhances the work,” says Lunders.
He also enjoys the satisfaction of helping students. “I’ve taken people who think that have absolutely no creative bone in their body and we’ve created nice pieces.”
Lunders has a bachelor’s degree in education, and master’s degree in fine arts. He has been a silversmith for around 50 years, and is also a practicing artist. “I think it’s important to be a practicing artist in the creative areas,” he explains. “Students need to see that you can do it, and do it well.”
The biggest change he has seen over the years of teaching the class is the quality of jewelry being produced. One thing that hasn’t changed is the social aspect of the class. “Students like to socialize a bit then get right to work. It isn’t a whole lot different than high school,” he jokes.
Lunders enjoys the socializing aspect as well. “That’s the fun part, the stories people tell me,” he says, such as the story of one student who collected garnets in Alaska, digging them up and selling to tourists. There has also been a geologist and a gemologist in class and they were the go-to people for information for many students. People share rockhounding sites, exchange ideas and get each other enthusiastic. “The excitement of creating gets infectious,” he says.
As with most people who truly enjoy their work, Lunders said he didn’t anticipate teaching the class this long. “I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed making jewelry with the students. I’ve been very fortunate in what I do, I’ve rolled my vocation and my avocation in to one. It’s been great.”
While Russ Lunders is retiring soon, Centralia College’s Continuing Education schedule includes all kinds of classes. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for upcoming classes.