Renee Zettle-Sterling grieves through art

After the sudden death of her brother during a hunting accident in 2002, metalsmith Renee Zettle-Sterling took an interest in how to channel grief and healing through the process of making art.

She started creating quilts and other art with her relatives’ clothes and personal belongings, and then moved onto a series of veils using fabric, paper pulp, metal and other materials.

“We had to clean out his house — it was really gut wrenching,” she said. “I was making work about my brother before the quilts. The quilts really are what made the work more meaningful to me, solidified my ideas, and in many ways moved it in a slightly different direction.”

But it also turned out to be “really meaningful and powerful,” so she asked for clothing from her grandfather, cousin and father upon their deaths and used her artwork to find ways to remember them.

Mixed-media veils from her Objects of Mourning series are currently on display as part of the Sentimental Ornamentation exhibition in the Fed Galleries at Kendall College of Art and Design.

“The veils don’t specifically have the clothing (of deceased loved ones) in them,” she said. “I moved away from that and started to explore different ideas. I’m so fascinated by the Victorian era. They fully recognized they were in mourning. The Victorians would wear all black — their jewelry was all black.”

The exhibit, on display until April 8, includes nine artists and brings together historical Victorian mourning practices and contemporary renderings to explore death practices and cultural obsessions with jewelry, clothing and mementos associated with mourning.

A native of Pennsylvania, Zettle-Sterling is an associate professor of art and design at Grand Valley State University. She received her MFA in sculpture and installation and her MA in metals and jewelry from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Besides teaching, she has an active studio practice working with unique media and techniques to create small-scale, body-orientated devices, jewelry and installations.

She enjoys working in series and has explored the ephemeral with things like bubble blowers, as well as other objects of mourning in the form of heavy hand fans, jewelry and personal mementos. Some relate to her family members, others to general themes about death and dying, mourning, body identity and ornamentation. She also did several pieces that were about silence that covered the mouth.

“I was interested in contemplative objects that allowed you to meditate,” she said. “It became a natural progression as I was in my studio working through ideas, and for me, it keeps (my brother’s) memory alive.”

Her art also became therapeutic as Zettle-Sterling realized people don’t understand grief, and just expect her to get over her brother’s death.

“We’re really bad at accepting death and faking it,” she said. “We just don’t want to face it or think about it.”

Her next series will be focused on empathy. She wants to cast the hands of different people — black and white, Muslim and Christian, young and old — all touching.

“With today’s political climate, it’s so disturbing,” she said. “I want us to look at one another as human beings, not what or who they believe in.”

She has shown her work locally in ArtPrize, Detroit and Ann Arbor, exhibits and lectures on her work nationally and internationally, and has been featured in many publications.

For the last three years, her spare time has been devoted to co-authoring a book with Jen Townsend. CAST: Art and Objects Made Using Humanity’s Most Transformational Process, published by Schiffer Publishing, is due out in July and ended up being more than 460 pages with 800 images.

Zettle-Sterling also served as president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths from 2012-2016.

Check out her work at

Sentimental Ornamentation
The Fed Galleries
Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University
17 Pearl St. NW, Grand Rapids
Through April 8, (616) 451-2787