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Artistry with Glass & Stone

‘Papa Joe’ shows what glass and stone can become

By Michele Devinney (Photos By Neal Bruns)

Art and science have often seemed like two distinct or even oxymoronic endeavors. Certainly the stereotype of those who create things of beauty differs greatly from the image one might have of a scientist who seeks more practical data. But the merging of the two forms, the use of both sides of a complex brain, happens all the time.

In northeast Indiana, Joe Driver — better known to those who know him and those who enjoy his craft as “Papa Joe” — moves comfortably through his workshop next to his home in Fremont, and he understands the science of the rocks, stones, fossils and other natural ingredients he holds as he imagines what beauty lies within. The jewelry he crafts from the materials the world has to offer has earned him a quickly growing reputation and even a place in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Born and raised in Lima, Ohio, Driver eventually moved to Fort Wayne, where he oversaw maintenance for the Mutual Security Life office complex and grounds, including its move to the Triangle Park area. Satisfied with his job but anxious to pursue additional passions, Driver and his wife Linda moved to Fremont in 1971 to race sailboats. They balanced those activities with their jobs, even as Driver found his longtime position with Mutual coming to a close in a downsizing move. He spent a few years juggling jobs in construction and with the Clear Lake Marina before deciding he was done with work for good.

With more free time on his hands — and plenty of skill and agility left in those hands — Driver was finally able to pursue his longtime interest in jewelry making, one which would allow him to incorporate the rocks and fossils he had enjoyed since childhood. As his reputation grew, he no longer needed to forage for those raw materials as family, friends and neighbors began delivering them to him, helping him grow his collection substantially. He also benefited from the largesse of some generous members of the community.

“I inherited a lot of what I have,” he said. “I got a lot of stuff from Ken and Jackie Steele. Ken was a professor at Tri-State University, and he and his wife Jackie traveled to a lot of places and collected some stones from India, places like that. After he died, she lived with another woman, Phyllis Enfield, and they gave me a lot of what I have now.”

Some of the Steele collection helped form not only the rock and stone collection but the equipment vital to making the raw material into the striking pieces worthy of the pendants, rings, earrings and other jewelry Driver displays and sells. His lapidary and tumblers, diamond saws and precision drills all contribute to the process. Thanks to his rock tumblers, Driver has even figured out a way to emulate nature through his “sea glass” made from shattered wine bottles from nearby Satek Winery. True sea glass is increasingly rare, picked up by beachcombers who appreciate what weeks, months or years of crashing through rocky seas can do to the look, feel and texture of a simple piece of glass. Driver replicates that process with broken bottles and a rock tumbler filled with the irregularly shaped shards.

“I use a five-gallon bucket, and I put one bottle in it and drop another bottle on top of it. A couple times I had heavier bottles and had to take a hammer to it. But I only use wine bottles from Satek Winery. I tell people it’s Satek Sea Glass, and they say ‘Where’s the Satek Sea?’” He tumbles the broken bottle glass for 10 days to create the proper effect, while some rocks require up to 50 days. With two three-pound tumblers and two six-pound tumblers, Driver can process up to 36 pounds of material at any time.

His workshop, marked with a sign denoting “Papa Joe’s Toy Shop,” features tables and drawers filled with polished stones while still other rocks await the magic. To preview what possibility a piece of matter holds, he knows only a quick squirt or two of water will expose the vivid colors and sheen that polishing will ensure. When demonstrating the transformation to a group of children at church, Driver stumbled on a thoughtful analogy.

“I was telling the kids that the water helps show what the rock can look like when it’s polished, and then it just sort of occurred to me to say, ‘Maybe that’s why we’re baptized. That way God can see what we might become.’ The pastor about fell off his chair when I said that.”

Driver makes a habit of sharing his work with groups, focusing particularly on children through organizations like 4-H and scout troops. He sees his mission as one of education as well as entertainment. Of course, you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate what Driver accomplishes with what might seem ordinary or even insignificant if you passed it in your travels. A trip through his workshop inspires awe and wonder, even a bit of giddiness, when you see how much there is to see, to touch, to admire.

“When we go visit groups of kids, I usually take a story to them, ‘Everybody Needs a Rock for a Friend,’ and then I let them look at all the rocks and stones and let them pick one out. We see it as an educational process.”

Occasionally those visits will lead to a bit of incredulity when Driver shows them something particularly unusual.

“I took one rock to them,” he said as he held a sliced and polished piece of said rock up. “And I told them that it’s dinosaur dung. One kid stands up and says ‘How do you know it’s dinosaur dung?’ and I told him ‘A professor from IU told me that’s what it is, so that’s what it is.’”

Spending his retirement doing what he loves, Driver has found a new calling at a time when some men are winding down. He marvels at how quickly word has spread with only word of mouth. Beyond the art fairs (two per year at Satek) and a few other opportunities to exhibit close to home, he’s proud to have his work displayed and for sale in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gift shop, the Pokagon State Park gift shop, and has had an exhibit at the Northside Galleries. He also enjoys sharing the artistic process with family members, including a daughter who does Goddess Dolls with remarkably detailed beading and a granddaughter who is about to graduate from Manchester College with degrees in art and philosophy. Driver’s own philosophy is simple when it comes to the gifts of nature which have inspired his art.

“You never know what you have until you cut into it, and then when you do it’s like Christmas. It’s amazing what you can find.”

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