A crafty little Christmas

Sculptor Jennifer Frudakis finds not just peace in earth, but also beautiful gifts and decor. She's sharing her natural Noel know-how.

Jennifer Frudakis is a sculptor and the single mother of 17- and 18-year-old children whose perch on the cusp of independence now bestows upon their parent the same heady license to fly.

But Frudakis' journey to empty-nesthood will bypass the cliches of red convertible and cosmetic surgery and take her directly to the garden, which she considers the perfect setting for the next phase of her artistic life.

"Nature is the theme of the work I want to do now," says Frudakis, 46. It'll be less about producing pieces to pay the bills and more about communicating, through garden sculpture, "the peace and tranquility I get from being outside."

Some of that peace and tranquility comes from a tiny townhouse garden in Lafayette Hill, where she grows tomatoes, sunflowers and peonies. And some comes from the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in upper Roxborough, where Frudakis has been an enthusiastic part-time instructor since June.

But her classes don't involve chiseling colossal chunks of marble or stone; she teaches that at the Wayne Art Center. Her Schuylkill Center workshops are about a smaller, simpler art: creating seasonal crafts.

Over the next two weeks, Frudakis will be doing several workshops for children and adults on how to make holiday ornaments, wrapping paper, gift boxes and gingerbread houses.

For folks too stressed to even consider signing up, know that it's very relaxing - and cheaper than therapy.

"Stress is the very reason you need to do this," Frudakis says.

The benefits begin even as you forage for materials, heading out the center's door into 340 acres and six miles of trails that loop around places named Wind Dance Pond and Widener Bird Blind.

"The minute you walk out on the grounds, your blood pressure goes down," Frudakis says. "It's so peaceful."

True. The butterfly meadow, bisected by a trail, is a cloud of flat-topped Eupatorium serotinum or late boneset, a native plant that thrives in fields and woods. Center staffers describe with delight the swirl of monarch butterflies that alighted for nectar in September.

But it's November. The monarchs are long gone to Mexico. The white blossoms have dried to brown crisps, their tufted tops turned to feather balls. What a contrast to the screaming red maples beyond and the soft leaf bedding underfoot.

You could stand here all day, sucking in the edgy autumn air, but then you'd miss the next part of Frudakis' workshop: creation of the gift.

More benefits accrue in the doing. Imagine spending two hours in a quiet room, fire hissing in the hearth, learning to make something special from treasures you found in the woods. All else slips away.

Finally, at workshop's end, you've made a lovely thing to keep or give to someone.

"Homemade things are very personal, and it's something really nice to do," Frudakis says.

She makes a wreath of pliant bittersweet vine, dotted with cones, winterberry and acorns applied with a glue gun. She slices a potato in half and carves simple designs (Christmas trees, stars), which she coats with water-soluble block-printing ink and imprints on recycled or plain paper - or, for more texture, rice paper.

The humble spud works for cards, gift tags, wrapping paper, and small boxes. The result is a homey, primitive look, but stylized and very individual.

Frudakis' glittery tree ornaments, made from huge acorns painted a metallic purple, are as elegant as dangle earrings. Her gift boxes are wrapped in soft bark from a paper birch, decorated with family photos, pictures cut from a catalog, pressed flowers, and pinecone bits.

"Some of these are as pretty as a kimono," she says.

Might make you think you can't possibly do this, but Frudakis strives for simple and easy. You don't have to be artistic, but it doesn't hurt that she is.

She's the daughter of classical sculptor EvAngelos Frudakis, who did The Signer at Independence Hall, and the niece of sculptor Zenos Frudakis, perhaps best known here for his life-size statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the Municipal Services Building.

EvAngelos and Zenos established the now-closed Frudakis Academy of Fine Arts at 18th and Chestnut Streets, where Jennifer studied for five years. She's also a Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts graduate and has taught adult and children's art classes for more than 20 years.

Like her father and uncle, Frudakis does a lot of large pieces, which she wants now to extend to a garden setting. She works in bronze, stainless steel, wrought iron, ceramics and mosaics.

And while the focus of her holiday workshops isn't unusual, it's not too often a professional sculptor and artist is showing you how to design a Christmas card.

That's a draw, says Erin Johnson, the center's program-development manager.

So, it's hoped, is the center's broader focus.

"We're not just a nature center anymore," she says. "We're talking about how the local ecology interacts with human-built environments."

Lofty words that easily translate into a walk in the woods, a class by the fire, and homemade gifts for the holidays.

See a photo slideshow about Jennifer Frudakis and holiday crafts at http://go.philly.com/crafter

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.