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Gem of a guy: Tom Ling's work always shines at art center's holiday exhibit

Tom and Cleo Ling display some of the wares they brought to the Nobles County Art Center.(Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- When Tom Ling looks at a piece of ivory -- in a former life, a piano key -- he sees the image of an elephant, an animal that is being slaughtered by the thousands for its valuable tusks.

When he picks up a polished Minnesota agate, he envisions gold wire wrapped around it, highlighting the intricate patterns of the stone.

When Tom sorts through his collection of arrowheads, he sees them both as tools used by the early residents of this area, as well as stones that can be incorporated into a piece of jewelry.

Turning bits of rock into jewelry may primarily be a hobby for Tom, but he's become a master of his craft, as well as a source of knowledge on rocks and gems.

"There's so much to learn in rocks -- lapidary, jewelry-making, fossils, geology, paleontology -- all those things," he said. "And once you start learning, there's no end."

Tom isn't sure exactly how long he's been making jewelry, but a passion to create has been in his blood since early in life. He and wife Cleo have long been avid practitioners and supporters of local art endeavors.

"I started doing cast plastic with straw flowers in it in high school, then it had to be ground and polished," he said. "Then, probably in the late 1960s, I did some painting, took classes at the college. Somehow, I got started doing wood carving ... and I even taught some wood carving classes. We took ceramic classes at the college and did all these things at home as well."

Now retired from farming, Tom dabbled in his own artistic endeavors whenever he could find the time during his working years.

"I guess it's like playing golf," he said. "Whenever I could stick some time into it, like on a rainy day or during the evening, I did it. ... I get started on something and get a little compulsive, I suppose. Some of it overlapped, and several layered at the same time."

At some point in time, wood carving transitioned into metal and stone carving. He also experimented with scale, creating a life-sized baby whale from a cedar that he cut down.

"I had always done rocks and minerals and gems through all of this," Tom explained. "And the metal sculpture sometimes combined with wood, maybe with a stone in the center."

Tom had quite a bit of success with his sculptures, selling a number of pieces, including a bird that can be seen in the Murray County Courthouse in Slayton. But the pieces were often large and difficult to transport.

"It took a pickup truck if you wanted to show it, and otherwise it was a solitary effort in the dark," he reflected.

Jewelry was much more totable, so eventually Tom's efforts shifted toward that medium. His signature style involves wrapping gold wire around a primary stone, often incorporating smaller gems into the piece.

"There are two ways the creative process works," he explained. "You can pick a stone and decide how to start, and then you see things happening into the process. I rarely follow a sketch. ... The other way is to have a theme in mind that you're trying to follow, like with a cameo, I twist the wire to get an antique look."

Through his many years of designing and creating jewelry, Tom has learned that usually the simpler designs turn out the best.

"You can take it too far," he said about wrapping the wire, which bends easily but gets harder as he works with it. "... The beauty of this gold wire is you can form it to just about any stone shape, things that possibly couldn't be set through a custom process."

Tom credits much of his education in gemstones to Dave Reng, a gem miner and cutter who traveled the world in search of specimens and lived in Worthington for a few years.

"Dave had something in the Globe," recalled Tom about how he got connected to Reng. "There was a full page on 'The Sapphire Man,' and I wasted no time getting him on the phone. I couldn't believe it, because here was the thing I was interested in."

Their mutual fascination with gemstones evolved into both a working relationship and close friendship. Reng sourced a wide variety of stones and often gave Tom the pick of his finds.

"We helped them move one time, and he said we could have all the gemstones we could find in the carpet under his workbench," recalled Cleo.

"I wasn't too proud to get down there and search, either," said Tom with a laugh.

Through Reng, Tom could utilize gemstones from around the world, including one of his favorites, tourmaline, hand-delivered from Africa because it was too dangerous for Reng to go there and retrieve it.

"I like tourmaline because it comes in so many rich, beautiful colors," Tom said. "I was able to choose, through Dave, from a big plateful of it, big crystals."

Fellow local gem enthusiast Susan Middagh has also helped Tom to source various gemstones, including high-quality manufactured diamonds from Russia. But Tom also favors rocks that are commonly found in his home state for his designs.

"Thomsonite comes from the North Shore" of Lake Superior, he explained. "The volcanic rock had these little cavities in it where various minerals gather. In Thomsonite, the materials that filled those cavities have eye-like formations in it. I just love it so much, but it's rarely offered for sale. You won't find them down here, because they were too soft to travel this far in the glacier."

That softness also makes removing Thomsonite from the surrounding volcanic rock a difficult endeavor, Tom noted, and oftentimes beautiful specimens crumble in the process.

"I also like the Minnesota agates," Tom continued. "They've got such beautiful patterns, and it can be found right here. Ivory is also beautiful to work with -- buttery but yet quite resilient."

All the ivory that Tom uses comes from old piano keys. On one key, he carved the aforementioned image of the elephant, topped with a blood red sunstone, as a commentary on the senseless slaughter of the animals.

"I just heard a figure, 43,000 elephants lost in the last year, killed by poachers who send it all to China, where it is in great demand," he explained, shaking his head in obvious frustration.

Tom continues to work on his jewelry sporadically, content to focus on the fine specimens he has garnered over the years.

"He has drawers and drawers of agates that are already polished," said Cleo.

"Our great-grandson likes to load them up in his trucks," added Tom. "It's probably the best use of agates I've ever seen. It's just natural to love stones. I just like them so much -- it's my collection. I still have all the arrowheads I've ever found."

Cleo admits that she has laid claim to some of the finest jewelry pieces he's ever made, such as the large piece of glowing amber that she wears on this particular day. Besides modeling his creations, Cleo helps at exhibits and displays and provides input on Tom's designs throughout the creative process.

"She's my partner in crime," credits Tom. "We always do it together."

"And I point out when it's not right," asserted Cleo.

The holiday exhibit at the Nobles County Art Center in Worthington is on the Lings' schedule every year, and they enjoy connecting with the gallery's patrons every year and supporting it in the process. A portion of all sales during the exhibit go into the art center's coffers to support area artistic endeavors. In addition to jewelry, this year the show will include paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, scarves, cards, photography and other handmade items.

The exhibit opens with a reception from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday in the art center gallery, located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building (Nobles County Library), 407 12th St., Worthington. The show and sale continues from 2 to 4:15 p.m. weekdays through Dec. 27. For more information, phone 372-8245.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.