GOLD COAST — When those nominated for a top Academy Award tear into their gift bags on Oscar night, they'll be greeted by a luxe, brightly colored set of bangles designed by Chicago artist Jan Lewis.
Lewis, the wife of jazz great Ramsey Lewis, studied anthropology in college, and later, design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To keep busy while following her husband on tour, Lewis was looking for a portable creative outlet, but didn't fancy herself much of a painter.
"Somebody suggested that I take these wooden bangles on the road and paint them," Lewis said. "So, I just started with dots, because I wasn't a painter, and I just didn't know how to start, so I thought, 'OK, I'll just get my bearings with dots.' ... One dot led to another, and it turned out that dots became my kind of signature."
She painted whenever she had down time, and shared them with friends as they were completed. By the early 1990s she'd hand-painted nearly 50 bangles with meticulous, intricate patterns built on dots the size of a pinhead.
Demand for her art increased. But the hand-painted uniqueness of each bangle was an integral part of its charm, and when Lewis looked into options for mass production, she was told her designs were impossibly detailed.
"So, I put them in the back of my closet for 20 years, and worked with Ramsey on his career during that time," she said.
When she spotted some pieces with similarly detailed handiwork in a department store two years ago, Lewis says she was inspired to dig out her bangles from the back of her closet and revisit the possibility of making them commercially.
Internet research led her to a fair trade forum in India, and eventually she connected with two producers, located in Calcutta and Agra, and flew with her husband to meet them.
"They faithfully reproduced my designs by hand," Lewis said. "I couldn't be more thrilled."
Now, 20 years after she first started casually doodling on jewelry, Lewis says her former hobby is becoming a full-time job.
Last fall, she was approached by representatives from Distinctive Assets, an agency that assembles the consolation "Everyone Wins at the Oscars" gift bags each year, packed with tens of thousands of dollars worth of exclusive goods and hand-delivered to the best actor/actress, best supporting actor/actress and best director nominee that didn't go home with a statuette. (They'll give one to host Seth MacFarlane, too.)
They don't accept pitches or applications for items to feature, choosing instead to comb the web under the radar for new brands and items that deserve to be spotlit. Dina Rezvanipour, Distinctive Assets' vice president of PR and marketing, said the team was immediately enamored with Lewis' designs.
Rezvanipour said they look for "products that are unique and brand new, that nobody's ever seen yet, and introduce them to celebrities." If past success stories are any indication, demand for Lewis' bangles will skyrocket once they've been photographed on the wrists of Hollywood A-listers.
Lewis says she's excited about that prospect.
"It's amazing to have a hobby — it's not really a hobby, because it's always been my passion — to actually now have this grow into a business is very cool," she said.
In her one-room studio space across the street from her Gold Coast home, Lewis said she's spent more time lately "on the other side of the desk"— the side with a Mac desktop computer instead of paintbrushes and bangles — tending to the business side of her company, Jan Lewis Designs.
Lewis said that, thankfully, the invitation to include her bangles in the gift bags gave her an excuse to chain herself to the creative side of her desk.
The artist handpicked three one-of-a-kind pieces for each nominee. She said she and her husband are movie buffs, and have seen every film nominated, which made it easy for her to match colors, shapes and patterns with the recipients' personalities ("or the significant other I thought they might share them with," Lewis said).
For Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest-ever best actress nominee, the choices were easy.
"I did three bright [bracelets] in the smallest size," Lewis said. "I thought they would be kind of fun and colorful for her."
You don't need Hollywood-worthy acting chops to get your hand on a handmade bangle. Jan Lewis Design bangles are available at CHIARoScURO in Water Tower Place and Material Possessions on Wabash Avenue and Huron Street.
This weekend, Jan Lewis Designs will also be featured at a trunk show at Bloomingdale's on North Wabash Avenue from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.