Artist turns beer bottles into crosses with powerful message

Photo Caption: “My whole point is to remind kids never to drink and drive” — or ride with anyone who does, said Teresa Lemkemann, a member of St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Germantown Hills.

By: By Jennifer Willems

GERMANTOWN HILLS — All Teresa Lemkemann wanted was a piece of brown glass that looked like wood so she could make a necklace in the shape of a cross.

What she ended up with was a powerful message that she shares with anyone who asks — especially teenagers — about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Mrs. Lemkemann found what she was looking for in the brown glass of a beer bottle her husband, John, had discarded.

“I was born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression,” she told The Catholic Post over coffee with her granddaughter April Silver and great-granddaughter Emma Lemkemann. “I think that had an influence on me from the beginning because so far I haven’t seen anything that I can’t figure out another use for.”

An artist proficient in watercolor, pastels and calligraphy as well as jewelry, Mrs. Lemkemann explained that not only did the beer bottle have the right color, but it had the same coefficient of expansion as the plain glass she was planning to use. That means it heats and cools at the same rate, otherwise it will crack or explode.

“So I can’t combine art glass with regular glass,” she said. “I’ve tried it and what happens is you get cracks all around it.”

She made three large crosses to be certain she would get one that was good, and sold the other two “for a good price” to people who were interested. It was her daughter, Jamie, who took the project to the next level about three years ago.

“Mom, my oldest son is going to be 16 and he’s going to start driving. I want you to make me a dozen crosses like that, only small so they can put them on their key chains,” Mrs. Lemkemann recalled, adding that the crosses were going to be an Easter gift to the kids who were at her daughter’s house all the time.

“A couple days later she called and said, ‘Mom, make that 18. They told other kids about it and 18 want them now.'”

Working with glass wasn’t a problem — Mrs. Lemkemann had learned how to do that from her father when she was a girl on Peoria’s East Bluff. She grew up in St. Bernard Parish and then attended Woodruff High School, marrying John Lemkemann in February 1948.

They had two sons and three daughters, who gave them 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Widowed last year, she lives in the “Lemkemann compound” — nine family homes along the Illinois River in rural East Peoria.

She has been a member of St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Germantown Hills for nearly 40 years.

Mrs. Lemkemann has a workshop at her cozy home, where she glues the pieces of glass together and lets them dry overnight. Then she places them in the kiln to fuse.

She tries to fire them at night because she’s always tempted to see how they turned out and opening the kiln too soon would ruin everything. Because the crosses are different sizes the seasoned artist has never been able to determine how many she can make at one time.

Before she can give them to the teens, Mrs. Lemkemann has to ground each edge because they’re sharp and would cut like a razor otherwise.

“My whole point in this is to remind kids never to drink and drive. That’s the whole reason I do this,” she said. “All this work, all this time, all this effort is to remind kids not to drink and drive.”

She said one of the reasons the crosses are so popular is because it allows the teens to have something in their hands that is connected to a beer bottle without getting in trouble.

Her granddaughter, April, said she thinks the young people like them because it gives them a way to show what they stand for without being thought of as preaching. “When kids ask them about it, it gives them an opportunity to talk about it.”

Mrs. Lemkemann said that peer-to-peer interaction is the best way of sharing the message — and the cross is the best way of advertising it.

“Those who don’t want to drink and drive can now state their opinion and have some status with it,” she told The Post. “People pay attention to them.”

The Woodford County Health Department certainly did. Mrs. Lemkemann has been invited to talk about her project as part of the health department’s Citizens Against Substance Abuse initiative.

While it isn’t possible for her to provide beer bottle crosses for every student in Woodford County when they turn 16, she suggested that each school put into a hat the names of the teens that are approaching that age. She will make a cross available for the one whose name is drawn.

“It might cause kids to think about not taking a drink instead of taking one because everyone else is,” Mrs. Lemkemann said.

For more information about the beer bottle crosses, contact Mrs. Lemkemann at (309) 822-0189.

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