Working with Wire
Her long-ago decision about how she wanted to produce jewelry demands discipline and concentration, and a sure, steady hand as she knits and wraps her way along the wire, fabricating it into an instrument of wondrous adornment.
A simple line of wire in silver or gold transcends itself in the hands of Mary Lee Hu, as she plaits, twines, knits, and braids its length into woven forms of unassailable beauty. She has kept to this practice since she discovered early that weaving in metal is what she was meant to do. It would be her life’s work, a satisfying way of achieving aesthetic fulfillment for now approaching fifty years as a studio jeweler and metalsmith.
She says that she is playing games with wire; if so then Hu provokes the response that creating from a void is some very serious form of gaming, perhaps similar to how human sentience developed so many millennia ago on this planet.
Her artworks in jewelry are evidence that the extraordinary power of humans to create is an amazing accomplishment and a reminder of the still untapped potential of our species as makers. It is astonishing how little we are aware of this ever-present fact as we live the hours and days and years of a personal lifetime experiencing the world. Somehow we have to be told this over and over again; perhaps our attention span is too overwhelmed to fully appreciate this gift we have been given. But, thankfully, visual artists like other creators are here to demonstrate our capacity to make, and make they do, creating a sort of infinity of the possible, and endlessly variable.
Sometimes there is a close relationship between an individual’s nature and how it is expressed through work, in Hu’s case with the weaving of metal. Self-described as shy and naturally reticent, her methodical and contemplative spirit is appropriate for the jewelry she designs. Her long-ago decision about how she wanted to produce jewelry demands discipline and concentration, and a sure, steady hand as she knits and wraps her way along the wire, fabricating it into an instrument of wondrous adornment.
In the solitude of her studio overlooking Puget Sound, life’s turbulence and more overwhelming elements are not introduced and Hu quietly engages in creating. That she does so in this manner certainly conjures up the importance of her personal space as a form of refuge, a safe and positive way to replenish and nourish oneself. In such an environment, if she is to successfully complete her jewelry, her way of working especially demands her full attention without distraction by events outside the studio’s walls.
There is also a public face to Hu. An understated but nevertheless fierce commitment to sustaining a creative life and self-confidence in the quality of her artworks require being her best and vocal advocate. She has been an educator at various institutions for most of her professional life, beginning in 1968 as an instructor of art at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and concluding in 2006 when she retired her professorship in art at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she was the only artist in the country to have proposed and taught a course in the world history of body adornment as part of the curriculum. She continues to teach at various workshops around the country where she generously shares her technical knowledge and promotes the critical importance of lifelong learning as a measure of professional and personal growth.
She has received many grants, awards and honors, among them an invitation to donate her personal papers to The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, for a Mary Lee Hu research collection. Hu’s work crosses many major public collections, notably the Art Institute of Chicago; Columbus Museum of Fine Arts, Ohio; Goldsmiths’ Hall, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Ornamental Metal Museum, Memphis; Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Tacoma Art Museum, Washington; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut.
Her biography contains a multiplicity of books and articles in which she is included or the subject, but it also enumerates the visual array of her work in group and solo exhibitions over the decades. And what a fireworks of display it has been, a dramatic statement in the art of personal adornment unfolding first in silver, and now in her metal of choice, gold. Since discovering how much she likes working in gold, it has become a driving passion to divulge how to showcase its soothing reflective surface but also reveal its mysterious inner glow.
Hu chooses eighteen karat gold for stiffness and twenty-two karat gold for rich color and flexibility. Additionally, twenty-four gauge wire in eighteen karat gold is used for the warp in twining and thirty gauge twenty-two karat for the weft. For framing, the wires are all eighteen karat gold. With three different types of gold, that is it, not much variety, but the result is something else entirely. Her works vibrate with inherent energy, fresh and spontaneous. Even though conceived with much deliberation, they are unfailingly, intuitively correct. There is no false note to discern and quibble over. How lucky to have found a perfect fit between medium, technique and material.
In delightfully laconic words but nevertheless accurate, Hu says her toolkit is simple. And indeed she works with great economy of means, a tip of the hat to her natural inclination toward self-sufficiency and lack of dependence on materials that might only complicate and obscure the process. They contain wire cutters and pliers (her favorites are chain-nosed, followed by round, flat, half-round, and flat-forming) An 8/0 jeweler’s saw is for cutting through twined parts. A borax-based paste flux and acetylene-air torch take care of the soldering. She has drawplates to pull her own wire and a rolling mill for flattening wire frames for twining. A flexible shaft polishes some of the heavier wire edges, but usually a brass scratch brush takes care of the finish.
The final important implement is her hands. With these tools she draws from the textile traditions of the world, used by Vikings in twisted or braided wire torques, wire chains from Tibet and India, Thai plaited jewelry, wire mesh from China. Influenced by her world travels and keen interest in objects of ethnography, Hu seems to have possessed an inner compass directing herself, ever moving her toward the singular achievement of making personal objects of incomparable, exacting beauty, timeless and vibrant. Somehow she senses, absorbs and extracts from ancient and folk cultures their creative core and transmutes them into fully contemporaneous forms without leaving a telltale trail of inspirational derivation. Hu’s work is so undeniably her and no one else; such that it does not even leave the mark of her American identity, unlike most of her peers. She was not attracted to the last century’s conscious mission of roughing up and slapping around artistic conventions but to something much more amorphous and enigmatic. It was a good choice for her reflective temperament: putting her ego aside, her personal quest sought to express the simplicity and beauty that implicitly lies at the heart of true creation, whether in the natural world or wrought by human hands. In this she turned out to be the highly unconventional one, an iconoclast standing aside from her own generation of makers.
Bit by bit, analyzing each step of the way, she has built a vocabulary for the manipulation of wire, learning soon that in order to reveal the essential depth and play of light residing within the structures, a wire could be wrapped around a group of other wires. Instead of having to knot them, much more control was gained over the design and with other modifications—gaining confidence over time—her signature surface pattern and texture steadily emerged, lending a necessary quality of beauty to a piece.
It is a source of fascination that so much remarkable work could be based on the elemental act of repetition—the repetitive process of weaving wire—without being uninspiring and boring, a path to failure. Hu’s respect for jewelry’s traditional concern for careful processes and potential for both variation and symmetry is accompanied by her fastidious search for perfection and meeting self-imposed challenges to resolve the hindrances that could prohibit a work from achieving its innate elegance.
Early on some of the designs emulated nature, such as a neckpiece depicting a hanging bird’s nest, lizards dashing across the surface, and discretely incorporated other elements like a boar’s tusk, or in other works a decorative bead or just a touch of a pearl. In the 1970s she experimented with lacquered copper, bringing in their many colorations a verdant sensuality amplifying the sinewy structure of the chokers from that era. She continued making chokers, often solely in sterling silver, but then an advance was made when she moved on to designing torques. Influenced by some major exhibitions which were introducing the golden treasures of ancient cultures to the public, she began making one torque after another, each one providing a challenge to the new format. But the exhibitions, like the landmark one on Scythian gold, also brought on a far more personally visceral response. With their displays of these ancient societies making marvelous, sophisticated artworks in gold, another transition was irrevocably set in place for Hu. She connected strongly to gold’s elemental quality and would henceforth only work in the material—another seemingly excellent fit for Hu’s mode of artistic expression.
She plays and plies gold like a maestro, distilling its essence. In her masterpieces she reveals something akin to an inner truth that we all feel is there at the heart of consciousness. Hers is an intimate beauty, always warm, graceful and welcoming. It is also stately and formal like Chokers 70 and 81, and Bracelet 37, evincing a natural inclination for quiet eloquence. They are also playful like Brooch 32 and Ring 90, resonating with a bit of danger and impulsivity. When responding to a piece of her jewelry, such as a delicate flower brooch, you experience the beguiling power of a true work of art, and step into the transcendental realm of life’s creative force—its glory, universality and capacity for renewal.
Knitted, Knotted, Twisted & Twined: The Jewelry of Mary Lee Hu is on view through June 17, 2012 at the Bellevue Arts Museum, located at 510 Bellevue Way NE in Bellevue, Washington. The retrospective features over ninety pieces, drawn from public and private collections, from Hu’s career for nearly fifty years. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog of the same name, available through the Bellevue Arts Museum store in mid-April.
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