In October, John and I took Merry-Lee Rae’s week long cloisonné workshop. Merry-Lee is one of my dearest friends and it was a privilege to experience and immerse myself in her creative environment. In addition, it was a joy to sit elbow to elbow with my son and make jewelry together.
In Japan, Merry-Lee Rae would be considered a national treasure. In the United States her reputation as a world class cloisonné artist was recently recognized in 2014 when she was awarded the Saul Bell Award for best in enamel.
Each of Merry-Lee’s coveted workshops consists of just ten students. Although ours was a beginning enamel class, all of the students in our class had previous art experience. On the first day, we were all so immersed in our projects that we didn’t break for lunch until 2:00 P.M. Many of us lingered on long after the official ending of the class and it was only Merry-Lee’s yawns and her shutting down of equipment that alerted us that we had overstayed our allotted time.
During the class we were assigned and completed two enamel projects. The first of the projects was a Lotus design of Merry-Lee’s and all of us worked on the same design and learned the many labor intensive steps involved in making an intricate piece of cloisonné jewelry.
It was interesting to compare everyone’s finished lotus cloisonné and to note the subtle variations of wire work and coloring. Surprisingly, skimming over a seemingly simple step of the involved process could make or break the quality of the final piece. Most of the class finished the lotus project by the end of the second day and by the morning of the third day we were all prepared with to scale colored drawings for our own project.
My expertise is mostly in three dimensional and sculptural design and I had difficulty creating a two dimensional colored line drawing to scale. John on the other hand had sketchbooks full of drawings and it was difficult for him to narrow down his choices. Since many of my jewelry designs have wave motifs, I borrowed and revised one of John’s drawings for my final project. John, who like his mother loves reptiles, sketched a chameleon on a branch for his project.
We prepped and domed our fine silver blanks, played with fire to flash and purify the surfaces, counter enameled the reverse sides to prevent warping and spent hours bending intricate wires to conform to the our line drawings. We washed our many colored ground enamels in distilled water and learned in what order to apply the various colors to achieve both depth and transparency. We laboriously applied layer after layer of enamel and kiln fired each layer, impatiently waiting for the piece to cool before returning to our work station to apply yet another layer of ground enamel and to repeat the process. Eventually, the layers of enamels reached the top of our bent wires and we pumiced the surface by hand to expose the wires and polish the enamel smooth. A final firing gave our pieces a glass like finish and for most of us, gave us satisfying results and a great appreciation for the cloisonné process.
I thank Merry-Lee for sharing her techniques. Her studio is enviable; equipped with tools most of us only dream of and she was patient and thorough in teaching us the cloisonné process. I am richer for having taken her workshop and although I don’t imagine that I will be pursuing a career in cloisonné, this workshop has expanded my creativity and technical abilities overall.