Where: Bellevue Arts Museum
What: A collection of more than 90 earrings, rings, brooches, and neckpieces spanning the last 50 years by celebrated local metalsmith and jeweler Mary Lee Hu. Knitted, Knotted, Twisted and Twined combines publicly and privately held pieces that demonstrate the hand woven wire technique that sets Hu in a class of her own. Structure and pattern, hard and soft, wearable and maybe not so much, these pieces represent a body of work that’s been shown in such national venues as Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Hu’s honors include being inducted into the National Metalsmith’s Hall of Fame (2008), the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement from Artist Trust (2008), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Seattle Metals Guild (2006), and three National Endowment of the Arts Craftsman Fellowships.
Click through the slideshow here for a selection of her work, and read our interview below for further insight on the artist herself.
When: Tuesday, February 7 through June 12.
WWW: A retrospective provides an almost overwhelming opportunity to assess your own work. What have you noticed about yourself and your work and your growth as an artist as you’ve witnessed BAM put this show together?
Hu: Almost overwhelming is the operative phrase here. This whole process has taken so much more time and energy than I ever expected. I have given numerous lectures about my work over the years—several hundred. It has always been basically the same lecture… [ideas about] about how I got interested in metals, how I got interested in wire work, how I explored various ways of manipulating the wires, how I happened onto twining, and then how I explored twined forms and surface patterning, always in a roughly chronological sequence, broken down by process. So I have been looking at and analysing my work constantly over the years, even as I continued to push and explore different forms.
[BAM], in choosing which pieces to include in the show, has included most of what I consider my better and more pivitol ones, but declined to include a few others so that the show does not quite match my own story about myself. And then, unfortunately, a few could not be obtained for one reason or another—we could not locate them, or the owner would not loan them. Some of these latter we were able to include in the catalog.
Of course some of the earlier work does reflect the times in which it was made. The late ’60s and into the ’70s were a time when we studio jewelers were making large neck pieces as a reaction to the small, safe, precious fine jewelry tradition. A curvilianer psychedelic look was prevalent – mingling Art Nouveau with the back to the earth hippie movement. My work reflects this with—what I was hoping for even at the time—a bit of elegance added.
What’s changed in terms of the exterior conditions of your work? Were there other women working in metalsmithing when you started? What do you see now in terms of women working in jewelry and metals?
I think that the fact that I decided at 16 that I wanted to work in metals was unusual. Not that it was metals, but the fact that I knew what I wanted to do. I see so many college students who do not know what they want to pursue until quite a few years into their college career. There were women metalsmiths early on, ever since the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century, although I did not have any as teachers or mentors. There were plenty of fellow women students in both my undergraduate and graduate classes. When I was president of SNAG (the Society of North American Goldsmiths) from 1977-80, membership was about equally divided between men and women. I have not looked at the membership roster with this in mind lately, but I would say that there are now more women in the field..
You were born in Ohio and came to Seattle later in life, eventually teaching at the University of Washington for 16 years as a professor of art before your retirement in 2006. How has the Northwest influenced your work?
This has been asked and I find it hard to answer. My colleague at the University of Washington, John Marshall, used to say he felt the Northwest, with its vast panoramas of mountains, influenced work to become larger. Mine became smaller since coming here in 1980.
My twining process is based on my study of a Northwest Coast Native American basket that I bought when traveling here for the first time in 1966, but I was living in Ohio at the time. I have often remarked when lecturing on our field, that we are generally less influenced by where we live as by where we studied and who with, with the exception that I have seen in some colleagues who live in the Southwest begin to exhibit Native American and or Hispanic influences.
I have often wondered just how my travels or my collections have actually influenced my work. I used to show pictures taken of the curvilinear rice paddies stepping down mountainsides in Taiwan or Bali and say that much of the line quality in them is like that in my coiled pieces (Neckpiece #22, Headpiece #5 in the show) done a couple of years after I returned from seeing them. But then I stop and back up. I took the picture of that particular thing from the vast choices in the landscapes I was seeing and
then chose to show it from the hundreds of pictures I took because of some other, deeper feeling for that type of line. I remember being in grade school, learning how to write my name and then drawing lines roughly parallel to the curves of the script one after another starting close to each other and then getting further apart and less close to the original curves, until I got to the edge of the paper. Lines not dissimilar to some that I used in my work, and saw on the hillsides. So where do influences come from really? If my work were political statements, that might be easier to say. But one’s choice of line, form, texture, pattern… where does that come from?
What do you hope visitors from Seattle and Bellevue will see in this show? What do you want them to know about the work?
I hope they like what they see. I am trying to make beautiful objects. I do not know if it will change their thinking in any way, as we are sometimes taught art should. I know that occasionally, very occasionally, when viewing something in a museum, I get a visceral charge that runs through me. I forget that I have a cold, that it is dark and rainy out, that my feet hurt. I just stand there staring at this piece behind the glass. It is not a verbal thing, but a physical reaction, an intake of breath and leaning to get a closer look. If my work can do that for someone else I will be very pleased.