Mary Lee Hu is a larger-than-life artist in the jewelry world. She has literally done it all, from creating a breathtaking body of jewelry and sharing her knowledge with students and established artists alike to winning major awards and honors and having her work shown in some of the most prestigious museums in the world. And she created a new way of making jewelry—by using the same techniques used in fiber arts except with silver and gold wire.
When Mary first started working in metal wire in graduate school she was taking a metals class as well as a weaving class. She decided to experiment and try combining them. She realized she could combine the linear textile structures with what she loved about metal—its gentle resistance to being formed and the reflection of light off its surface.
“The idea of working with wire came to me while in graduate school in the mid-’60s,” she says. “I had always enjoyed linear patterning when drawing, and I enjoyed building my shapes from this patterning to achieve in metal something similar to what I had been doing in my drawings.
“At first, I spent several years exploring various processes of making form with wire—wrapping, braiding, or weaving it. Objects made were either jewelry pieces, or small insect or animal forms which gradually evolved into larger, woven basket-like forms. Both were primarily used to explore possibilities and limits using the wire. Since 1974, I have settled on the process of twining, and almost all of my pieces since then have been an exploration of what I could do with it.”
After Mary completed her MFA from Southern Illinois University, she traveled around until she began teaching in the metal arts program at the University of Washington in 1980. At both the University of Washington and at workshops held around the United States, Mary has been able to pass on her passion for her techniques and processes. In 2006 she retired as a professor emeritus.
What Mary loves most about teaching is that most of her beginning jewelry students come knowing almost nothing about the processes when they start and leave with much more confidence in their skills. Beginning students often push themselves more than she ever would, which gives her immense satisfaction.
The cover of Knitted, Knotted, Twisted & Twined (a beautiful coffee table book chronicling Mary’s art published by the Bellevue Art Museum) states: “Working with wire as weavers use thread, Mary Lee Hu has affirmed her distinctive voice in the world of jewelry through her elegant and apparently effortless creations. Her unforgettable sense of light as form is matched only by her astonishing ability to transform her costly materials—gold and silver—into works that are utterly modern yet rival those of antiquity.”
When I asked Hu what her favorite tool was, she gave me the most unusual answer I have ever received from anyone: “Fingernails!” She went on to clarify that medium-to-long fingernails are a part of her toolbox.
“I am passionate about the whole history of jewelry and body adornment, she says. “From my own field of contemporary studio jewelry, to fine, fashion and costume jewelry, to historic, pre-historic and tribal pieces worldwide – their history, makers, materials, techniques, plus the many reasons for which they were made, given or purchased, worn, valued, treasured, hoarded, bartered, stolen, passed down … signifiers of identity, status, belief, protectors of health or wealth, sentimental reminders of loved or revered ones, of places visited, pledges or allegiances sworn or milestones reached and celebrated, these objects have a history that has helped archeologists and anthropologists to trace man’s development for over 100,000 years.”
Hu’s work are all one-of-a-kinds because she works so clearly within the confines of her individual artistic vision, techniques and passion. And she has never hired anyone to help in her studio, except for a stone cutter.
Among her numerous awards and accolades, she is a former president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, has been inducted into the American Craft Council’s College of Fellows, has received three National Endowment of the Arts Craftsman Fellowships and is the winner of the 2008 Irving and Yvonne Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. Her works are also in collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the American Crafts Museum, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as countless private collections around the world.
“I am interested in how my own pieces and the field of contemporary jewelry with which I identify fit into our current culture,” she says. In response, I would, without hesitation, say, elegantly and effortlessly.