Eleanore Macnish is a jeweler and lampwork bead artist who’s unique, large-scale pieces are filled with charming, unexpected details. Eleanore uses a variety of metals, gemstones, found objects, and glass beads of her own making to hand-craft stunning, wearable artwork.
Eleanore and I talked recently about her journey as an artist and craftsperson. Here’s Part I of our discussion:
Molly Therese Bell: Describe yourself in 5 words.
Eleanore Macnish: Funny, fun, bright, curious, thoughtful.
MTB: Tell me a little about your history and what led to your passion for making jewelry.
EM: I am originally from Topeka, KS. and I have been obsessed with learning how to make things since I was a child. After I graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.A. in Anthropology, I moved to Washington DC, and then on to Albuquerque. In 1997, we moved to California for almost a year, and while I was there I took a glass-bead-making class at Sundance Glass. I absolutely fell in love with the medium. After taking the class I was able to rent “torch time,” which was invaluable. I spent 3-4 hours there 3-4 days a week for about four months. It was an amazing experience – I spent so much time making beads and asking questions, and there was always someone on hand to explain or demonstrate something! Before I knew it I had a torch and a kiln set up on a table on the enclosed patio of our apartment!
My passion for making jewelry is rooted in my love of art and fine craft. When jewelry is done well, it is portable, wearable art, and it’s amazing to be able to wear something that you love and get to look at it all the time because it’s on your person!
MTB: How did you evolve away from being solely a beadmaker and begin to explore metalwork?
EM: My desire to learn silversmithing arose from my need to do something with all of the beads I was creating; beads tend to “pile up” if you don’t do something with them!
After spending seven years making glass beads and using many methods of stringing them, I thought, “If I have to string one more bead I am going to SCREAM!”
Kristin Diener was offering a two-day silversmithing class, and I was the only person who signed up! We worked on methods for setting beads and basic silversmithing techniques – and we also went to lunch together each day of the class. We became friends, and I walked away with enough silversmithing knowledge to get me started and to finally understand what the heck the text of jewelry-making books was all about! Those two days spent with Kristin changed the course of my career.
MTB: What is your approach to design? Tell us about your creative process.
EM: I’m not a big fan of “matchy-matchy” stuff or “the norm” or hideously expensive mass-produced jewelry. I love things that are different and beautiful. My goal in design is to make things that I think are beautiful, interesting, fun, and different, and I’ve been fortunate to find customers who respond to my approach.
MTB: Your work is so lively, energetic, and fun. It has a wonderful sense of humor. Tell me what influences you in terms of design (places, people, experiences, feelings).
EM: I love travel, textiles, William Morris (the British textile designer), antique micro-mosaics, little movable mechanical things, De Vera Gallery, antique British military badges/medals, children’s toys, circuses and carnivals, 17th century lace collars, reliquaries, the State Fair Midway at dusk (when it’s dark enough to see the lights but you can still see all the colors and decorations on the rides and games), stripes, and polka dots.
I also adore antique oriental rugs with their bright colors and complex designs. My design approach reminds me of oriental rugs because they don’t really go with anything: they tend to go with everything! They look good with traditional antiques, modern, Southwestern, and everything in between!
My jewelry is the same way: people who wear my jewelry don’t buy it to go with a specific outfit; they buy it because it speaks to them and they love it. Consequently, it goes with everything.
MTB: What challenges you the most?
EM: Finding time to make what is in my head! And also the mechanics of assembling pieces I have in mind.
MTB: I love the scale of your work. I think it matches the scale of your personality! Can you talk about scale and how your stunning, large pieces evolved?
EM: Ha! I love jewelry on a big scale and most people assume they cannot wear it or “get away” with it, which is malarkey! People are drawn to what they respond to emotionally. When you wear something you love, you automatically wear it well. My beads started out a very normal size and little by little they grew. Each time they grew a little, I thought, “Oh! I like that big one better!” Now my jewelry is big because I need space to fit everything I want to include in the piece and because I really like large pieces! My mother refers to my jewelry as a “Conversation Starter,” and she loves that when she’s wearing my jewelry people approach her to talk to about it! She never has to work very hard to start a conversation!
I have, however, made a couple of pieces that are just too large, and when I look at a photo of myself or of my mother wearing one of these pieces I think, “Hmmmm. Now, THAT was too big for anyone to wear!”
These days, I’m mindful of keeping my pieces to a more manageable size. I don’t want to make conceptual jewelry – I want to make jewelry that people wear! Otherwise it just sits in a drawer or in a display case; fine for some folks – it’s just not me.
MTB: What are you working on right now? Will you give us a preview?
EM: Right now I am working on making murrinis, which are multi-layered, pulled canes of glass that are cut cross-wise into small disks after they have cooled. I’m exploring different ways of incorporating the technique into the design of my beads. I’m also sawing beads in half with a lap saw and bezel-setting them in silver as pendants. I love incorporating beads into silversmithed pieces because the marriage takes a bead and elevates it – integrates it into a new context; the marriage of beads and metalwork also introduces beads to a broader group of people who may not even know about glass beads.
Keep your eye on The Studio for Part II of my conversation with Eleanore. Next time we’ll share an inside look at her studio and Eleanore will also share insights about the business-end of her story.