Over the last several months we’ve been introducing our readers to the jewelers behind the winning pieces at the 2014 Saul Bell Design Award competition. This week I had the chance to talk with Merry-Lee Rae, whose finely detailed bobcat brooch won first place in the Enamel category. She shared a little about the story behind her winning piece and gave us some insight into her process.
Heather Apodaca: At the awards ceremony, I heard it mentioned that you originally set out to be mathematician. How did you make the switch from mathematics to jewelry and enameling?
Merry-Lee Rae: My dad was a machinist-turned-engineer and dabbled in silversmithing in our garage. In my early teens, I started hanging out with dad and making things. He was a quiet man, and it was an opportunity for me to just be with him without the need to carry on a conversation. He loved teaching me things, and I loved working with metal. In high school and college, I rewarded myself by taking art and metal classes along with my academic pursuits. I was always happiest making something but felt that it was not a viable career, so I majored in mathematics, which I also enjoyed. In the middle of my third year, I realized that I wanted to change my major, maybe to medical. I went home to dad for advice and the suggestion he made changed my life forever. He said: “Why don’t you take a semester off school and make jewelry.” The best advice I have ever had; I never looked back and the semester off became 40 years.
HA: Do you see any connection between the way your mind works when you are doing mathematics and the way it works when you are creating jewelry? How has that background influenced your work?
MLR: Absolutely! Enameling is a pretty exact medium when you want perfection.
My ability to control variables and systematically eliminate unwanted results allowed me to make pieces with the confidence that they would come out as I wished.
HA: It sounds like you are self-taught. Can you talk a little about your learning process?
MLR: I’m pretty much self-taught, though I love learning new things. In the 1975-2000 period I had very little time to take any workshops; I was too busy earning a living with my jewelry. For me, I believe I benefited from being self taught because I never felt the constraints of doing what others said I couldn’t do. I developed my own techniques to suit my style.
HA: Can you tell us a little about your winning piece? The name, “Bobcat Secret,” leads me to believe there is a good story behind it.
MLR: The idea for this piece manifested a couple of years ago when I had a series of bobcats cross my path. So many that it could not possibly be a coincidence. Each time, the cat stood squarely in my path and focused intently on me before turning to continue into invisibility. During each occurrence, I felt a sense of awe followed by a reassurance of protection. I felt as though this Lynx was there to protect my dreams and allow me to let my vulnerability be present. I still don’t know what it really meant except that the vision was so strong that I felt compelled to draw the Bobcat with an invisible wing that became the feathers in the secret’s hair. The sleeping, dreaming secret. That is what resides in the Bobcat’s locket.
HA: Animal and plant motifs seem to dominate your work. Why do you think you are drawn to those themes?
MLR: I see myself as a dedicated romantic expressing love of life through my art.
The designs I am compelled to make reflect my personal relationship with my surroundings and life in general. I am delighted by what grows in my garden, I am intrigued by the beauty and perfection in the animal kingdom, and I am thrilled by the solitude of diving in a coral reef and the jewels that reside there. Using glass and gold, I create sunshine shouts of joy and murmurs of quiet remoteness. The resulting cloisonne jewelry is my voice. What really matters is the people who are touched by it in some way.
HA: That’s an interesting way to think of your art, as a voice. What do you hope your work communicates to people?
MLR: The materials I use will endure brilliantly for centuries. I feel somehow reassured that someone will hold this piece in their hands a long time from now and it will mean to them what it means to me now. That they will know me and know how much I love this life.
HA: Do you have a favorite piece or series of pieces? Can you tell us about it?
MLR: As I sit here and try to figure out an answer to that question, I am boggled by the number of collections and individual pieces that run through my mind. Perhaps the Florida Panther Treasure or the Nouveau Octopus. They are simply favorites.
HA: What drew you to enameling, and to cloisonne enameling in particular?
MLR: I did my first enameling as a teenager. Plique-a-jour actually. I was only 22 years old the first time I laid eyes on a piece of contemporary cloisonne. A perfect stranger walked into a room, and I was immediately riveted to the pendant he was wearing. “What is that? Where did you get it? Who made that?” I was given the artist’s name, Michelle Catalfano, and a telephone number. I called her that evening.
HA: When you aren’t creating jewelry, what are you doing? What other activities do you enjoy?
MLR: I love being with my family. My extraordinary husband and my amazing, gifted daughter. My horses, becoming a child in their presence and simply experiencing them in all of their profound perfection. I also have been designing hats for my husband’s business. Something new for me, and I am having a blast! I love learning new things; I thrive on a good challenge. Traveling, but after all home is best!
HA: What has winning the Saul Bell Design Award meant for you?
MLR: Winning the Saul Bell Design Award was such an amazing honor, I felt like it was the equivalent of an Oscar for jewelers! It has given me the reassurance that I can continue to do what makes me happiest. I am grateful to the Bell family for their vision and conviction.