Wayne Meeten sits with his shoes and socks off, his blue jeans rolled neatly at the cuff, sipping a glass of orange juice. He’s looking at me a bit incredulously about a question I asked. He had just finished describing his training in jewelry and metalsmithing, and it was quite the mouthful. Six years work as an apprentice. Two-and-a-half years back-packing around the world. Returning home for nine more years of training at Sir John Cass Metropolitan University in London. Finally he decided to go to Japan, where he was offered a visiting professorship—but first he would have to spend over two years learning Japanese. When he’s finally finished, I ask Wayne a simple question: Why go through all of that?
He looks as if he rarely, if ever, asks himself the same thing.
“Through every change of life’s fortunes,” he explains, “what you make is your career. I’m very fortunate to do what I love. What could be better than to wake up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m excited, I’m ready to go!’”
There in his bare feet, laughing and talking during his photo shoot for winning the Saul Bell Design Award Grand Prize for the second straight year, Wayne can say these things without sounding trite. His story is full of failures. A schoolteacher telling his parents he ought to aspire to be a hairdresser. His oppressive first apprenticeship that left him wondering if he had chosen the wrong path. The teacher who told him that if he didn’t learn to design better he would fail as a jeweler. And then there were the lighter setbacks. After one instructor told him he was destined to study under the great shibori artists of Japan, Wayne sent letters to every institution in the country. His first response?
“You have applied to an all-girls school.”
Fortunately for Meeten, his will is enormous. He admits to a chip on his shoulder (the schoolteacher’s comment was “like a red flag to a bull”). At the height of his creative powers, he has put each detractor to bed. And, while in Japan, he began studying the philosophy of Tai Chi Tuan, and soon the practice was informing his designs.
“I started doing Tai Chi, and my designs became more fluid, round and autonomous. These ideas were too big for a pair of earrings, so I decided to go down the route of mokumé gane.”
His grand prize winner this year, “Inner Golden Facets,” is a mokumé gane truffle bowl, raised completely by hammer from a billet Wayne fused himself. Inside, the bowl glitters with gilded facets that “reflect the golden inner qualities in all of us.” Wayne’s inspiration was his first trip to the Grand Canyon. It was winter, and his eyes fell from snow-dusted peaks to layers of brown and red rock speckled with green sagebrush.
Bringing the sheet up into its form was a painstaking test of patience, but after 33 years Wayne has learned to work with the metal, not against it. “What is metal?” he asks. “Atoms, protons, electrons—it’s just energy. You warm it and it softens and you hit it and it tightens up. We’re the same way. When I work, the metal is alive. It sings.” Not to say the relationship doesn’t take work.
“Sometimes,” he adds with a smile, “it cried.”
Reflecting on his second straight win, Wayne recalled seeing his parents last year and telling them of his first grand prize. After being told their son would be mediocre all those years ago, he now stood tall in an international design competition. “I wanted to say, ‘Look what I’ve reached now. This is it, I’ve reached the top.’” To be back a year later leaves him searching for words. “To win it twice, back to back is just phenomenal. I’m so proud and honored to reach such an accolade.”