BEAD & Button April 1997

Twisting and Turning

The Wire Art of Lynne Merchant

By Karen Smaalders

Twisted and coiled in spirals and loops and pyramids, the wire tells a story. In Lynne Merchant’s accomplished hands, heavy-gauge silver wire becomes a bead, a cage for a bead, and a link between beads. Sometimes it combines with copper or brass; sometimes it holds a precious black pearl or a smooth river rock . Sometimes it is formed with an old guitar string or a porcelain electrical insulator. In its journey to its final form, the wire absorbs Lynne’s energy to become a bead that reflects the artist who made it, strong and beautiful.

All these different movements I’m doing with wire are almost like an alphabet,” the San Diego-area artist explains as she joins her wire beads into a necklace she calls “the chain of events.” Visually stimulating, Lynne’s necklaces tell bold and complex stories, in keeping with one of her artistic philosophies: “Become bold with it and make a statement. An artist can dare to tell the truth, dare to be different.

Lynne doesn’t have a line of jewelry, but rather a style that has an aged, ethnic look inspired by craftsmen all over the world. Made of mixed metals combined with beads and found objects, her jewelry is all one-of-a-kind. “I’ve never made a bead like this one before and I’ll never make a bead like it again. I try new things all the time,” she says, with a throaty bubbling laugh that comes often and easily. “I’m making this up as I go.” The spiral shape is repeated in her work in many forms, wrapped around a bead, as a link between beads, and in clasps. An ancient symbol, it has many meanings in many cultures; Native Americans used it to represent emergence (birth), the universe, and the journey of life, all fitting metaphors for Lynne’s compelling work.



A Journey of Inspiration

Today the dynamic artist demonstrates her wire bending art to 12 students enrolled in her beadmaking class at Beads and Beyond in Bellevue, WA, sharing her techniques as well as her philosophy and inspirations. As Lynne talks, her students travel with her to Africa, Afghanistan, Nepal, and France, grasping not only wire, but the origins of an art form that has captivated her for more than 25 years.

Adorned with her own hand-wrought silver earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, she still exudes the gypsy spirit that took her on a seven-year worldwide journey in the early seventies.

Educated at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Lynne taught art to young children in Victoria, BC, until her brief marriage fell apart. She then moved to Taos, NM, to teach at a Native American school and met Greg, whose wanderlust had been piqued by the movie, “Endless Summer.” The two cleaned boats at Marina Del Rey in southern California and sold their belongings before embarking on their trek to South Africa. After six months their money ran out, and they began making things to sell, learning skills from local artisans. Greg was the marketing and business genius and had no fear of trying new things. “My tools were my hands and my ingenuity,” says Lynne.

Her hair is wilder now, curls pinned back with silver barrettes; but at an unbelievable 51, her intense blue eyes and engaging smile are the same as in the pictures she shows from her travels: making leather sandals in South Africa, traveling the African continent in a Volkswagen Combi, learning wire bending from Afghan men, searching for coral in Yemen, and selling her handmade jewelry at French craft fairs.

Calder Coil Bead

As she traveled, Lynne did what she had always done – collect interesting pieces. A dyslexic child who didn’t know why she had difficulty with reading and writing, Lynne learned she could feel good about herself if she created with her hands. So shells and beach rocks and wood became sculptures and mobiles. Her grandfather, a violin maker, taught her how to use and respect tools. In the Middle East, Lynne loved to go through the junk drawers of shop owners to find old broken pieces of jewelry and equipment she might be able to fix or incorporate into her own work. And everywhere she went, she asked artisans about their work. “People are very interested in showing their craft,” Lynne says. “I would sit knee to knee with these old men and watch what they made. We saw all these primitive people making things from their souls.” She stops to reflect. “I try to keep myself primitive that way. I keep myself free for the magic.”

Eight years ago she began teaching her art at The Shepherdess in San Diego’s Old Town. Last year, Lynne added classes in Washington state and taught at the Third International Bead Conference in Washington, DC, where she discovered how unique her work is among beadmakers, who were awed                             by it.

The Flame of Attention

Unlike many people who work with silver, Lynne shuns a torch or solder. As a result, many of her pins and beads are made from a single piece of wire. And she compensates – if she doesn’t trust a heavy bead to hang from one jump ring, she hangs it from two or three. Silver anneals (strengthens and hardens) as it is worked and hammered. “Heating metal weakens it, and I am always building the metal up, not breaking it down,” she explains. Besides, her hair went up in flames when she was using a torch years ago. But most important is that her work be absolutely portable so that she can take it to the beach, on a plane, to the home of a friend, or on a French canal barge. “I’m a traveler, so my jewelry studio is in a small cloth bag,” says Lynne. And she carries the flame of attention with her wherever she goes.

That flame of attention is on her work today as she demonstrates a “Calder Coil,” named after one of her idols, Connecticut artist Alexander Calder (1988-1976). Calder knew how to coax art out of wire, twisting and turning it into a remarkable circus, mobiles, and sculptures. Lynne admires the work and the spirit of the man she calls the “patron saint of wire bending. I’m trying to have as much fun with wire as he did,” she says. The “Calder Coil” is an airy bead that lends itself to putting beads inside. “I could make one each day and every one would be different.” Lynne’s “Kuchi Coil” (named after the people in Afghanistan who taught her the basic shape) can be made with a mandrel wire of silver wrapped tightly with almost any kind of wire, from gold to copper to a guitar string, as here. (A mandrel is a form around which something is wound.) A free form bead gets its name from the webs spiders weave when they’re on stimulants, “Spider on LSD.” The “Blue Moon Bead” takes so much wire (over eight feet) and coiling that you’d probably want to do it as often as a blue moon. The “Croissant Bead” is made with rolled copper sheeting in much the same way as its bakery progenitor. As she makes each bead, her focus is completely on her work. “Sometimes I call my classes Zen and the art of wire bending,” Lynne muses. ‘You must be present. You can’t look at or think about something else.”

Like the Nepalese artists who rub yak butter on their jewelry to make it look old, Lynne also likes to “rub the age” into her jewelry (with liver of sulfur, steel wool, and a polishing cloth) so that when her students walk out of her classroom wearing their own jewelry, “it looks like its always been there.”

Lynne’s frenetic schedule has her teaching two to three months then taking time off for her own work, which she sells at The Cedros Trading Co. in Solano Beach, CA. It’s a pace that leaves little free time, but does allow her the summer months for travel.

Tension and Intention

After 25 years of working with wire, Lynne still exclaims, “Wire is so far out.” She describes each metal and each gauge of metal as having its own I personality: If gold is king, silver is queen, with a character much more forgiving and pleasant. Copper is the court jester, and brass is the duchess. “The wire has no innate intelligence,” Lynne tells the students gathered around her. ‘You take it over and tell it what to do.”

She encourages students to work with heavy gauges, such as 16 or 14. “If you make it large, you can always scale it down. If you only make it small, you don’t think to go large,” she says. “This is real powerful,” she tells her students. “This is not cute. This is strong stuff.” It looks effortless when Lynne does it, but students trying their hand at bending 16-gauge wire quickly learn why Lynne talks constantly of intention along with tension. “Sometimes when things are coming from your soul, they look facile; they look easy,” Lynne explains. But along with the intensity comes fun. There is lots of talk and laughter amid the concentration. “I’m dead serious about my fun,” she smiles. “I just play with it.”

With both her work and her life, Lynne likes to zoom in close and focus on detail then stand back to see the object in perspective. This is how she usually makes her necklaces as well, assembling a whole from parts she’s completed at different times. That’s also how she encourages her students to look at art. “Stand in front of something and drink it up, absorb its essence, so you can take it with you always.”

“There is a vibration and feeling about things made by hand,” Lynne says. “Things made with hands have a spirit about them, a love that no machine can copy If I touch it more, rub it more, put a little more of myself into it, it becomes powerful. I put that flame of attention into every single thing that I do.”