Belle Armoire, Summer 2002
By Sharilyn Miller
It was one of the driest winters on record here in Southern California, but I had to choose the one day when it poured rain all the way from our offices in Laguna Hills to the home of Lynne Merchant in Encinitas. For more than an hour as I drove south along the Pacific coastline, I pondered our upcoming interview. To be honest, I was a little nervous. I’ve taken 13 days of wire-art instruction from Lynne, and while I have found her to be a warm, encouraging workshop teacher, I’m also a little in awe of her. She has an authoritative presence— based on years of experience as a teacher, world traveler and avid student of many cultures—that sets me back on my heels just a bit. She’s well known in jewelry-design circles for her fantastic wire art, with numerous articles already published about her work in other jewelry magazines. What could I possibly find to write about her that had not already been said.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. Lynne Merchant had plenty to say on that rainy day last March when we met in the tiny 720-square-foot dollhouse she has called home for 16 years. As fascinating as she is in class, she’s so much more complex and interesting and — dare I say it — delightful in person on her home turf. She’s like a fountain bubbling over with ideas and insights and personal reflections on art, poetry, travel, and the adventurous life. Lynne has experienced much in her 56 years, but she has even richer expectations for the future. As she puts it, “I’m proud of my evolution and looking forward to more.” This is her story.
The Dumb-Smart Kid
Lynne was highly creative and intelligent as a child, but her schoolwork did not always reflect that. Reading and writing came painfully slow; the letters and words on the page made little sense to her, and she watched in frustration as her peers forged ahead in their studies while she floundered. Dyslexia hadn’t been identified yet (it was finally established as a congenital and developmental condition in 1997), so Lynne was forced to analyze and diagnose herself. She came up with the expression “dumb-smart” to describe her predicament.
“I knew I was smart,” she reflects, “but I was also dumb. I had a very difficult time with reading, unlike the other students in my class, but I was also a lot smarter than they were in other ways.” Lynne was analytical and resourceful by nature, a problem-solver and a careful independent thinker. She quickly learned to compensate for her baffling handicap by nurturing her creativity and developing verbal communication skills. “Dyslexic people are creative because they have to be,” she notes. “I couldn’t do well with books as a child, but I had a lot of practical skills. I learned to communicate effectively because I was forced to.” Little did she know how well those skills would serve her as an adult when she took up teaching as a profession.
Today, Lynne is an avid reader who absorbs Sufi poetry and laps up self-awareness texts along with her library of art-history books. She listens to books on tape, but she enjoys reading short stories and poems, too. She has overcome her handicap and grown as a person through her grueling childhood experiences. As a teacher, she has empathy for her students and their learning styles. No one knows better than she that we all process information differently.
A Passion for Communication
My first wire-art workshop with Lynne was held on September 5-6, 2001. Twelve women gathered in an upstairs room over the Shepherdess bead store in San Diego, where Lynne has taught for many years. We were all eager to learn … but first, we had to introduce ourselves. Lynne begins each session with a round of introductions. While some of us were impatient to get started, Lynne has strong feelings about taking the time to get to know one another before beginning her instruction.
“A lot to people are afraid when they arrive,” she explained to me several months later during our interview. “But I give each student five minutes to talk about themselves. Then the learning begins.” You see, Lynne has much more to offer than what appears on the surface. You attend her classes because you want to learn how to make beautiful jewelry. What you end up learning is that you came to class already possessing an incredible power to create something out of nothing. Finding that inner strength is what her workshops are really all about; the “how-to” part is secondary. “It’s my passion to communicate with people, to wake them up,” she says. “It’s not so much me doing it as facilitating them doing it.”
After our introductions, Lynne gave us a brief but fascinating glimpse into her life history. She spoke casually of traveling throughout the African continent as a young, free-spirited woman, of learning ancient techniques in wire art from the native jewelers in Afghanistan, of supporting herself for years by the work of her hands. The people and places she mentioned were as foreign to us as the far side of the moon—but that was before September 11.
The following weekend, September 15-16, was a different story. We had gathered once again for another workshop, but we were all changed—the world, from our perspective, had changed—and the mood was somber. Many women wept quietly during introductions before class. One woman, a flight attendant, shared her fears openly for the first time since the attack. Others were visibly shaken by the events that had transpired the previous week.
Lynne let us all talk it out. She emphasized how important it was to process our grief, but reminded us that we had still come to class, that we all showed courage merely by showing up. The message was clear: We had a future to hold onto. Finding ways to be creative with our hands would show us how to fashion new dreams.
She described purchasing old, broken jewelry pieces with lovely texture and character, of analyzing them, of learning how to put them back together again in such a way as to “pay homage to them.” Her stories were fitting allegories for our times.
Later I was to learn that Lynne had attended the California College of Arts and Crafts, but departed for Canada in 1968 just 18 units shy of graduating with a degree. She has no regrets, for lacking an art degree has not hindered her professionally in the slightest. In 1970, Lynne left for South Africa. She traveled throughout the region, and when she ran out of money she realized the last thing she wanted was to return home. So she leaned upon the self-sufficiency she had gained as a child, learning to make leather sandals from native artisans and selling them in the markets throughout the Middle East. It was thefirst of many experiences she was to have supporting herself by selling her handiwork.
Years later, Lynne found herself back in Southern California where she had grown up in Pacific Beach. She quickly set herself up as a self-supporting jewelry designer, marketing her wares and street fairs, at flea markets, wisely offering her customers a wide range of prices. Simple earrings were snatched up by teenagers for $6 a pair; more elaborate pieces went for $100 or more.
Today, Lynne’s sterling-silver necklaces with Tahitian pearl pendants sell for hundreds of dollars. She can command high prices because she has a reputation: Her jewelry is beautiful, and it is strong. A lot like the woman herself.
Fulfillment & Creativity
On these subjects, Lynne Merchant holds strong opinions.
“Having the nice car, the house, is not fulfilling,” she says emphatically. “It can’t feed your soul, your spirit.”
So how does one go about feeding the soul? “It’s important not to be too domesticated,” she advises. “Everyday jobs can sand down your originality, but the handmade life is sturdy and nourishing. You really can have an extremely rich palette that is constantly evolving. Millionaires cannot buy that.”
How did Lynne come by her insights? Surely there is more to it than simply learning by experience. She says the wire itself has taught her much.
“The wire demands that we be in the present,” she says. “When we’re in the present, our compassion opens and our awareness deepens.” Maybe because in order to work successfully with wire—particularly the heavy-gauge sterling silver that Lynne prefers—you must use your entire body as a tool.
There really is a right way to hold your pliers, to position your hands, and to move your body as you work with wire. Lynne has analyzed it all carefully in order to prepare herself for teaching. By the time she started giving instruction in jewelry making, she was used to handling her tools instinctively. But before sharing her techniques with others, she says, “I analyzed every move I made.”
By relearning these skills for the benefit of others, Lynne continues to educate herself. The wire has not finished teaching her yet. “I learn new things all the time,” is how she puts it. “The creative life is just to create. Everything we do, we can do with artfulness.” Her key to success with jewelry lies in eschewing public opinion in favor of pleasing herself: “I do art for me.”
Lynne expresses herself well through her attire. She’s lightly tanned, blond, with intense gray-blue eyes; one might be tempted to dress her in pastels, but no—she favors bright, passionate colors like burnt orange and magenta; she wears velvet jackets with silk flowers pinned to the lapel; and as for her exquisite jewelry, well, she wears that all the time. She is completely herself, whether working at home or teaching in public. And she has enough humility to laugh at herself from time to time.
Every teacher has her own dog-and-pony show,” she says with a wry smile. “I can laugh at myself: Oh, there she goes again, teaching an eye pin.” That’s not to say that teaching is always a joy Students can frustrate her sometimes. “Everybody wants everything very quickly” she laments. “To truly learn something, you have to spend time learning it. It takes as long as it takes.”
Over the years, Lynne has become an avid collector of strange things: the teeth of dogs, tigers, elk; fabulous fiber tassels and ethnic wedding boxes; fish vertebra, rocks and shells; embroidery scissors, antique beads and functional wire objects like baskets and plate hangers. Her snug home with its lace-framed windows and antique furnishings is decorated primarily by these collections—and by her jewelry. Ever the innovative one, Lynne has found a way to display her necklaces by simply dangling them from the prongs of upside-down garden rakes affixed to the wall. Some of her pieces are fabulously ornate and simply too heavy to wear. That’s OK; they’re not meant to be finished adornments.
“They’re my sketches,” she explains. Much as a painter might sketch dozens of preliminary drawings before committing herself to a canvas, Lynne sketches with wire. She simply picks it up and starts manipulating it, bending it this way and that, coiling fine-gauge wire onto heavier wire, wrapping river stones and found objects, making various links and attachments for her ornate wire-wrapped beads. Some of her creations may never be worn, so they adorn her walls, where they inspire her to make other, more finished pieces.
“I’m a lover of beauty, and that’s what I want to create,” she says simply.