Wire in Design, Modern Wire Art & Mixed Media 2001

Lynne Merchant

By Barbara A. McGuire
Photos By Warren Allen

“I learned from Lynne that good art, like good advice, is hard earned. You have to make all the mistakes to get it right. It takes time, concentration, and investment. But more than that it takes the confidence to know that you can do it on your own, that you don’t need to be someone else… or his or her art.”

Lynne Merchant’s artistry in wire speaks for itself. She has worked with wire for thirty years, and the admirer easily recognizes that she has complete mastery of her craft and is free to design what her mind sees.

Her imagination was shaped as a young girl, when she coiled her fathers pipe cleaners, and has blossomed into a style that is immediately recognized and held in awe. Lynne’s sense of design reflects her worldly travels and the rhythm of age-old traditions learned at the foot of master artisans. She adds to that technical knowledge her incredible patience and perseverance—and her desire to keep evolving in her craft.

In discovering Lynne’s art, I was fascinated by the essence of a rare beauty: the soul in handwork. Lynne considers herself a purist, and she works with a simple set of tools. Her most important tool by far is her own body, and the closer you look at her personal tools, the more you realize that they are made to perform as an extension of her body.

When you look closely at her art, you see the elegance and refinement she brings to the process. I found that while attending Lynne’s classes, the closer one pays attention, the more one is empowered. For me, there will always be a clear delineation between my art before I met Lynne Merchant and my art after meeting her. It is amazing that one person can influence so profoundly. Lynne gives her students much more than just a class about making wire beads, or baskets, or bracelets. She gives insights that she has gleaned from her experience and her mistakes. If you allow that kind of sharing to sink in, it changes you.

I sought to speak to Lynne because she has influenced so many artists, and her work is reflected in many pieces of wire art I have seen. I wondered what Lynne would think about seeing her work duplicated by people she had never met. With this in mind, I contacted her to ask for an interview. Lynne, wisely, suggested that I take one of her classes in order to understand who she is and what she is about. In addition to the incredible instruction—much of which is included in this book—we had conversations about creativity, intention, and passion. I went away with a deepened understanding of what motivates a person to produce art, and about the essence of a fine piece of handwork.

Lynne works in silver. All of her work is done by hand. All of it. Yes, she uses small manual tools, but her hands have also touched every centimeter of metal. She has worked the silver wire into a strength that is right for the object she is creating. This thoroughness reflects the blending of her education at the California College of Arts and Crafts and her life experiences. Lynne insists that a piece of wirework be structurally sound as well as interesting. It must rely on engineering to make it strong. The strength of the work is seen in an instant. Many of Lynne’s pieces are significant in size. I realized how small I had been working. I realized how small I had been thinking.

Each bead Lynne makes is a new creation. There is a spark of something she has absorbed; an idea, a discovery, or a memory in each one. All of her beads are named to acknowledge the inspiration or to commemorate the occasion. Alexander Calder has had a profound influence on her work, and the basic spiral bead Lynne begins her lessons with is entitled the Calder Coil. The Kuchi bead was inspired by her many trips to Afghanistan in the 70s, where she collected ethnic jewelry and absorbed many ancient techniques from master artisans. Other beads are humorously named, such as the Croissant bead and the Saturn bead. Naming the beads gives them an identity, they are no longer just a project—each one has a birth and a personality.

Lynne stresses to her students that they should take the techniques she teaches and reach deep inside themselves to add their own creative design. She hopes they will nourish the activity of their own imagination. She encourages them to process the class and learn the techniques, not just to attempt to turn out a copied product. She often quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “No one was ever great by imitation.” Lynne stresses that we, the students, should keep our early student creations as our personal treasures, as symbols of our own personal creative journey.

The first class Lynne recommends for a new student is called Findings, which she describes as “the bare bones of wire bending.” Lynne believes that the techniques she teaches are like the letters of an alphabet, which can make up words, sentences, and whole stories. “Findings are like prepositions,” she says, “they hold the sentence together.”

Many students, after taking a few classes, are so stimulated by what they’ve learned that they are tempted to reproduce and sell their student work. Some even attempt to reproduce her classes. This brings us back to the original question of what Lynne thinks about seeing her work duplicated. How do you learn something and resist the temptation to copy? That’s pretty hard to resist. It’s even harder to get the image out of your head after you have been influenced by it — it can even crop up years later as your own original design. “In the beginning, my students learn skills by imitation,” Lynne says, “but the ones who go on to become wire artists add their own creative muscle to their skill.”

How does Lynne feel about sharing her knowledge? Giving up her hard-learned techniques was a difficult decision for her to make. She had carefully guarded the knowledge she had acquired over many years. But in 1987, she made a conscious decision to be a teacher, something that she takes quite seriously. Lynne believes that “Knowledge comes from books, but understanding comes from experience.” She tries to give her students an experience from which they can gain understanding, rather than a recipe for a project.

Once Lynne has designed and created a piece of jewelry, she is often reluctant to sell it, because she has put so much of her soul into it, and, as she says, “How much is your soul worth?” So Lynne teaches. Her classes are in demand and are always full. Most of her workshops are held at The Shepherdess in San Diego, CA, and at Beads and Beyond in Bellevue, WA. Students travel from all over the country to attend her classes because teachers like Lynne tailor instruction to the individual student.

In recent years, Lynne has become fascinated with Tahitian black pearls. It is not surprising, because their odd shapes and myriad of colors lend themselves to a curious blending with silver wire. She likes to see what she can do with the odd, maverick pearl, the one that seems to have a story all its own. The challenge is to secure them with silver while preserving their individual character. Learning about pearls, like learning about wire, has required travel. Lynne travels to the atolls of Tahiti to experience the pearl harvests and to better understand the properties of the pearls with which she works.

I learned from Lynne that good art, like good advice, is hard earned. You have to make all the mistakes to get it right. It takes time, concentration, and investment. But more than that it takes the confidence to know that you can do it on your own, that you don’t need to be someone else… or his or her art. The essence of the person unfolds in his or her handwork. The more I understand this, the more I treasure the things I possess that people have made by hand. I treasure my newfound friend, who has taught me many things. I also understand that I had been so busy trying to use my talent that I had neglected to be my talent. Indeed, I came back to San Francisco not only with Lynne’s wire as I had expected, but with a foundation on which to build my own future in wire. I came back with a pearl; not only a black pearl, but also a pearl of revelation that can change my world and my art. I can only say thank you to Lynne for giving so freely of her rare and exceptional gifts.