Mary Lee Hu: The Purpose and Persistence of Wire

Mary Lee Mary Lee Hu has worked with wire – looping, wrapping, weaving and most notably twining—for the past 22 years. Yet within these seemingly narrow technical confines, Mary Lee Hu continues to invent new forms. This continuing evolution is also notable because Mary Lee Hu has chosen to work within tradition categories of neckpiece, choker, bracelet and earrings, which by their very definition, impose limits. She is not inventing new ways to adorn the body nor embracing new technologies and materials in order to break new boundaries. Rather, Mary Lee Hu continues to surprise us within the classic confines of the jewelry tradition.

Wearability is an underlying principle within Mary Lee Hu’s esthetic. Her jewelry designs respond to the contours of the body and are sensitive to issues of scale and weight. She firmly believes in the practical application of jewelry—that it is adornment for the body and therefore something to be worn. Mary Lee Hu also resolved the conflict regarding the social relevance of making jewelry. She believes that the ancient heritage of body adornment among all cultures confirms the validity of making jewelry, saying, “It is striking that among many primitive cultures, concern for adornment is just one notch above something in one’s stomach.”

Mary Lee Hu has a strong affinity for handwork, believing that the act of making is intimately bound with her artistic esthetic. Tactile involvement is essential to her. Her work is rooted in fundamental issues of materials, function and beauty, and Mary Lee Hu is comfortable with the word craft as it is applied to her work.

While Mary Lee Hu is “fluent” in the ideas of the day and aware of contemporary trends in all types of metalwork (she maintains an enviable slide collection of contemporary metalwork), she is most attracted to work that can be appreciated and understood despite the barriers of culture and time. Her preference for lasting materials—silver, and now gold—also reflects her concern for therefore, a conscious desire to participate in this age-old ritual.

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The exhibitions of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Scythian, Bulgarian and Peruvian gold have made a great impression on Mary Lee Hu. These works, done thousands of years ago, seem as fresh and vital as any she has seen. Her own work reflects a modern sensibility—it is not a romantic pastiche—yet it also incorporates the design elements of rhythm, repetition and pattern that are characteristics of much ancient and ethnic art. Upon seeing ancient gold pieces Mary Lee Hu says, “It is a visceral reaction; the work is that powerful.” And that is the kind of reaction she hopes to elicit in her own work.

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Mary Lee Hu entered the Cranbrook Academy of Art as an undergraduate in 1963, studying in the metalsmithing department under and graduate students for the program. Mary Lee Hu learned that there were many ways to solve technical and esthetic problems; the challenge was to find one that worked for her.

The breakthrough in her work came while she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. What began as a clever way to fulfill requirements for both a fibers and metals class developed into a technical and esthetic unity, which has uniquely identified Mary Lee Hu’s work over the past 22 years. “Brent Kington encouraged me to explore the wire work, to really push it,” Mary Lee Hu remembers, “and gave me the assignment of completing two pairs of earrings each week. I did this for 10 months.” Wire work appealed to her for several reasons: it allowed her to construct forms that respected a linear esthetic; it permitted pattern and it was a “low-tech” process, where fingers were the only tools required. “The wire work is simple in terms of technical achievement,” says Mary Lee Hu. “It becomes like an alphabet; how it is used is what makes it work.” Having mastered her alphabet, Mary Lee Hu exhibited work in the “Young Americans” show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the American Craft Museum) in 1969.

From 1971-73, Mary Lee Hu lived in Taiwan. A month before she and her Mary Lee Husband planned to return to the United States, he died unexpectedly. Mary Lee Hu decided to extend her stay for an additional year, living with her Chinese mother-in-law. Under different circumstances, Mary Lee Hu’s singularity of vision might have been diverted; however, the isolated working conditions transformed her commitment to wire into a lifelong endeavor. In 1973, Mary Lee Hu left Taiwan, returning to the States by way of a three-month sojourn through Asia, Southern Europe and North Africa, the first of several such trips.

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While Mary Lee Hu continued to develop her work, she also began to devote time to teaching at the university level. She taught jewelry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison during the 1976-77 academic year, followed by three years at Michigan State University. In 1980, she began teaching jewelry at the University of Washington, where she is currently a professor of art. She also conducts workshops and lectures around the country and abroad each year. Her commitment to teaching is strong, something she undertakes with the same seriousness as her own artistic production. While Mary Lee Hu limits herself to working with wire, she believes that it is important to expose students to a wide variety of techniques. “It is important to keep a freedom of philosophies in the shop and avoid teaching dos and don’ts. I like to see a variety of work, a diversity of styles coming out of a program. That is something I really respect about Kington’s teaching; no one ‘look’ came out of Carbondale.” Mary Lee Hu’s students also gain a wide exposure to the field of metalsmithing because of her willingness to share the experiences of her travels and work with craft organizations. Her style is casual, not hierarchical.

During 1977-80, Mary Lee Hu was president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG). She believes in the validity of the organization and the contribution it makes to its members and the field. Mary Lee Hu has made an analogy between SNAG and a family, saying, “As metalsmiths have been trained within the university system, something like a family tree has been established. One individual trained several students, and they, in turn, became teachers of the next generation. Each successive generation then inherits traits from their teacher, which relates them to others who studied with that individual. The annual society meetings are, in part, like a family reunion.” For Mary Lee Hu, maintaining a connection with SNAG is therefore also something very personal. Her stature in the craft world has also been recognized by the American Craft Council, to which she was appointed craftsman-trustee and served from 1980-84.

Mary Lee Hu’s work has been recognized both nationally and internationally, having been shown in major exhibitions and collected by museums and universities, including Goldsmiths Hall in London, the American Craft Museum, the Renwick Gallery and the Yale University Art Museum. She has also been the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Craftsman Fellowship Awards in 1976 and 1984.

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Neckpiece 8

After months of intense experimentation with wire, Mary Lee Hu produced Neckpiece 3, which was selected for the 1969 “Young Americans” show. “This was the first full-blown, successful wire piece. With this piece cam the realization that working with wire is what I wanted to do,” Mary Lee Hu recalls. It combined her interest in abstract and realistic imagery. Fine, individual, tentaclelike elements grow from the circumference of the neckpiece, their length graduated, decreasing, front to back. The tentacles create a rhythm that is enlivened by the slight variation among the twists given to each end.

Neckpieces 8 and 9, designed and completed while Mary Lee Hu was in Taiwan are tour-de-force pieces in technique, scale and design. Both derive their forms from nature and, indeed, look as if they are embued with life. The silver nest form of Neckpiece 8 is Mary Lee Hung from curved boar’s tusks (acting as neck supports); silver hanging moss pouchlike opening. Neckpiece 9 is animated by the phoenix image, whose widespread wings are shaped to envelop the neck and shoulders of the wearer, while the tight furls of the tails and head feathers allude to the energy of a soaring bird. While these neckpieces are wearable—scaled so that, although large, they make expressive use of the body’s curves along the shoulders and chest—the drama inherent in the imagery and technical accomplishment transforms them into body sculpture. (Neckpiece 8, fine silver, gold-filled brass 22- and 26-gauge wire, boar’s tusks, 6 x 10″, 1973—exhibited in “Goldsmith ’74)”

Neckpiece 26

With Neckpiece 19, Mary Lee Hu changed her approach and began working in series, making a number of pieces based on a distinct design idea. Series 19-26 is concerned with the effect created by the repetition of wire lines and their negative spaces. Mary Lee Hu’s investigation of these more formal aspects of design was stimulated by some of the ethnic jewelry she had collected during her stay in Taiwan and her extensive travels. She displayed these bracelets and neckpieces on her walls at home, looking at them “off the body,” in a different context and in a more abstracted way. The culmination of the series is Neckpiece 26.

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Mary Lee Hu - Neckpiece 26
Neckpiece 26, 1976, sterling silver, 14k gold, which is in the permanent collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Each wire is bent to repeat the waves of its neighbor, wrapped and terminated in small balls. When worn, the wave is given the added element of actual movement, the wires being bundled so that a slight rippling can occur. Mary Lee Hu also exploited the reflective properties of the silver to strengthen this sense of quiet, undulating movement. In its allusion to water and hair, the piece stimulates personal memories—it is a work that is both emotional and serene.

While Mary Lee Hu’s chosen technique is simple in terms of tools and equipment, it is very labor-intensive. And even though Mary Lee Hu worked full-time in her studio—with the exception of workshops—the number of finished pieces was relatively small. Just as the earring assignment in graduate school had enabled her to develop ideas quickly, Mary Lee Hu decided to begin a series of chokers that were less elaborate and thereby less time consuming. By calling them chokers, she was emphasizing the shift from the larger, more elaborate pieces, to simpler, more contained works. The series continued the investigation of the expressive quality of line and the positive/negative images that result. Symmetry, long a basic component of Mary Lee Hu’s design sense, gained in emphasis in these more linear chokers. Within Mary Lee Hu’s oeuvre, these works are most like three-dimensional sketches—some are simplified versions of earlier neckpieces, while others are trials for designs that were to become major pieces in the years to follow. (Neckpiece 26, fine and sterling silver, 14 and 24k gold, 1976. Collection: Yale University Art Gallery)

Choker 40

In late 1976, color took on a major role in seven pieces done during the following two years. The use of color did not originate from an inner desire to bring a broader palette into the jewelry. Rather, having chanced upon some wine-colored wire in 1968, Mary Lee Hu was so intrigued with the material that it was incorporated into a dragon she made that year. The following year, her brother gave her some colored wire that had been discarded at work and she herself continued to expand the collection after returning from Taiwan.

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Chokers 40, 41 and 43 draw attention through the interplay of graduated color and surface folds. The wire lines that had animated much of Mary Lee Hu’s previous work are transformed here into ribbons. The ribbons, created by twining two, fine-gauge wires over thicker, silver warps, produce a seductive surface. They are firm enough to be shaped and folded, yet they evoke a light, floating feeling, quite different from the quality of a solid sheet of metal folded to the same configuration. The gradation of color emphasizes the undulation of the surface, as light plays across the subtle pattern created by the warp and weft. Whereas the earlier pieces were concerned with linear flow and the effect of positive/negative spaces, shape and form now become central. The interest in pattern and rhythm continues from the earlier work but is now expressed in the quiet of the visual qualities that are present in the twining itself. (Choker 40, fine and sterling silver, 24k gold, lacquered copper wire, 6½ x 10″, 1978)

Form 3

The use of colored wire continued in Forms 3 and 4. While Mary Lee Hu pursued simpler designs in the choker series, she also produced complicated pieces that she called “forms.” From the start of her career, Mary Lee Hu had made works that were not jewelry. Parallel to the neckpieces, she had made animal forms to see if she could control her technique in making realistic images and had continued to make such objects off and on. By 1976, the objects she conceived had become more complex. Inspired by sea-creature imagery, she developed forms that, echoing nature, were meant to be seen from both top and bottom, with each side revealing a unique yet related shape and design.

Form 3 builds on the wave imagery of Neckpiece 26. When the object is turned over, the ring of silver creates the illusion of something being revealed under the waves. The bundled wires of Forms 3 and 4 allude to flowing water, cascading upwards and over the edges. The use of color adds complexity and an element of surprise, since the color is hidden when the form is rotated. While technique and design called for attention in equal measure in the early works, the technical bravura of Forms 3 and 4 is secondary to their refined visual imagery. The issue of technique, while never forgotten, is now more subtle. (Form 3, fine and sterling silver, lacquered copper, 6 x 18 x 18″, 1977)

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Choker 59

The color chokers are pivotal pieces. Without knowledge of the series, the new esthetic focus, as reflected in the pieces Mary Lee Hu made after mid-1978, seems startling and unrelated. Beginning with Choker 45, the pieces become more restrained in size and shape. Rhythm is established by the subtle patterns created by twining. Bright colors are replaced by the shading created by the play of light over the silver surface.

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Mary Lee Hu began producing two types of chokers simultaneously—the torque form (adopted by her after being inspired by the series of ancient gold shows touring museums in the United States during the mid-1970s) and the band form. While the torque form is tubular and the band form is generally flat, they share a common design principle. While the earlier work had a frontal orientation, with the neckpiece serving as the support for the pendantlike frontal piece, both the torque and band forms wrap fully around the neck and are meant to be seen in the round. The pieces acquire a sense of continuum. They do not reach outside of themselves but allow the  sophisticated patterns and resulting rhythms to flow along the oval, the energy being continued within themselves.

The torque forms made during this time focus on flow and surface pattern, Choker 46 being the first successful example of the tubular torques. In some torques, the circular flow is modulated by a slight increase/decrease in the diameter of the tube, while pattern is used in all of the torques to enliven the surface with varying shades of reflected light.

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Chokers 54, 55 and 59 exemplify the quiet elegance of the banded form. Manipulation of the weft creates a zigzag pattern that speaks in whispers as it continues full-circle around Choker 54. Mary Lee Hu pushed the warp of Choker 55 to create gently undulating curves, enhanced by the play of light over the uneven surface. The piece has a faint pulsating quality, while it remains in quiet repose. A similar subtle tension is established in Choker 59. The band flows in a wide circle from the front to the back, in a quiet, measured progression. As it comes full-circle, it is suddenly swept into motion and pulled back into a loop. The contrast between the elegant flow of the band and the energized loop makes this a most intriguing piece. (Choker 59, fine and sterling silver, 1980)

Bracelet 17 and 6

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In 1981, Mary Lee Hu began making bracelets. With these, she began to work in a different way. Her method had always necessitated exact planning. The designs had required calculation of length of warp necessary, and pieces were drawn out in blueprint fashion. Mary Lee Hu began by twining a short section, then fitting the completed section and warp ends to the contours of the arm. She continued to fit and twine, making design choices as the bracelet grew, allowing curves, twists and band diameters to develop spontaneously. To finish off the bracelet ends, Mary Lee Hu soldered heavier gauge sheet to the warp. And, although this transition was not totally successful in the bracelet series, it led Mary Lee Hu to recognize the design potential of using sections of the twined tubes and bands.

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Assembling works out of parts was a totally new approach for Mary Lee Hu. All previous work had been conceived and made as a unit, each piece containing its own beginning and end. In making Bracelet 6, however, she first made the tube and then sliced it into sections. The pieces of tube were then assembled and soldered to ring-shaped joints. She continued to work in this manner, making only bracelets for the next three years. The sliced tubes enabled her to investigate the patterned tubes within the context of geometric design. Bracelet 17 is the strongest in this series. The tubes are capped with silver edgings that squeeze the gold wedges at 90-degree angles to form a square. The severity of the square is relieved by the triangular pattern that floats over the surface of the tubes. The design conveys a strong sense of three-dimensional form, its visual weight substantiated by the bracelet’s actual weight. (Bracelet 17, fine and sterling silver, 14k gold, 1982 Bracelet 6, fine and sterling silver, twined, constructed, 1981)

Choker 70

How to terminate the ends of the wire always posed a problem in the completion of the wire work. The early pieces were resolved by melting the warp ends into a ball. Catch mechanisms and small capping elements were developed for the torque and band forms. With Choker 67 (Hu began to make chokers again in 1984), she began to design twined elements to fit the ends of the tubes. By applying the slicing technique used in the bracelets, she was able to integrate the tube and ending elements, making a smooth transition. It was also the first time that she twisted the warp wires, as she twined the tube into an oval form. To accentuate the sense of torque, four of the warp wires are of thicker gauge and rise above the surface to lead the eye along their spiraling path. As in some of the earlier band forms, there is a sense of tension between the energy of the twist and the quiet elegance of the oval.

Hu also twined a variety of small shapes that she would cut and combine to make earrings. With her workbench full of such shapes, she pushed some of the x-shaped elements together and realized that the combination of two such elements would create yet another pattern. An invitation to produce a piece of gold jewelry for the 50th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera Guild inspired Hu to translate that simple idea into one of her finest pieces. The changes and innovations that she had introduced into her work since 1980 are synthesized in Choker 70. the choker is comprised of 22 twined, x-shaped elements. Joined together, the x loses its identity and the eye recognizes the diamond as the dominant shape. The repetition of the individual elements creates both a pattern and a rhythm that is straightforward and easily discerned. But beyond this, Hu crafts a piece that is filled with continuous, reflective subtleties. Within each element, some of the warps are angled, creating facets that catch and reflect light. Each twined element is also positioned at a slightly different angle as it is joined along the oval, thereby multiplying the angles of reflection.

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The choker is commanding in its relationship to the body. lt is large, lies low on the collarbone and creates a wide sweep around the shoulders. In a tribute to the wearability of Hu’s pieces, Choker 70 is most beautiful when worn. As the piece moves with the body, the changing reflections create endless variations of golden shadows. While it is extremely complex in its concern for texture, shape and reflection, design and material are in perlect balance. Hu’s design goes beyond the initial dazzle that a gold neck piece creates. She uses the material to create numerous shades of buttery yellow and gold, asking the viewer to take time, to look at the piece slowly and carefully, to notice the beauty of the subtle variations in the color.

While Choker 70 is a further development of the band form, Choker 75 continues the torque form, which, influenced by the bracelet series, is now also cut and assembled. The twined tubes are thin in the middle, flaring out towards the end, echoing the shape of the constructed elements. While the eye initially sees a smooth circumference, the individual elements actually shift between being concave and convex as they move along the oval. Hu also plays with the rhythm created by the twined and smooth elements. as well as the size relationship of each. And the difference in the reflective qualities of the twined and smooth sections adds to the complexity.

Hu continues to present pieces that are beautifully simple at first glance, yet are intriguing in their ability to surprise and offer continuous subtle variations. Again, she calls on the viewer to look slowly and carefully, beyond the general to the specific, to the minute. (Choker 70, 18 and 22k gold, 1985)

Mary Lee Mary Lee Hu’s work will be shown at Concepts Gallery, Palo Alto, CA from March 4-31, 1989

Annette Mahler studied art and art history at the University of Wisconsin and completed her graduate studies in art history at the University of Chicago. She has had a long interest in criticism and is currently freelance writing.

By Annette Mahler
Metalsmith Magazine - 1989 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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