If Sandra Enterline hadn’t become a metalsmith, she might have been a lyric poet. Her stripped-down, elegant forms are a perfect parallel to Archibald MacLeish’s exhortation that “A poem should be mute / as a globed fruit…. A poem should not mean / but be.” Or, as William Carlos Williams put “not in ideas, but in things.” Indeed, “things” are what Enterline makes best, and while her jewelry may evoke a wealth of associations, it is uncluttered by the prosaic trappings of narrative.

Capsule Necklace, 2002
oxidized sterling, 14k white gold, stainless steel
length 17″, each capsule 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 x 7/8″

Since earning a BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, Enterline has narrowed her focus to a handful of simple shapes and forms and has emphasized construction so spare that it might almost seem severe. In the first decade of her career, she often made spheres, but found herself frustrated by what she calls the “industrial” feeling of the shape. Around 1992, she began elongating the halves. “If I raised them up a little bit more, it was an egg form,” she recalls, noting that the shape still remained simple and abstract, yet was suggestive of the natural world. Since the early 1990s, she has evolved a library of signature forms-egg, sphere, truncated cone, cylinder, circular medallion, and four-lobed star fruit-that she repeats with endless variation. Each one employs a biomorphic geometry that straddles both the natural world and the constructs of mathematics.

Brooch (Untitled), 2003
oxidized sterling silver, abalone shell
2 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 3/8″

By limiting the sculptural contours of her pieces, Enterline is free to find an expressive vocabulary of placement, surface alterations, material contrasts, and kinetic potential that introduces artistic tension to what begin as elemental forms. In the “Totem Pendant” group, for example, Enterline explores trailing strings of spheres and ovoidsalmost an analog in metal to the accordion-like strands of whelk egg cases. Each “egg” becomes a serial object, and because Enterline tops each pendant with a half-shape, the artifice is obvious, however natural the shape. In effect, the artist lets the viewer in on how the hollowware structure was built, branding a seemingly “natural” form as a clearly constructed artifact.

Black Gold, 2001
18k gold, crude oil, petroleum
length 42″; each vial 5 x 1 x 1″

In Enterline’s mind, a 1993 necklace from her “Opposition” series captures “everything that I’m trying to fulfill in my work every day. “The piece features an 18k gold egg and an oxidized silver egg on a stainless steel cable. It is one of the most minimal constructions she could make, and yet the simplicity of the forms is misleading. “I feel like there’s a lot of layered complexity to it in terms of tension between the precious and the non-precious, between the front of the body and the back of the body, between the natural world and the industrial world,” Enterline says. The springiness of the cable gives the necklace a taut dynamic on the body, and the contrast between materials and how they are placed by the wearer brings the work to life.

The human body animates Enterline’s jewelry to such an extent that some necklaces, in particular, appear unfinished on display. But on the body, they quicken as the elements move with the rhythm and contours of the wearer. For example, a 2002 necklace in the “Capsule” series is designed to be worn with two capsules falling on the back and three on the front of the body. Lean over, and they shift. Movement on the body highlights the two-versus-three composition and emphasizes the surprising lightness of volumetric forms.

Shell Shop, 1995
sterling silver, shells
2 x 1 x 1/2″
Ten Mile 4, 1995
sterling silver, shell
2 x 2 x 7/8″

Since the late 1990s, Enterline has focused on perforating the surfaces of her pieces to extend the emotional and artistic complexity of her forms, which are constructed from 20 gauge or thinner sheet sterling silver or 18k gold. Before assembling the pieces, she drills the sheet metal with hundreds, even thousands, of tiny holes in varying sizes. (She drills before assembly to make it easier to clean up burrs.)

Enterline describes her process as meditative. “I almost get in a hypnotic state,” she says. “I’m thinking about tree rings while I’m drilling, or I’m thinking about coral. I’m looking for a vibration between materials – it’s very intuitive. I want them to shimmer and vibrate. “The effect is to transform solid metal into a patterned mesh of varying opacity. Both the physical and visual weight of the metal is reduced, and the pattern of the perforations creates visually arresting designs. Drilling effectively doubles the number of finished surfaces by exposing the interior; it also dramatically alters the play of light by introducing a kinetic element.

Mother Lode with Box, 1997
22k gold, glass, panned gold, box
length 17″

The result is comparable to facets on a gemthe more refractive surfaces, the more the light bounces around. As the body moves, light flickers through the holes in patterns that become increasingly complex as planes slide past each other. The simple form of Cylinder Pendant (1997) seems to twinkle as light passes from side to side. The truncated cones of Duo Pendant (1997) create a more complicated shimmering pattern. A star fruit pendant, with its multiple planes and thousands of perforations, positively glimmers.

1000 Souvenirs, 1999
glass, sterling silver, steel, found objects
each vial: 3 1/2 x 5/8 x 5/8″

Enterline’s resistance to narrative serves her well in the drilling, where it would be easy to mimic a natural pattern or impose a contrived, literal imagery, especially on the face of a large brooch. But her patterning mixes hole sizes and separations, creating the appearance of sheerly random process. If a pattern emerges, it is likely

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the haphazard scatter of stars on a dark night in the country, of whitecaps distributed on a windy sea, or the riotous points of a fistful of Queen Anne’s lace flowers.

Around 1994, Enterline says, the scope of her work expanded when she began to feel free to let go of the strictures of her training and work with mixed materials. The genesis was a “eureka!” moment. Having discovered that she could extend the forms of half spheres to produce ovoids, she thought, “Why can’t I just use the real egg?” In retrospect, the leap from the constructed egg to the egg itself seems inevitable. Enterline began by building thick silver walls around delicate and fragile found objects. Ten Mile 4 and She]] Shop, both from 1995, partially conceal and partially reveal coiled snail shells as pure and abstract as any Edward Weston photograph. Maruwa Pendant (1994) accomplishes the same for a quail egg.

Queen Bee Brooch, 1998
18k gold, hymenoptera, crocus sativus (pollen), glass
3/4 x 1 3/4 x 3/4″

Such conventionally beautiful natural objects assume a quality of “otherness” when they are lifted from their context in the natural world.

For “Brooching It Diplomatically,” a 1998 exhibition inspired by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s disclosure that she coordinated her jewelry with her diplomatic missions, Enterline mounted a bee in a circular golden box on a field of saffron stamens. She titled it Queen Bee. The gold was an essential part of the design.

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“Whenever I use insects I always combine them with 18k gold,” Enterline says. “I don’t just use it because it’s a pretty color, or because I enjoy working with it. It’s a very loaded material. Pairing it with something like the insect creates a vibration of the eye and mind going back and forth between the two materials. That fascinates me.”

just as Enterline relies on her intuition in handling forms that she constructs, she also trusts her emotional and aesthetic responses to found objects. Certain materials so intrigue her that she places them in glass ampules where their unexpected characteristics become the visual focus. In a series of pendants she calls Black Gold, Enterline returned to her hometown of Oil City, Pennsylvania, to collect crude oil. The narrative context of the pieces is divorced from the aesthetic accomplishment.

Instead, the emotional freight of the work derives from confounding expectation. Even the term “crude” oil suggests something unattractive, undesirable, and unappealing. Yet the viscous liquid (which she sometimes pairs with vials of lighter colored refined petroleum) has a shimmering amber beauty that Enterline underscores by using gold caps and findings.

Duo Pendant, 1997
pierced sterling silver, heat patina
1 1/2 x 1 3/8 x 1 3/8″

The little vials of panned gold sold in California souvenir shops appeal to her for “pure beauty and mystery of the material” as well as for the low-rent funkiness of “the little plastic stopper and vial, and thinking that a thousand Boy Scouts have these little vials in their pockets.” Here is a precious material-pure gold-that has been reduced to kitsch. Her challenge is to restore its beauty. Mother Lode with Box (1997) demonstrates the magic of the transformation. The necklace of 19 vials of panned gold suspended in liquid, owned by the Renwick Gallery, works a kind of alchemy by formalizing the presentation of the rustic bits of gold, creating a sympathetic vibration between the raw gold in the vials and the exquisitely finished gold of the structural necklace.

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Enterline carried the glass-vial presentation to a logical extreme with her 1999 installation piece 1000 Souvenirs. The title alone could make a viewer assume Enterline is a sentimentalistencasing bits of her past to hold onto them. But the project of a thousand necklaces of glass ampules with silver caps on stainless steel cord incorporates “found” objects, many of which have no direct connection to Enterline other than her solicitation of contributions. In many respects, the objects captured in glass become anonymous, raising questions about what items we imbue with meaning and why. The contained objects exist out of time and context; the viewer knows only that someone once saw each item as significant. Thus, one person’s emotional attachment becomes the next person’s charged mystery.

Enterline’s focus on pure forms in metal, on one hand, and on the loaded characteristics of found materials, on the other, also reaches a kind of synthesis. She obscures the objects behind a screen of metal, making them as precious as a chalice in the tabernacle, as intimate as the face behind a veil. Their power derives from mystery. “After exposing shells and quail eggs, I began to think that maybe I wanted things more hidden,” she explains.

In the “Bone Room” series of the mid-1990s, she began to capitalize on her perforated metal to supply the solution. She could place objects inside the idealized form, where the metal scrim would render them only dimly visible. “I was looking for a vibration between the interior and the exterior, and of the mystery of not really being able to see the object completely,” Enterline says. “I’m capturing it, housing it, catching it-but you can’t have it.”

Brooch (Untitled), 2002
oxidized sterling silver, 24k gold
2 1/2 x 2 3/4 x 3/4″

Two pieces from 2003 present Enterline at the top of her form. She is exercising a new vocabulary in which the enclosed objects both retain their identity and become abstract elements of composition, prized for the ways they interact with the shimmering light passing through the perforations. The face of her Ruby Tear brooch is drilled with tiny holes of at least three sizes, and the polished interior amply reflects light behind the oxidized exterior. Within the brooch, dozens of loose rubies literally rattle around and flash light as the wearer moves. They are sensuous and desirable-and completely out of reach, safe from touch. The rubies create a delicious tease.

Cylinder Pendant, 1997
pierced sterling silver, heat patina
3 3/4 x 7/8 x 7/8″

But the encased material need not be precious per se. Enterline found herself captivated at a recent gem show not just by heaps of stones, but by bins of abalone shell. Thinking at first that she might do a send-up of 1960s shell jewelry, she found instead that the shimmering mother of pearl presented a visual complement to her perforated metal. So rather than enclose the shell, she riveted a large piece to the back of a metal form perforated with an exuberant pattern. When the piece is held up to the light, the shell glows like amber stained glass. When it is worn on the body, light flashes inside with a blue-silver glimmer.

Maruwa Pendant, 1994
sterling silver, 14k gold, quail egg, steel
1 1/2 x 1 1/8 x 1 1/8″
Opposition Series, 1993
oxidized silver, 18k gold, nickel cable
1 x 1 1/4 x 1 “

Her experience with the rubies and the abalone confirm that Enterline has not yet reached the limits of her formal approach. She has been focused on drilling metal forms since about 1997, refining her technique and expanding her vocabulary. “In the last year or two,” she says, “I’m finally really taking it to a new realm. I don’t get sick of it. I just keep investigating because it keeps taking me further.”

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  • Critics Patricia Harris and David Lyon write from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Photos: Mark Johanns