The Jewelry of Holly Lee

It takes an interesting person to make interesting jewelry and Holly Lee fits the bill. Originally from a family that moved every three years, Lee blossomed in the two years she studied at Tai Pei American high school in Taiwan. "This school's open-minded and innovative way of teaching formed much of the person I am today. Imagine classrooms without desks, where students lay on pillows and listened to music," reminisces the fortysomething brunette.

14 Minute Read

The air was charged inside Holly Lee's booth. An entire day had passed in an excited flurry of chatting and showing off new jewelry designs to collectors, interested curators, and loyal customers. Amidst the exhilarating chaos of buying and selling, Lee had noticed one woman's strange behavior.

She would approach the jewelry cases, stare intently at one necklace, then disappear into the crowd, only to reappear a few minutes later. Towards evening, the woman once again stood before the Morrison jasper necklace. The browns and earthy greens in the tongue-shaped stone glowed like an oil painting. The landscape of mountains and miniature trees were framed by silver pea pod shapes and gold arches. Lee picked up the necklace by the snake chain and held it out to the woman, suggesting she try it on.

Lee's signature design element is the drilled silver sphere which appears in so many of her pieces, such as this rutilated quartz pendant. 1″ x 3-1/2″. "Holes are a repeating motif everywhere in nature," Lee points out. "Bugs eat holes in leaves, worms dig holes, stars look like holes in the sky."

The woman shook her head, saying, "I have to tell you, this necklace does something to me. It is so exciting, whole, and fulfilling it makes me want to cry." Lee smiled and nodded. She understood all too well how a five-inch stone from Wyoming could upset a person's equilibrium. She has a box full of stones that she feels that way about herself. Some, like the Chinese writing stone, she has held on to for 12 years.

In the velvet-lined display cases, Lee's neckpieces and bracelets lie like recently excavated artifacts, their muted elegance still aglow with age-defying luster. Jewelry, the old adage says, is one of the few things in life that age enhances. There is an ambiguity about Lee's work: they are so contemporary they look primitive. Are they modern pieces or are they antiquities in which eternity has been arrested in precious metal?

Reaching for a heavily coiled silver bangle you might expect to see in faded photos of African tribeswomen, Lee says, "This is wrapped with 14 feet of silver wire. I won't tell you how many mistakes I made before I discovered the secret."

This bracelet, with its citrine centerpiece, is an unusual example of Lee using a faceted, transparent stone.

The bracelet is a puzzle, for it has no apparent opening and its center is too small for a hand to slip through. Is this another piece of agony jewelry, expensive to buy and painful to wear?

Lee pulls the bracelet apart, like a jump ring, and shows how to swivel a wrist into it. The secret of why the metal doesn't snap from the constant pulling is soon to be patented — when she finds time. With her "wall of shame" (a wall full of commissions), galleries' seemingly insatiable demands for product, and eight high-profile shows a year, time, at the Lee studio, is more precious than jade.

A Brush with Art

It takes an interesting person to make interesting jewelry and Holly Lee fits the bill. Originally from a family that moved every three years, Lee blossomed in the two years she studied at Tai Pei American high school in Taiwan. "This school's open-minded and innovative way of teaching formed much of the person I am today. Imagine classrooms without desks, where students lay on pillows and listened to music," reminisces the fortysomething brunette.

Lee's designs originate from special stones, such as the large yellow-and-pink jasper that forms the focus of this pendant. 3-3/4″ x 3-3/4″

Lee had been whisked from a home in which art was never mentioned and dropped into a culture in which everything seemed related to art. She was particularly fascinated by the intricacies of the ivory carvings no larger than a fingernail housed in the National Museum. School field trips were to remote pottery villages where children began their training in pottery making and carving at the age of 10. Lee's admiration of pottery painting moved her to take up Chinese brush painting, considered to be more a meditation in ink than painting.

Lee thrived within this art's strict discipline. In time, she mastered the brushstrokes and learned to place them thoughtfully in order to produce a painting with calming effects for both the artist and the viewer. Chinese brush painting quickly became a passion that she hoped to continue once back home.

The minute she returned to Virginia Wesleyan College, in Norfolk, Holly changed her major to painting and began studying with the renowned artist Barclay Sheaks. The cost of art supplies was daunting. After two years of watercolor instruction, Lee became dissatisfied with its restrictive, two-dimensional format. She yearned to sculpt and explore metal in all its forms. And what better place to find interesting metal than at the local junkyard. "I loved car parts," she recalls. "The mechanics, the shapes, the roundness." Though the school did not have a formal sculpture studio, she nonetheless began to construct sculptures out of found objects. It was thrilling to see three-dimensional creations in the round. During the summers, Holly worked at The Galleon, a jewelry store in North Carolina, where she was quickly promoted to buying — for the store and for herself. Back at school, Lee sold her jewelry to buy paint. She concluded that jewelry was not only portable and beautiful but also salable.

A gifted athlete, Lee was captain of the hockey team, and spent what time she wasn't at the junkyard shooting hoops or on the tennis court. When she accompanied the men's tennis team to a tournament held at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, one look at the sports facility made her consider transferring to the breathtaking campus. Once she learned Madison had a jewelry department, she couldn't transfer fast enough.

When Holly Lee learned gem cutting, the cabochon became her personal favorite because of its "meditative quality." This ring uses a cabochon of greyish moonstone.

It wasn't long before Lee realized she had an innate aptitude for jewelry making. An outpouring of ideas, feelings of déja vu and an easy competence convinced her she had made the right decision. Her jewelry professor, impressed by her craftsmanship, encouraged her to pursue her own designs, but Lee felt hindered by her inexperience. Searching for new techniques, she signed up for Bob Ebendorf's jewelry workshop. She came away with the revelation that the only limit to jewelry-making design was the jeweler's own imagination. Another source of inspiration was Arline Fisch who, through her virtuosity and passion for metal, had elevated jewelry from simple ornamentation to metal art. Fisch's own metalwork, using textile techniques, had set new standards for jewelers. Lee considered moving to California to study with Fisch, but destiny had other plans for her.

Like many dedicated artists, Holly was drawn to her studio's late-night solitude. So was Cliff, the potter next door. Cliff, who had immigrated from Taiwan at 15, was taking a break from studying neurosurgery at Hershey Medical School when, on a dare, he took a pottery course. In just two turns of the wheel, he quit medical school to pursue ceramics at James Madison. Holly and Cliff's late night conversations resulted in marriage in 1978 and a new beginning at Lee Gallery Inc., in Arlington. For the next 12 years, Lee worked exclusively on commissions while raising the children who followed — their sons, Douglas and Curtis.

Lee combined the browns and earthy greens of a tongue-shaped Morrison jasper with an elongated version of the pierced sphere for this pendant.

In 1985 the Lees opened a gallery in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., while Holly tried to wean herself from the cycle of custom work by trying her hand at craft shows. By 1990, she had a body of work she could take to a show.

Although her show debut was successful, a succession of problems was coming to a head. Her studio was in a gloomy basement with skull-threatening ceilings. Violence had arrived on their doorstep when people were held up at gunpoint in front of their home. When the children in her sons' playground piled up their guns before a basketball game, the Lees decided to move. Thus began a cross-country quest for a safer haven with studio space. Their seven-year search ended in 1992 in Stevens, Pennsylvania.

The main attraction of the house was the 4,500-square-foot studio barn which would allow Lee to realize her long-time dream of working on larger pieces. With light flooding in from north-and south-facing windows, the studio overlooks cornfields that stretch into the horizon. Some days, the only sounds that penetrate are the horses pulling the Amish carriages. The town itself is so small that it's not on the map.

"It's a wonderful place to work. I thank God frequently for guiding us to this oasis. It's so lush and physically stimulating as well as peaceful and tranquil. Inspiration comes easily in such beautiful surroundings. Ever since we moved here, my designing and creativity have flourished and started going in a direction I thought I was capable of going," smiles Lee, sitting at her bench awash with sunlight.

In 1993, however, she began to have the disturbing feeling that something was missing in her life, although everywhere she turned she saw confirmation of the opposite: her boys were growing independent; Cliff's pottery had entered both the White House Collection and the Smithsonian Institution. "One day sitting at my workbench a design was clamoring to be born. I ran over to sketch it out. Then it started to grow and I began to make spheres. There's something soothing about holding a sphere in your hand: it's continuous, there's no end, no beginning- it goes on and on forever. I found that comforting. It made me feel more whole. I enjoyed that feeling and wanted to incorporate it into my designs," says Lee, fingering the sphere on her necklace.

Sea of Holes

The spinning sphere began as a sleek, hollow silver ball. Conceptually perfect though the image was, Lee could see that it needed subtle ornamentation that wouldn't detract from its wholeness. She was still unpacking after the move when she came across sculptures she had carved out of soapstone while in high school. Every piece had a hole in it. "Holes are a repeating motif everywhere in nature," Lee points out. "Bugs eat holes in leaves, worms dig holes, stars look like holes in the sky. Another thing that is wonderful about holes on the sphere is that the light passes through space and comes out the other side. Also, the Orientals believe the circle, or pi, to be the symbol of heaven. I found that to be very comforting as well as attractive."

Lee held onto the piece of Chinese writing stone in her Goddess Amulet for 12 years before deciding on the proper use for it. The amulet combines the stone with a drilled sphere and black onyx. 4-3/4″ x 2-1/4″ x 3/4″

Since then, the spinning sphere has become a fundamental component of Lee's neckpieces. The Goddess Amulet, which took two weeks to construct, successfully satisfies all the rules of fine design: repetition, variety, rhythm, balance and proportion, and does so with only three basic elements. Hollow tubing, pierced and bent, is the foundation from which is suspended the signature spinning sphere. Three sizes of holes and lost wax technique add texture. Using medium sandpaper, which leaves tiny scratches on the surface, and finishing with a wire brush, Lee achieves a glow rather than a gloss. "It's the difference between the moon and the sun: the moon glows, the sun glares."

The Goddess Amulet's drama is created by the white-on-black Chinese writing stone, mysterious and inscrutable as Chinese whispers. It took Lee 12 years to find a design worthy of this fascinating stone.

"To find a special stone is quite a joy, and to be able to cut it the way it is asking to be cut is a gift," laughs Lee, remembering her college days, when her favorite pastime was looking for rocks to slab. "I liked to cut real thick stones, and most slabs that you'd find in rock shops were thin."

Holly learned gem cutting, learning to reveal each stone's personality, even if that personality was flawed. The cabochon became her cut of choice because it possessed a meditative quality which invited scrutiny. To Lee, a faceted stone simply shows off. To the mainstream, it's only about color, clarity, and perfection. A cab, however, can be enhanced by a "flaw" of nature. "Really, in fact, there's nothing in nature that is perfect," muses Lee.

Gem cutting was a part of jewelry making she enjoyed. However, with two growing boys, ever-looming craft show deadlines, and the added burden of documenting and photographing her jewelry and Cliff's pottery, stone cutting had became one more chore eating away her studio time. Help came in the form of a trade show. She was delighted to meet suppliers of custom-cut gemstones, including Bill Heher, Gary Genouese, Bill Gangi, Tom Lane, and Michael Caldwell. "The cutters are passionate about their stones and have an eye for the unique," she says enthusiastically. Their wizardry released her from this task without forcing her to compromise her standards.

A Simple Twist

Lee's designs originate from the stone. "When I see a special stone, like this one, it seems to ignite a spark which sends my creativity soaring," says Lee, holding up a jasper necklace. The large, yellow-and-pink stone seems to have a landscape where three rust-colored monks cross a mountain range.

Lee's metalwork is wrapped around stones such as rutilated quartz, jasper, moonstone, and agate. Jade holds an unceasing fascination for her, not only because of its reputed life- and luck-enhancing properties, but also because it is considered by some cultures to be the concentrated essence of love. Lee appreciates the gem for its wide range of color — from white, red, lavender, and apple green to black. On her worktable lies a recent composition featuring "water" jade (which is a celadon color) combined with low-luster silver and gold. Next to it is another neckpiece using gold (her favorite metal, "Because it's so forgiving") and pearls. "Pearls are a gift of nature," she says, holding up the necklace. "This piece updates the heirloom strand of pearls lying unworn in every woman's jewelry box."

Although gold is her favorite metal, Lee also has considerable mastery over silver, transforming it into endless design possibilities. She uses hollow, low-luster fabricated forms, adding texture by drilling. When a single bracelet design requires her to hand drill 600 holes (in three different sizes), she considers getting studio assistants to reduce her 12-hour work day.

Today she is excited about a recent accomplishment in silver and gold she calls the Magic Orb. "There is such interplay of light and space that you're convinced it's full of magic," she explains. "You feel that if you stare into it long enough you will see the future."

The Magic Orb pendant is constructed of a hemisphere of tourmalinated quartz paired with a hemisphere of drilled silver.

She began this masterpiece in miniature (it's only 1 1/2″ in diameter), with a cabbed round tourmalinated quartz, using 80 carats'-worth of stone. The stone, in the shape of a hemisphere, was a perfect mate for the other half of drilled silver. Running through the silver is a strip of gold with tiny silver dots resembling miniature spheres and giving the effect of the sun's rays. The Magic Orb spins from a 18-karat-gold hoop which hangs from a hand-made 32-inch chain.

Less is More

Lee's genius for metalwork has its foundation in similar sources as her affinity for Chinese brush painting — her ability to suggest complex forms using a few metal strokes to create each seemingly simple yet intricately engineered piece. The economy of style and spareness of material which goes into each graceful sculptural form stands out in relief from so many overembellished "statement" pieces.

Lee believes her metal work to be a repository of her life experiences. Her personal philosophy is as streamlined as the pieces she creates.

"To me, life is happiness and fulfillment. My ability to create is my happiness. The finished piece is my fulfillment. I hope that my jewelry can be seen as an object of three-dimensional art, a micro sculpture that just so happens to adorn the body."

Certainly the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina which recently added Holly's metalwork to their permanent collection, would agree. When this 80,000-square-foot facility opens in January 1999, it will be the largest museum in the United States devoted solely to crafts. Another addition to her portfolio was the ornament she created for the White House Christmas tree in 1993. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton requested angels, and naturally Lee's was in precious metal with a sphere for a head.

Does Lee have any plans to do more wholesale? "Not when I make less money than my gardener!"

While musing on their current good fortune, Cliff Lee remembers a Christmas when Douglas and Curtis went without presents because a bad firing burned away their income.

"We even borrowed money for food!" laughs Cliff. As long as television broadcasters, writers, and designers continue to collect Holly Lee's work, though, it's unlikely the Lees will ever go hungry.

By Nina Graci – Copyright © Nina Graci 2005
Originally Published by Lapidary Journal

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