2015 2nd Place - Enamel
Sandra McEwen brings playful, magical stories into the world through her jewelry. The storybook imagery she portrays, combined with her immaculate attention to detail, creates a compelling dichotomy of fun and fine art. McEwen was awarded second place in the enamel category at the 2015 Saul Bell Design Awards. Her piece is titled "Empress Theodora" and has a regal, dignified nature. When making her jewelry, color, light, and balance sit at the forefront of McEwen's mind. She works in both the abstract and the figurative, and we had the opportunity to ask her about how she came to develop her unique style.
YOUR DEGREE IS IN ILLUSTRATION, WHICH IS REPRESENTED IN YOUR JEWELRY. HOW DID YOU MOVE INTO CREATING WEARABLE ART?
I was never all that comfortable with illustration. To be honest, I only majored in it because my parents wanted me to have some sort of employable skill. (And being a children's book illustrator was all the rage back then, so it seemed like a fine idea.)
Don't get me wrong, I love drawing and sketching! But I also love actually making/building things. I think it's because my Dad's an engineer. In my senior year of college, I took a stained glass class and just loved it. After graduation, I did a three-month apprenticeship in leaded glass restoration in Italy, and it was just glorious. I especially loved painted panels with rich colors that told whole narratives in each panel.
I focused on the leaded glass for a couple of years, but I found my pieces getting smaller and smaller. Stained glass is a very public art, and I wanted to make something that was more personal and private. Then one day, I stumbled into a cloisonné enamel class and that was it for me. It was my total "aha!" moment. Seriously, within a week, I packed up all my stained glass stuff, got myself a little kiln (that I still use) and just went to town with it. Never looked back.
WHAT IS THE ONE JEWELRY-MAKING TOOL YOU COULDN'T LIVE WITHOUT?
You and I both know that jewelry-making and special, ridiculous tools that only do one tiny thing each go hand in hand. That minor rant aside, it would be sort of hard to do my enamels without a kiln. Or my brain. (Should have led with brain.)
WHAT DOES "DESIGN" MEAN TO YOU? WHAT DEFINES GREAT DESIGN?
I suppose that good design would be the most elegant solution to a difficult problem.
YOUR PIECES SEEM TO HAVE SPECIFIC ORIGINS OR BACKGROUNDS; WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR INSPIRATION COMES FROM?
I read a lot: history, biographies, sci-fi and fantasy. I love looking at ancient and medieval art and sculpture and all that. For example, the unicorn necklace I just finished was inspired by the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters Museum in Paris. Of course, I loved the lady and unicorn, but all the little animals nestled in the greenery really captivated me—they were so charming.
YOU WORK IS SO COLORFUL AND UPBEAT; IT IS IMBUED WITH HAPPINESS. WHAT'S THE FIGURATIVELY DARKEST PIECE YOU'VE EVER MADE?
My darkest piece ever? I tried to be all dark and arty in college, but it didn't work out all that well. I did a lot of pretentious comic art with lots of inky shadows, but I don't know if it was all that dark.
WHO HAS HAD THE GREATEST IMPACT ON YOUR WORK?
Probably my husband, Warren. He's always been good at focusing on the task at hand, quelling that little nay-saying voice in your head and just going for it. I've learned that skill from him. Also, he's a great sounding board for ideas and has been incredibly supportive of my artistic goals.
DESCRIBE YOUR BENCH.
If you looked at my bench, you would think I was a neat and tidy person. But, that is not true! My bench is well organized because when I first started out, I only had a 4 x 5 foot space to work in, so I got in the habit of keeping things very well organized. Every hour or so while I'm working, I stop and play the "what don't I need?" game and just put back all the tools I'm done with. I've got a ginormous studio now, but I'm in the habit of keeping things just so.
I NOTICED THE BLOG ON YOUR WEBSITE HAS VERY DETAILED PICTURES AND EXPLANATIONS OF HOW YOU PUT YOUR WORKS TOGETHER. CAN YOU TELL ME WHY YOU BEGAN DOING THIS?
I'm pretty much self taught, jewelry wise. When I was starting out, there wasn't a whole lot of info out there, and I had to figure a lot out on my own through trial and error. There's also a sense among some artists that if they share their process, people will just start copying their work and stealing their ideas. I know it happens, and that definitely sucks. But, I also worry that if we don't share the process and get other artists, especially younger ones, excited about the craft, it'll just be gone. New technologies are exciting; I get that. Maybe in a generation all jewelry will be made with 3D printers and that's fine (Ugh. It's not.), but I hope that a few people will still want to explore more traditional techniques.
I remember hearing a story about granulation (and this story could totally be wrong). It was super popular for a thousand years, but then around the turn of the century, they developed all these new modern jewelry tools and processes, and the ancient technique for granulation was lost. No one living knew how it was made. Someone had to use science and microscopes and whatnot to try to figure out the process. It would be such a shame to lose techniques just because new and quicker and easier tools come along.
WHAT ARE YOU UP TO NOW?
I just finished up the unicorn necklace. It's fine silver granulation (my first granulation!), and I had it plated with 24K gold vermeil at Red Sky. I'm also working on making settings for several cloisonné pieces I finished earlier this year. They are pretty simple, but I wanted to tell a little story on the back of the piece, so I etched brass plates and then embossed them onto the reverse.