Spotlight: Melanie Brauner, Metalsmith and Papermaker
At home with the arts from an early age, Melanie Brauner’s adaptive approach to circumstances encouraged her to create in entirely new ways. The result is a blending of unique metal and handmade paper jewelry, creating tiny wearable sculptures that reflect her forest-to-sea environment.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Being an artist was always pretty inevitable for me. I’ve always felt most at home making things and thinking creatively. I grew up playing the fiddle and performing and competing a lot, and I imagined I’d become a professional musician. But when I was a teenager I decided that touring wasn’t the life for me. I was making paintings and drawings every day, and my focus shifted to dreaming about being an artist or fashion designer.
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But after working in bookstores, I found myself fascinated with bookbinding and paper. I ended up doing an apprenticeship in book restoration and archival box making. Then I ran my own bindery for a handful of years bringing old books back to life and making box enclosures for them. I was then in my mid twenties and felt I still had so much to learn, so I got my BFA in book arts from Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, Oregon.
The program included bookbinding, letterpress, printmaking and papermaking, and I added a second craft in metalsmithing. I never would’ve known how much I love working with metal if I hadn’t walked into that metals studio and looked around and felt a mix of exhilaration and terror! All of the tools were completely unfamiliar and I wanted to know everything about them.
Papermaking was also a surprise for me. I was interested in the idea of making my own paper for my books, but I didn’t know how much paper as a medium for art would take hold of me. When I worked with it sculpturally, I became even more interested. I was really lucky to be in a class taught by Helen Hiebert, and that class turned into an internship in her studio, which turned into a job as her studio assistant, which turned into me letterpress printing and binding her artist’s books for her. At that time I was also the studio assistant for Barb Tetenbaum, the book arts department head at my school and a well known book artist. So I absorbed book and paper knowledge everywhere I could.
In addition to books and paper I was also learning about metal and jewelry. I was taking metals classes at my school, and I got a job with a jeweler that evolved into me co-designing a line of metal and naturally dyed fiber jewelry with her. I did some of the metal design and all of the fiber design for the line. My work days filled with braiding and weaving and roping silk and linen thread and dyeing it with plant dyes.
All of that is a long-winded intro to say that I finally found a way to combine all of things I want to make as an artist into one career path! My Verso Jewelry is hand-fabricated metal, skinned in my own handmade paper, hand-dyed, and sealed with a resin coating. Metal, paper, and dyeing.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
As a kid I really loved paper! I remember making little books and filling them with drawings and stories and poems. And I’ve always been obsessed with clothes and costumes and getting dressed up, so it’s not surprising I ended up in fashion.
What led you to the Oregon College of Art and Craft for your Fine Arts degree?
If you dream of getting a BFA in book arts, there are only a few options! I’m so happy I landed at OCAC though. The focus on craft was perfect for me, and I got the opportunity to try making anything I was interested in.
What other mediums feed your need to create?
I’ve been going back to fibers lately! I dyed some fabric with indigo and have been making quilts from it, which is just so meditative and calming for me. And along with that my interest in dyes has been piqued again. I’ve been collecting earth pigments and grinding them to powder in a mortar and pestle. And I’m developing ways to dye my handmade paper with them so they can find their way into my jewelry.
And of course I’m still a musician. I play Scottish, Irish and American old time fiddle, and I play the piano. Traditional music brings me a lot of joy.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
I’m very directly inspired by the landscape around me. We live in Everett, Washington, which is right on the Puget Sound, so I pull my inspiration from the beaches and islands and trees and mountains and all of the plant and animal life that lives in the forests and the water.
We live in a 1920s storybook tudor house with a big garden. Gardening and working with plants has had a big impact on my work. Shapes and textures and colors in my work come directly from my garden.
Everything I make looks like it comes from some world that’s a combination of a garden and a tide pool.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Though there are other jewelers using paper in their work, no one else is working with it like I do.
I make a pulp from abaca fiber (from the inner bark of a tree that grows primarily in the Philippines) using a machine called a beater that breaks down plant fiber in water between a roller and a base plate. Then I cast that pulp onto the metal by dipping into it over and over again. Successive dips build up a skin of paper around the metal form. Then I dye the paper, stabilize the dye with a sealer, and coat the whole piece in resin; that makes the paper waterproof and durable. Then it goes back to my metals studio for clean up and finishing and polishing.
Since the paper goes onto the piece gradually as a pulp, it’s seamless and delicate and translucent. The final coat of resin makes it look a bit like glass.
As you developed your unique process for making jewelry, did you have an “ah-ha! moment and know immediately how to proceed? Or was there a lot of trial and error?
The first pieces of metal jewelry I made happened at Penland, the craft school in North Carolina. I was there for a 2 week sculptural papermaking workshop with Melissa Jay Craig.
As a broke student, I didn’t have extra money to mail big work back home. So I challenged myself to make things I could fit in my suitcase. I coiled wire into tiny cocoon-like shapes and cast paper pulp onto them. Then I added earwires and made a series of cocoon earrings. I actually sold a few pairs to other students at Penland, and the idea stuck with me when I went back home. It sat dormant for a few years while I finished school and worked, but one day the art book publisher I was working for had a massive flood and we had to close for several weeks.
I started experimenting with the paper jewelry again, expanding on the cocoon idea, and trying various ways to seal it so it would be waterproof and strong enough to wear. By the end of the leave from work, I had a complete line of jewelry finished, photographed, branded, and for sale on a freshly built website. I got my first accounts with art museum shops from that website, so I kept experimenting and improving the jewelry. As I worked, I developed better and better ways to waterproof the paper, I added dye to my process, then lots and lots more colors of dye. I kept designing new pieces and finding new ways to work with the paper to make new shapes, and I tried new techniques with metal.
I’d say I’m still in the process of trial and error! I’ve never stopped trying out new ideas and experimenting with new techniques. The evolution of the work is what keeps me doing it.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I have ambitions to be a planner of things with organizational systems, but the truth is I’m a crow going after shiny things. Absolutely all of my jewelry has come about because I was in my studio doing some sort of production task and got bored and suddenly dropped everything and got completely absorbed in a new idea.
I’m forced to be a planner to go through the weeks-long process of all the curing phases of my jewelry. That makes it possible to fill orders for stores and galleries and customers on my website. But when it comes to design and inspiration, I never set out with a plan. I try everything and throw away what didn’t work and keep riffing on what did.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
My grandpa was a very talented painter, and he always told me it was a huge mistake to wait around on The Muse, because there’s no such thing. He said artistic inspiration comes to those who are working and making art. So I get to work in my studio to get my head in the place where ideas can happen. When a spark happens I try it out, with no specific expectations about how it’ll turn out; most of the time the good idea that turns into a finished piece of jewelry happens about 3 ideas in, after the first idea didn’t work out like I imagined it would.
What obstacles (if any) do you experience when you are creating? If you do face obstacles, how do you get past them?
There are layers of failure that happen in any studio practice. I actually find that I thrive on the failure. It motivates me to learn something and try again. I don’t take it personally anymore. The final failure is of course if I love a piece but no one buys it, which happens a lot! But that just means I need to listen to why it’s not working for my customers and improve upon it. There are lots of pieces of jewelry that I made and loved, sold very few of, and then altered several times and turned into a best seller.
Do you have gallery representation? How did that come about?
Yes I do! In Washington I work with Cole Gallery, Gallery Mack, Scott Milo Gallery, and Virago Gallery. And in Oregon I work with Whitebird Gallery, Riversea Gallery, and Earthworks Gallery. I also work with museum shops all over the country, which are a very similar relationship as with a gallery.
My work is somewhere at the intersection of handmade production jewelry and one-of-a-kind art jewelry, so it works really well in a gallery. Even though I make my best sellers over and over again, my medium makes each piece unique, so galleries can request the pieces that sell well for them endlessly, while still selling completely unique pieces every time.
My gallery relationships happened mostly from gallerists seeing my work in museum shops and other galleries and on my social media, and getting in touch with me. Of the galleries listed above, I reached out to only two of them myself. The rest found me.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
My studio is divided into two spaces at the moment. The basement of our house is my papermaking and resin studio. That’s where I beat my pulp, do all of my paper casting, dyeing and resin work. It’s set up with a big sink and drop cloths so I can get really messy and drip everywhere. It’s always full of racks of paper and metal bits in various stages of drying and curing.
The other studio is at the back of our garden. It used to be kind of a carport attached to our garage. When we bought our house I walled it in and finished it as a working space. Now I use it for all of my metal work, and my office for running my business.
Both of my spaces always exist at some level of chaos that wishes it were organized, and I’ve learned to accept that that’s how I work. If there aren’t 36 half finished projects everywhere then I’m not inspired to keep working.
If you could have just 5 items in your studio, what would they be and why?
Hard question! Definitely my torch so I can solder metal, my beater for making paper pulp, my anvil, my collection of pliers (does a collection count as one??) and my hammers. I started off with basically just those tools and built my whole jewelry line with them. It’s surprising what a huge jolt of creativity you can get when you have severe limitations.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I love my torch! I have a hydrogen torch for work that’s very fine and small. Filled with plain old water, it separates the vapor into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen burns and the oxygen feeds the flame. It still amazes me.
I use a traditional papermaker’s mold and deckle (the screen and frame used to make a sheet of paper) in a non-traditional way for some of my pieces. When I need to span a large area between pieces of metal and dipping won’t be able to fill in the area alone, I lay the piece on the mold and gradually drain paper pulp through it by pouring it over the piece a little at a time over a few days. The sheet gradually forms around the metal, using the screen on the mold as a support to dry. Then I can gently peel it up, trim it, and finish the piece.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?
I love noise while I work. I listen to a lot of traditional music…lately Swedish folk music makes me very happy. I listen to a ton of podcasts, mostly about science and art and design, and I’ll do the occasional audiobook. If I’m doing repetitive work I’ll watch documentaries or my favorite YouTube channels.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
There are so many! One stand out would be Tasha Tudor. She blended her gardening and cooking and domestic life in her historic house so seamlessly with her life as an illustrator and storyteller. Each one fed into the other as a complete creative practice. I feel that kind of continuum in my own life, from house to studio to garden.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people. Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Everyone is creative! Humans have the gift of imagination, and we all use it in one way or another. There are ebbs and flows for me with creativity. Sometimes I feel huge waves of inspiration coming from everywhere all at once; other times I feel pretty dry and just explore things in depth that have worked for me in the past.
I think anyone can learn to hone their creativity and to express it through art or craft. But it certainly takes a lot more work and repeated epic failure to get there than most people realize.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited about a few new projects right now! My work with earth pigments is brand new and feels like a direction that’s going to take me to new exciting places in combination with my paper and metal work.
I’m also working sculpturally again, making big branches covered in brightly colored, hand-dyed handmade paper and metal flowers. Those will be showing up on my social media and my website soon. They feel like expressions of hope to me.
Since the pandemic started I’ve been learning about photography and video so I can document my work and my home life to share online. I started a YouTube channel called Verso Studio; I post videos of my studio process and my garden and trips out into nature. That’s where I gather inspiration for my work. It turns out that the medium of video is really inspiring to me!
The rest of the What’s Next question is a big mystery to me, which is what keeps me showing up in my studio everyday to see what might happen. It’s all a great adventure.
Interview posted November 2020
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