2017 Enamel - First Place
To say Sandra McEwen is influenced by Medieval art, architecture, history, legends, illustrated manuscripts and symbolism is an understatement. All you have to do is look at her First Place entry in Enamel, “Fool’s Errand,” to see the piece pays homage to this historical period. And enameling is the perfect medium to tell her stories. The complexity of detail and the close attention to color is a hallmark of Sandra’s craftsmanship, precision and artistry, which also earned her a Second Place win in the Enamel category of the 2015 Saul Bell Design Awards. Her work is an elegant combination of contemporary design and timeless images. It is truly wearable art.
The Winning Piece:
Pure silver, vitreous enamel, silver and 24K gold wire. The piece was inspired by the large faceted pyrite stone I bought from local stone cutter a year ago. Germination of the piece came directly from the stone. The pale blue stone is a milky quartz. The prongs are silver as well.
Champlevé and cloisonné enameling were both used on this piece. The design on the back of the piece was hand-sawn-out. A simple brush finish on the back was used. The piece was totally hand-fabricated.
I have always loved history and am intrigued by gothic art and illustrated manuscripts. The Bayeux Tapestry in France about the Battle of Hastings has been a favorite. The architecture in the tapestry was an inspiration. The fool and the journey came from this piece.
It took a long time. I made the piece in stages. Probably about three months start to finish. I reworked the design numerous times before submitting it. I spent a week just bending the wires for it. However, I love bending wires so that was a joy. I bought a jewelry microscope a month before I started the piece, and it was an amazing help.
What did you learn from the piece?
I learned so much from this piece. I studied drawing in art school and I currently take classes in metalsmithing whenever I can to perfect my skills and learn new techniques. Enameling is where I feel confident and gives me the most pleasure. I learned more about the mechanics of building a complex piece from "Fool’s Errand." Fitting the back to the front of the piece was the most difficult part.
Are you going to sell it?
It is a really special piece for me. I think I am going to hang on to it for now. It is a very delicate.
Do you think this piece will influence your work going forward?
Yes. I am literally moving forward right now. I am influenced by manuscripts, battle scenes, towers, archers, symbols from the medieval period. This is not a one-off brooch.
What do you like most about the piece?
I love the precision of the wire work and the color of the sky. The colors really worked for me. At first I thought it might be a circus piece with all the different colors, but it is more unified than I originally thought. The colors travel from morning at the top to evening at the bottom. The unifying element in the brooch are the colors, particularly blues.
Did you try it on?
Yes. It is a large piece and the pieces I am making now are a much more manageable in size.
Where do you live?
Raleigh, North Carolina.
Did you study jewelry?
No. I studied Illustration at RISD. I didn’t take a single jewelry class there. Only drawing and painting. I focused on very classical styles. RISD offers a strong foundation program. I also spent a year in Rome, Italy, studying art. The program provided me with a little studio and once a week we met for an art history walk.
When did you discover you loved making jewelry?
I always liked making things. However I was not totally satisfied with drawing. My father is an engineer, and I felt that the making/engineering part was missing from my career. I took a stained glass class, which I loved, especially the crafting part of it. I loved planning a piece, drawing it up and finishing it. I got a space in the coop artist center, Ant Farm, in Raleigh where I could rent an 8' x 8' space. This space kept me grounded in the arts. I was doing large stained glass pieces. And started making tiny stained glass pieces that got smaller and smaller. Just randomly I took a class in enameling and after the first night of the class I had found my passion. I ran home, bought a small kiln and never made another piece of stained glass. I am mostly self-taught.
How long have you been making jewelry?
Who is your design/jewelry mentor?
I have had several. Early on Lillian Jones in Raleigh answered all of my questions and was very open with her expertise and knowledge. Also my friend Betty McKim has a Masters in jewelry and is very generous in answering all my metalsmithing questions.
When are you most creative?
I am a very early morning person. Extremely! I get up at 4:30am. And I don’t do any work after 4:00pm. About 9:00 in the morning is when I am hitting my stride.
Do you have a jewelry design business?
Yes. www.sandramcewen.com and I teach classes and private lessons in my studio in downtown Raleigh. My classes are limited to three students at time; my studio is cozy, and I prefer giving students as much of my attention as possible.
What is your artist statement/design philosophy?
"I have always loved incorporating bright color and light into my work, so when I discovered the beauty of cloisonné enamel, I was hooked. My work incorporates color, light, and balance; be it abstract or figurative. I'm influenced by all the gorgeous jewelry of the past, but try to give it a modern twist.”
How do you market your work?
I market my work through social media and Etsy. I try to keep things fresh on my website.
Do you have a staff?
Just me and my dog, Mr. Wendell. He is a Lassa poodle mix and a grumpy old man.
Saul Bell Design Award:
What did you feel when you found out you were a winner?
I was thrilled. I have wanted to win this for many years. I shipped it on the day it was due, finishing it at the very last moment.
What made you decide to enter the competition?
I had entered Saul Bell several times before, starting in 2009. I won second place two years ago.
What other design awards have you won?
I won a Niche Award and was a finalist several times. And I have won an ACC award of excellence.
How did you hear about the competition?
I have bought the majority of my materials from the Rio catalog. Also, Lillian Jones was a finalist and she encouraged me to enter.
What is your favorite material?
Enameling. 24K gold wires are a delight.
Studio and Surroundings:
What is the one thing you most love about your studio?
I love that it is across the street from my house. It is an easy commute and it is beautiful studio.
What is the one thing you would change about your studio?
The studio space is open to the public, so there are times when there is a steady stream of people, and although I love to talk to them, I sometimes need quiet time to concentrate on my art.
What is your favorite tool?
My jewelers microscope!
Do you listen to anything when you work?
I listen to podcasts and books on tape about history and art history in particular.
What one word of advice would you give beginning designers?
Make what pleases you. Don’t worry about appealing to everyone. Go niche!
What work inspires you?
Illuminated manuscripts and Medieval architecture and art.
What achievement in your jewelry life are you most proud?
I am proud that I didn’t listen to the little part of myself that said I wouldn’t make it. I am proud of the fact I am where I am without listening to my critical self.
What jeweler would you most like to have dinner with or visit their studio?
Go back in time to visit a jewelry studio from the middle ages. I would love to see how they made the amazingly beautiful things they did at the time.
You can see more of Sandra's work at www.sandramcewen.com.
Interview by Marlene Richey