The Creative Spark: Sharilyn Miller

Many of y'all remember Sharilyn as the editor of Somerset Studio, Belle Armoire, and Art Doll Quarterly. That's how I met her--she was the editor who hired me to write for those Stampington publications, and I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to work with her. These days Sharilyn is writing books, teaching, traveling, working in the studio--she's very, very busy, so I was thrilled when she took time to do a podcast with me and then tell about the creative spark for one of her amazing pieces of jewelry. ---------------
Where were you when the idea first came to you?
I was in my studio, working alone. Much as I enjoy teaching workshops and participating in classes with other artists, I find that I am most creative while working alone in a quiet place. And my art studio is very inspiring for me; it’s the biggest and brightest work space I’ve ever had, with huge windows overlooking the national forest, birds and other wildlife, pine trees and oaks, and brilliant blue skies over all. My studio gives me a feeling of deep peace and continuity. Inside I have huge tables to work on, which is very important for me; I like to spread out! And I have everything organized for the most part, with big cabinets that hold my mixed-media supplies, photography equipment and jewelry materials. I have smaller cabinets with drawers holding all of my beads, which are grouped by color. Being organized in this way makes it much easier to create and produce, because I don’t waste any time hunting around for tools and materials. It isn’t surprising to me that my most intriguing ideas come to me here, in my studio.
I was sitting at my worktable surrounded by my favorite tools and materials: pliers and hammers, big chunky wire cutters, heavy spools of round copper wire, beads, and some vintage steel cut buttons that I had purchased from an online vendor. I also had a few silk flowers on the table that I had taken apart, thinking I might use the petals to make a small art quilt or to embellish a crocheted purse, or in a mixed-media jewelry piece. Previously I had made a beautiful bangle bracelet for my eBook, Arty Jewelry II, which I simply called the Fleur Bangle Bracelet. So there were a few petals still scattered about, along with several sheets of copper in various gauges, a couple of jeweler’s saws, and my sketchbook. As I recall, I was sitting there surrounded by my stuff, and just letting my mind wander loosely.
My ideas usually come to me rather suddenly after long periods of pondering. I was thinking about using my silk flower petals somehow and then suddenly I saw it: A freehand drawn flower shape on copper, cut out with a saw, and then attached to a wire bangle with a vintage steel-cut button. It was all there before me, and seemed to take no time at all, but this sudden insight was preceded by a long period of nothingness (creatively speaking).
How did that feel?
I was in a state of calm excitement. So my heart wasn’t hammering and I wasn’t breathing heavily or anything like that; it wasn’t so dramatic! But inside, my mind was racing faster than thought. The design just came to me as a picture, and I didn’t even have to sketch it out in my sketchbook or make a tracing or anything. I still don’t know why, but as I picked up a Sharpie pen and a big sheet of 20ga copper, I quickly drew out a vague flower shape with four petals. Why four? I have no idea. I could have consulted a book on flowers and used it as a reference for making all different types of flower shapes, and I may do that in the future, but at the moment of creation I didn’t even think of it. Such ideas, which are more analytical and process-oriented, always come to me later, after the heat of creation has dampened.
So this is what I did: I drew a rough flower shape freehand without a single error as far as my initial vision is concerned. In other words, I could have (and perhaps should have?) drawn several different flower shapes on paper and then cut out my favorite and glued it to the copper sheet with rubber cement, which is what most metalsmiths do. Then use a jeweler’s saw to cut out the shape, file it, polish it, etc. Well, that’s not what I did. I drew my image directly onto the copper sheet. I deliberately made the outline shape a bit wobbly and uneven, because I envisioned a real flower with rough edges and flaws. If you spend any time at all sketching in nature, you quickly realize how imperfect everything is: leaves partially eaten away by insects, missing flower petals, mold and mildew, broken twigs, that sort of thing. So as I drew the outline of the petals I made them uneven and instantly knew that I would not be able to cut out the flower shape with my favorite Joyce Chen kitchen shears (I bought them years ago at Target). I would have to use a jeweler’s saw to accurately cut out the shape. That’s fine by me. So here’s the lesson: Whenever you make a piece of jewelry from your own design, the process of design and creation is one of decision-making. First you make one decision and that eliminates several other options, but it also leads you to the next decision, and so on. Eventually you end up with something, and I don’t know about others, but for me it’s almost always a bit of a surprise. My finished pieces rarely resemble the initial vision very closely, because while I am making a new piece I always get other ideas.
So I cut out the flower shape using a jeweler’s saw. This part is tricky if you lack experience, and all I can say is that you might take some lessons with an experienced jewelry teacher and then practice at home sawing out shapes from sheet metal in various gauges. Practice, practice, practice! To saw out an intricate piece with lots of line variation, it’s important to saw very quickly. Once my flower shape was sawed out I had to file the rough edges, which I always do by hand (I’m not crazy about using the Dremel or Flex Shaft for this) with top-quality jeweler’s files. You see, there are two phases to jewelry making: The wonderfully creative and fun design phase and the meticulous (some might even say tedious) phase of filing and polishing, annealing and pickling, etc. I don’t mind the more tedious aspects of jewelry making because I can do these dull but necessary tasks while I think of other things, like how I was going to attach this flower to a wire bangle, and what would I do to make the flower more interesting? Some ideas I considered were to enamel it, or to etch it, or to do some chasing and/or repoussé, or simply forge it in a dapping block to give it three-dimension. In the end, I decided to keep the metal shape flat, but to dimple the surface with a variety of my favorite Fretz texturing hammers. But there are so many other possibilities! You see what I mean about the decision-making process. There are probably 100 different things I could have done with this flower.
How long did you work on this piece?
I suppose I must have spent about three or four hours altogether on the entire bangle bracelet. I don’t know why but this piece came together rather quickly and easily. After I had the shape cut out and filed the edges smooth, I textured the surface and used my biggest steel-cut vintage button to attach it to a 12ga wire which I coil-wrapped and beaded, made a fun new wire clasp for it, and then attached some wire charms and bead dangles. Using liver of sulfur to artificially age the metal was followed by polishing with 0000 steel wool. It came together quickly and I was very happy with the result, which I blogged about afterward.
How did you know it was complete?
It’s challenging for me to explain how I know a piece is finished. Sometimes I know right away—it just looks great to me, somehow, and gives me a feeling of completeness—and other times I quit knowing that it isn’t quite finished, but that’s OK too. I’ve heard painting instructors say that you should stop painting when your piece seems to be about 90-percent finished; to go any further is to risk spoiling it. I believe that when it comes to designing and making jewelry, there are so many possibilities that you could finish a particular piece in a variety of different ways. Or you can consider a piece finished, and then revisit it later (perhaps even years later), adding to it or taking something away. If you are an artist, you will grow and change over time with lots of practice and experience, and you’ll have new ideas five years from now that you would never have today. So it’s fair to say that an artist’s work is never really finished, is it? As for how I felt at the end of this particular art session, I guess I felt really calm and happy about the result. I had to try it on several times to get the fit just right, so there were some adjustments and a few changes here and there, but even before I was technically done the piece was really finished in my mind and heart. I wore the bracelet that night when I went out to dinner with some friends, and I received lots of compliments on it, which is always nice but not necessary if I really like the piece myself. Now what I should have done perhaps is immediately go to my sketchbook and write down all the other ideas I had while I was making my Metallo del Fiore bracelet! So many other possibilities came to me while in the throes of creation. But it’s OK, because I know that those ideas continue to percolate inside, and they’ll come out later at the right time.
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Check back Monday for one last bit of excellent advice from Sharilyn. Until then, you can see more of her work on her website and her blog.
Sharilyn is the author of two North Light titles: Bead on a Wire and Rubber Stamped Jewelry.

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