Mary Lee Hu

Mary Lee Hu

Mary Lee Hu

Interview by Yu Fang Chi


Mary Lee Hu (b. in 1943 Lakewood, OH) creates metal jewelry with textile-related techniques, such as knitting and knotting. Since the mid-70s, she has been focusing on the technique of twining. Her artworks are based on natural forms, movement, and symmetry involving time-consuming repetitive processes. From 1980, she taught the metal arts program at the University of Washington, School of Art, and retired from the University as an emeritus professor in 2006. 


Could you please tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I grew up in a small town in Ohio.  My father was an engineer; his sister, my aunt, was a painter, like her mother before her, my grandmother. My mother used to do bookbinding before she got married. My brother became an engineer and I was interested in art. In my family, that seemed natural. My father was always helping me make little things as presents for my aunts and uncles or for projects at school. I took some (2/D) art classes when I was young, but I also really liked working with my hands and making things. In the summer when I was 16, I went to an art camp. I had to choose six subjects to take for the 6-week camp (one hour each per day). After signing up for five classes that I thought would be good, I needed one more and the registrar suggested I take metalsmithing. I did not know anything about it, but thought, okay. I fell in love with it that summer and decided then that that was what I wanted to do in life. A love of jewelry developed from my love of working with metal.


How did you become interested in jewellery? Who and what inspired your work?

My small home town was near Cleveland. Each year I would go to the Cleveland Art Museum to see a county-wide art competition called the May Show. Cleveland studio jeweler John Paul Miller would always have a piece of his exquisite gold granulation and enamel jewelry there. Seeing his work gave me the realization that a living artist could make work equally as wonderful as anything else from any time or culture in the museum. This was part of the inspiration for me to try and achieve the same.


Where do you create your artwork? In your studio? Could you please share your daily routine of making and creating with our readers? 

This has changed over the years, of course. Before I taught full-time, I would work in my studio like a regular work day – after breakfast until before dinner. I would work on commissions or gallery pieces in the studio, but I played games with myself and usually kept an elaborate and more time-consuming exhibition piece for evenings when I could work on it outside the studio while watching (listening) to the TV.  Then once I began teaching full-time, I needed to do my own studio work around my class schedule and on the weekends (I never was one who could work all night). I had the summers off so i could attend workshops and conferences and also get concentrated studio work in then.  I traveled a lot – to those conferences or to give workshops. 

The actual twining is time-consuming, but it does not require that I be in a regular studio. I can do it anywhere, so I could do it in the waiting area in the airport or on the plane, saving the soldering processes on pieces until I had studio time. For a few years in the 90s, I gave up studio work to concentrate on reading about jewelry history. I put together a course for my students on the “History of Body Adornment.” I then returned to my studio work with a renewed vigor. Now that I have retired from teaching, my schedule has changed again. I still do some studio work, but less. I still do some jewelry history reading but less. I garden more and I have a life partner for the first time since my husband died in 1972, so I spend more time cooking and we take a lot of road trips within the US (I cannot work while riding in a car as it makes me carsick).


Could you please share with us how you create the intricate woven wire jewellery, such as the tools and methods that you apply?

I first started working in wire in graduate school. I was taking an introductory fibers course as an elective along with my metalsmithing major. After working on the loom for most of the class, we were assigned to choose a non-loom process, research it on our own and make a piece. I chose the knotting process called macrame. This was in 1966 before it became popular. After learning a few knot patterns, I got the idea to try tying the knots in thin wire instead of string. I liked the play of light off the surface of the wires. I also liked working the metal directly with my fingers. To explore different ways that I could use wire like this, I tried several textile processes – twisting, braiding, netting, knitting, weaving, coiling, and finally, twining. The wirework became my metal thesis project and my life’s direction in metals. 

I was looking mostly at baskets for ideas of form and patterning. From my first experiment in twining in 1974, this is the process I have been exploring ever since. Twining is like weaving in that there is a warp (the elements strung onto a loom or, in basketry, the stiffer elements that give the form) and a weft that goes over and under the warp elements, giving the surface pattern. The twining is done with my fingers and not on a loom. I only use pliers on the wire when I have to as they will leave marks which I have to polish out. I combine the twined elements later with the regular jewelry processes of forging and soldering when needed for my design.


How do you collaborate with galleries and museums around the world? For example, tell us about the first gallery you collaborated with.

I was entering competitive shows whenever I could as a graduate student. I was in grad school at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, which is not very far from St. Louis. I guess my name was starting to get out there locally, and I was very lucky in that I was asked to have a solo exhibition of work at Craft Alliance Gallery in St. Louis right after my MFA exhibition – I just moved it all there. From then on, I kept entering competitive exhibitions whenever I could and slowly galleries, art centers and museums began asking me to be a part of exhibitions that they were organizing. I have only made unique designs for my whole career – never production work or doing editions of designs. Also, I have never hired assistants to help me in the studio, as I have always loved the most time-consuming part: the twining. It is repetitive and meditative. Therefore, my production has been limited and so the number of galleries I have been able to deal with has been limited – maybe three galleries at a time.


What do you think are the current and future trends in jewellery? Where do you think the art jewellery field is going? Are there new and exciting trends that you see?

When I was in school and starting out in the field, we were teaching ourselves how to do it.  In the US, we did not have an apprenticeship system as in Europe. The fine jewelry field had great craftsmen, but we who got interested in the field through the art field had no connection to learn from them. We learned some from our teachers, but most were somewhat limited in their knowledge, and in some cases, they were learning along with their students. It was an exciting time – attending workshops and experimenting. My undergraduate and graduate theses were on technique. Much of our work was technique- and design-driven.  It had concept, or as I prefer to say, ideas, but some of those were about process, or formal design issues, along with those of a more social or political nature, etc. Then, partly because of the higher status with museums, curators, and galleries, and the more lucrative nature of the fine arts field as opposed to the decorative arts (of which jewelry is considered a part), many of my peers wanted their work to be accepted as fine art instead of applied art or craft. They felt that the work needed more concept and meaning to do that. Some metalsmiths stopped making smaller, functional items and started making installations. Many of the academic sculptors would look down on any work that was too heavily invested in craft or process, and especially if it was functional. I kept wishing we could elevate the perception of craft in the historians’ and critics’ opinions, rather than change what we were doing, so I did not go along with trying to make fine art…I am a studio jeweler.

European studio jewelry, which I began to become aware of through publications in the 70s, was much more technically refined than ours, and many jewelers began exploring ideas in series of works, while so many of us were still exploring processes. We soon began to include looking to using metals other than the usual copper-brass-bronze-silver-gold. Some American metalsmiths began using pewter, titanium, printed tin, rusty iron…then non-metal things, such as wood, plastic, fabrics, and “found objects.” Tying things together or gluing them became okay – one cannot solder some of those things. There seemed to be a real movement away from the traditional jewelry processes, a rebellion of sorts. This made more sense to me for the Europeans; they had a strict technical tradition. But I could not always understand it in American work. What were we rebelling against? I suppose it was just our extension of exploring what was all possible. In a way now, I can see the younger generation living in a world with so much stuff…are they making ever more stuff?  Why not use some of the stuff they find all around them and repurpose it? So, found objects have now become repurposed objects or materials. This, I guess, I understand but have never felt a part of.

Then, the digital revolution brought new tools to the metalsmith. This I did find exciting. Learning about new processes was where I came into this field. My father had worked for NASA and my brother was a laser optics specialist, so I had grew up hearing about new advances in these areas.  When I had the opportunity to start adding some of the laser, CAD and rapid prototyping possibilities to our studio at school, I supported it as well as I could. I never thought that these processes would be used instead of the traditional ones, but rather along with them. I firmly believe that if artists were given the opportunity to use these tools, they would think of things to do with them that even the engineers had not thought of. Since retiring from teaching, I am not right in the center of things, so I am not sure what is all going on with these tools, but I think there are many exciting possibilities.


How would one become a good jewellery artist? Any suggestion for the young generation?

Work hard.  Learn your craft.  Find your passion. Pay attention to who you are and what your likes and skills are. What do you love to do and what do you easily loose patience doing? What are you good at?  (I was the kid on the block who could easily untangle kite strings – my eyes follows line. I could easily find four-leaf clovers – my eyes see pattern). Get your work out there and seen (I did it by entering competitions. Now there are so many other avenues online), but also go out and see others’ works. Meet others in your field. Read and travel – learn a variety of things. Take advantage of opportunities that come. Often it takes a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time – but you need to be ready to take advantage of that lucky break.


What does being a teacher (professor) mean to you? Do you think it influences your work?

I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed seeing the students’ delight in learning to work with metals. I took pride in our studio at school, built up over 90 years, which allowed students to explore so widely and choose to go into so many different directions. I tried to design my curricula so as to encourage this broad introduction, foundation, and experimentation. And we wanted them to find their own directions. We certainly were not looking to produce clones of our own styles. I taught the jewelry side of metals while my colleague John Marshall taught the hollowware and enameling until his retirement in 2000, then I taught the hollowware as well. I taught the history of jewelry in the last 10 years I was there and in the last 6 years, I began introducing some of the new digital and laser tools, feeling that they would soon be very important for the jeweler/metalsmith. Did this influence my own work? I do not think so. I learned many processes over the years in order to teach them to my students, but I did not feel the need to incorporate them into my work. I already had too many ideas for pushing my wirework.


Do you have a favorite jewellery artist that you admire?

I have already mentioned John Paul Miller. I admired him for his exquisite work. My graduate school professor, Brent Kington, became my mentor. He was making jewelry when I started studying with him. While I was there, he researched blacksmithing and was chiefly responsible for the resurgence of blacksmithing as an academic art form in the US. What I really admired about him was that he WORKED. He worked in the school studio while I was there, and I could see how much he produced and how he experimented and explored ideas.


Tell us about your previous major exhibitions.

I have had two, what I consider, major exhibitions in my career. I have participated in many very fine exhibitions that have travelled widely, but the two that I really feel best about are a solo show I had in 1989 at the Merrin Gallery in New York City and my retrospective exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2012. The Merrin Gallery was primarily an antiquities gallery. It was very well respected and had incredible pieces from all over the world. Ed Merrin would occasionally have a show for a living artist but only occasionally. He has said, “Dead artists are so much less trouble than living ones.”  My show was in a small back room of the gallery. One had to walk past beautiful full-scale Greek bronze figures and amazing Greek gold jewelry to get to my show. I felt as if I had finally made it – what I had thought of back in high school seeing John Paul Miller’s work. Maybe I had made some things which could be viewed on a par with the ancient works. 

My 2012 retrospective exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum, here near Seattle, was the culmination of a career. They borrowed back work from all over and I was able to see pieces together again that had lived separately for decades. A very fine catalog/book was published to go with the show, so that was also one of the major “bucket list” things that I wanted to have done.


Tell us about your recent project, plan, or exhibition.

Since that show, I have slowed down a bit on making jewelry. As I said, I am enjoying other aspects of life. I have not quit making – I think I will always work on projects as long as I am physically able, but they are not always jewelry these days. Currently, I am building another terraced retaining wall in my yard. I live on a hillside and want ever more garden spaces.  This summer’s project will be to erect a greenhouse. We have all the parts of an old aluminum and curved glass one that my partner dismantled from a place that no longer wanted it some years ago. Maybe I should mention that my partner is James Wallace, a blacksmith, who was the founding director for 30 years of the Metals Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. We have known each other since 1976 and have attended conferences and served on boards together over the years. He retired from the museum in 2007 and after his wife passed away in 2008, we got together.


Tell us about your research on the history of the jewelry.

When I started reading about the history of the jewelry field, I really got excited about it. I owned a few books but had generally just looked at the pictures and read the captions. In the early 90s, I actually starting to read them cover to cover. I noticed that the “history of jewelry” books differed depending upon who wrote them, so to get a fuller picture, I needed to read more and more. They talked about what jewelry had meant to people in various times and cultures: that it had meant so much more than what has more recently been thought of in our time and culture. It was a signifier of identity – class, wealth, status, belief, achievement, protector of health or wealth, sentimental reminder of loved or revered ones, places visited, pledges or allegiances sworn, or milestones reached and celebrated. What people wore told others who they were. The history of jewelry, or as I came to broaden my study, the history of body adornment, can be used to trace the history of mankind. Other than the art of tool making, beads (drilled shells) are the oldest human-fashioned things found. Body adornment is the oldest found evidence for man’s use of symbols. Evidence of ochre being used to paint the body is older than even the beads, far, far older than any known cave paintings. Body painting was probably done with the fingers making stripes and dots common. I can imagine a time in the far distant past when one person said to the other, “I will be the stripy guy; you be the dotted guy.” This is pattern having meaning. Fast forward and we have writing.

My reading about body adornment gave me a new and deeper appreciation of jewelry.


Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?

Hmmm, as you see, I do not always answer your exact question. I fill in and elaborate so as to include a broad answer to the question. 

I have one note throughout though – I have interchangeably used the term metalsmith and jeweler. As I said, a love of jewelry came from my love of working with metal. My undergraduate study was mostly hollowware. I did jewelry on my own – it was never assigned.  In my mind, jewelry is part of metalsmithing. It would seem strange to me to study jewelry making and not study the rest of metalsmithing. Forging, repoussé, hollowware hammer techniques, etc. are all handy to know for a jeweler. 



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