Marianne Hunter’s journey to become an enamel jewelry artist unfolded organically; it’s no wonder why her jewelry making process has an organic quality as well. As a self-taught artist, Marianne follows her intuition to choose the colors and composition of her grisaille enamel pieces. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the childhood inspirations that influence her work, her jewelry making process, and how she has sustained a career for 50 years. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is maker and designer Marianne Hunter, who’s recognized for her creative and colorful enamel jewelry. Her award-winning pieces are in museum collections around the country. Today, we’ll hear about this self-taught jeweler’s own journey. Marianne, welcome to the program.
Marianne Hi, good morning. It’s wonderful to be here.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? You’re self-taught, which is so impressive.
Marianne: Well, I’ve always been an artist my whole life. When I was in high school, my boyfriend said, “Have you ever tried enameling? It’s really fun.” We pooled our money, and for $12.50 we bought the little toy kiln that we’re still using 53 years later. That was it.
Sharon: How did you come to jewelry? Were you an artist who said, “Oh, jewelry is the way to express my art”? Did you like jewelry? How did that happen?
Marianne: I love jewelry. Playing with my mom’s jewelry box and playing with the buttons was always really fun. I’m a detail freak. I like looking at small things; I like looking at things that have a lot of detail. The color was fun, but getting to jewelry as a maker was really an organic process. I was on my way to be a painter. I did a lot of beadwork and loom work, and then enamel came into my life and it was absolutely love at first sight. We started by enameling on pennies and small pieces of copper, and it was absolutely addictive to me. I’ve never been so obsessed with an art form continuously as I have been with enamel. I started out very simply, doing scroll work and sgraffito and other minor things. Then I bought a book on enameling, and in the history section there were pictures of grisaille pieces in the Louvre, and it was like, “Oh, you can actually make real artwork. You can make images using enamel.” I invented a technique of grisaille because I didn’t know you could paint.
Sharon: Marianne, since I’m not an enamellist, what is grisaille exactly?
Marianne: In French it basically means variations of gray. It’s done by firing black backgrounds first and then building up layers of white enamel. Everybody but me paints it, but I didn’t know about that so I used a fine powdered glass. I have samples of it here I could show you. I did my very first grisaille piece. and then I wanted to leave behind everything else because I’m a storyteller. I like fairy tales; I like mythology; I like making up my own world, and this was combining everything I loved. I’ve been able to pull so much that interests me in life into this tiny, miniature art form. The fact that it’s jewelry was to my benefit, because it was something I could go to art shows, craft shows with and make a living. When I started, I had a lots of roommates so my rent was like $50. Nobody had car insurance, and you had a bag of rice and you could feed an army. Selling my work at the Westwood Sidewalk Art Show, I grew up doing that show. They were very inexpensive. I remember raising my prices to $5 and being really worried that it was going to be too expensive. It all has grown very organically from that.
Sharon: Since this is audio, we’ll post the work afterwards. We’ll post pictures of what you’re describing and other images you want us to post. I know you sent a lot, and they’re beautiful. We’ll post it.
Marianne: Back in the 70s when I first started doing grisaille, from that point, for the next 13 years, I only worked in black and white. I defined myself as a grisaille enamel artist. It wasn’t until much later—Bill and I were together by this time—you also asked about how he influenced my work. He said, “Why don’t you put some color in there?” and I said, “No, that’s cheating on the grisaille artist,” she said from behind her fence. I didn’t realize how I had limited myself. So, I started introducing color. The first one was the ruby throat of the hummingbird. It went on from there, and now I really love explosive color.
Sharon: That’s a great word for it. It is explosive color.
Marianne: But I still start by firing the pieces black. It’s just how my brain is wired. I start with black and I work up from there. The pieces can have up to 100 firings in one piece of jewelry.
Sharon: Wow! When you say you called yourself a grisaille enamellist, that’s versus what other kind of enamellist?
Marianne: Most people associate cloisonné with enamel. I’m a very impatient person and my work takes forever anyway, and the idea of spending a whole lot of time bending these little, tiny, fiddly wires to outline your artwork seemed to me like a huge investment of time, putting off the fun. It also holds you to a certain parameter, so I work freehand. The best way I can describe this process is to imagine sand painting. I’ve got this piece of copper, and now it’s got four or five firings of pure black and the black is perfect now. It’s like a cake pan with flour; that’s also a good one. I put boiville on the black, just a thin layer of it.
Sharon: Boiville is?
Marianne: A kind of oil for enameling; it’s mineral oil. Then I sift on a very fine layer of white enamel. It’s real, real fine. You’ve got your cake pan now covered with a thin layer of flour like you’re going to make a cake. Then I take a needle and draw the outline of the image. I use an Exacto knife and a brush to take away the white where I don’t want it to be. When I fire that, the white is so thin it sinks into the black, and you get the image in very dark grey and black lines. Then I keep refiring it over and over again, building up the white until you get almost a cameo effect from black to grey to white, then pure silver foils or pure gold foils, and then the colors. The colors get added with the same method. I use the very fine glass and add tiny amounts of it at a time so it can go into the kiln without the grains of glass falling over. When it’s cool I can add another layer, and that’s how I build them up.
Sharon: When you see the black piece, do you have an image of what colors you want to add?
Marianne: I only put colors in my drawings if I’m working with someone, if I’m doing a commission, or if I’m doing a drawing to take to a show to show a future piece. I see the color in my head and I don’t need to take the time to use colored pencils to fill that in.
Sharon: You only use color if it’s for a commission?
Marianne: No, I would say at this point, probably 90 percent of my work has color.
Sharon: Yeah, that’s why I’m surprised.
Marianne: They’re designed that way now. The piece that’s pure grisaille is more unusual. I’ve done a lot more with grisaille around the Lalique pieces where I’m using the orphan’s metals. I haven’t done one that’s real colorful, except for a fairy I did, but mostly I keep a simple color palette because the emotion is so intense in those pieces for me.
Sharon: The emotion of where the inspiration is coming from, or the emotion of when you see the piece, there’s a flood of emotion? Can you tell us more about that?
Marianne: I’m always working from emotion. My pieces are too time-consuming to spend time on something that’s merely a flat picture. When I’m using stones or antiques or a shell or whatever it is I’m incorporating, first I have to look at it and have an idea and see a story start unfolding. Once I know what kind of story I want this piece to tell, then I can start drawing and filling in detail and bringing in more materials that add to it. My sources or inspiration are so varied, and I think that’s why 53 years later I’m not bored yet. Politics comes into it. Learning about other cultures comes into it. I see a face that comes to it. I get a stone—I just posted a piece from Facebook on my website today—it has an opal that I had to beg this guy for three days to sell to me. It is an impressionist landscape, and the color is so deep and so beautiful. I could see what kind of piece would come from that and I just loved it. All kinds of things are an inspiration. That’s one of the things people like about my work, that I find an image in things that surprise people.
Sharon: You do a lot with kimonos.
Sharon: Where did that come from? Is that a theme you’re thinking about continuing? Do your themes—not themes, but inspirations—run their course in a sense?
Marianne: Well, I don’t do unicorns and wizards anymore; I thank Bill for that too. He got tired of my groupies, so it made me branch out a little. When I was 10, I wanted to be Japanese. I was this big, hulking, reddish-haired Jewish kid with freckles, and I used to braid my hair real tight to make my eyes stretch and wear my $9 kimono and all that. I was very fascinated by the culture. I bought a book on kabuki theatre in the 80s, and I was fascinated to learn that if you know kabuki the way we know Grimm’s fairytales, if you see the costumes or the makeup, the whole story unfolds. If we see Cinderella’s slipper or the pumpkin, we know the whole story; we know all the characters.
That really got me, so I designed a kimono that was a patchwork of different characters from kabuki kimonos. While it was on the bench and I was working with the enamel, I moved a little moonstone over where a head would be to see what it would look like if you turned it into a figure, instead of just a kimono. Instantly the phrase “kabuki kachina” popped into my head, because the proportion of that little round stone reminded me of kachinas. So, I’ve appropriated two cultures, and so far nobody has been mad at me for that. They have been kabuki kachinas ever since, but the reason they have continued is that they speak for me. I can tell any kind of story within that figure, through how she’s dressed and what her attitude is and what kind of materials go into it. She’s like a little alter ego for me, because they are powerfully benevolent in my mind.
People used to ask all the time, “Are they angels? Oh, I love your angels,” and it took me aback because they had never been part of the gestalt of my life. I thought, “Angel? Are you kidding me?” but they are benevolent. I use them to be more powerful than I can be in protecting, in showing people the beauty of a dancer or the beauty of a different kind of people’s artwork. I bring that in. Once I got an opal that was so thrilling. It looked just like the design of a Chilkat Native American from Canada and Alaska. They have a very distinct art form, and the rhythm of the design in this opal was perfect. I came home and did a piece for that culture. I’m hoping that people see I’m not appropriating it. I’m trying to celebrate it and share it with other people who may not have seen it or come in contact with it yet.
Sharon: You’re making me think we should have a whole podcast on appropriation, because I have a real problem with that. I don’t want to go into it. Are all these figures women, or do you ever imagine that some of them are men? I don’t know about kachina, but I never think of them as women. Maybe kimonos are more female.
Marianne: They really aren’t kachinas in any way whatsoever. They aren’t. I just couldn’t get rid of the phrase. It popped into my head and wouldn’t go away, and my Native American friends have not given me any problem with that. They have not told me not to do it or said that it bothered them. I have a lot of Native American friends who are artists, and they’d be honest with me about it. I did a piece on Gambia, because they have these beautiful woven reeds they use for making huts and these beautiful woven fences.
Sharon: I’m sorry, did you say on Gambia or Zambia?
Sharon: And what is that?
Marianne: That’s an area of Africa. These people live on a river, so they build their huts up on stilts. They’re gorgeous, so I took those patterns and made a little portrait of a village, and then I did a detail of one of the fences that shows you some of the patterns they use.
Sharon: It sounds like you’ve traveled to some exotic places off the tourist track.
Marianne: Only in my head. I’ll be 73 this year and I still haven’t been across the Atlantic Ocean.
Sharon: You would never know it talking to you.
Marianne: I’ve been to Japan, Australia and Mexico.
Sharon: That’s traveling quite a bit.
Marianne: I hope to travel more. I find everything so interesting. I have so many books on architecture and animals and birds, which are a major favorite of mine, and plants and different types of ecosystems. I’ve done deserts and rain forests, and then something will come my way that I had not thought about doing and it opens a whole new door. Some years ago, a fellow came up to me and said, “I’m a stone dealer, and one of your friends told me I should talk to you,” and I said, “I don’t need anything and I don’t really work with quartz that much, but after the show, come over to the house and I’ll take a look, and maybe down the road I’ll get something.” Well, I had him there till after dinner, after eating two meals, and I was enthralled. I had a tableful of stones picked from what he had brought, which was 200 or 300 pounds of stones. Bill came up from the studio and I was thinking, “Oh, he’s going to get me reasonable and help me sort this down.” I thought he’d say, “Get one of each and see how you like it.” Well, he went nuts, too. He was just as enthralled I was.
Sharon: He’s a woodworker, right?
Marianne: Yeah, and his story is very similar to mine. He very organically got into doing woodwork with friends in college. He’s a real perfectionist and has a wonderful imagination. He is a very fine craftsman. When we met, he was also doing the Westwood Sidewalk Art Show, and his pieces were—I think an expensive one may have been $35. We became a couple and our artwork grew up together. We started doing better shows and we both started doing one-of-a-kind pieces, which was absolutely liberating. He encouraged me to be much braver than I am. Every time the pieces got more expensive, I would be really worried and wouldn’t want to buy a material that cost too much. He really encouraged it and pushed me, “Go ahead. Go for it. You’ll make a gorgeous piece with that.” Of course, he created a monster, but one of the things I like about our relationship so much is that we’re huge fans of each other’s work. When one of us is doing better than the other, or one of us gets into a museum the other isn’t in yet, we’re cheerleaders for each other. I’m thrilled when something wonderful happens and I’m incredibly proud of him. The woodworkers at the shows I do pay no attention to the jewelers, but when they find out who I’m married to, they’re really nice to me. We become friends.
Sharon: If you’re in a relationship like that, you want to be each other’s cheerleaders.
Marianne: A healthy one, yeah.
Sharon: You’re making me think what it would be like to be married or be in a significant relationship with somebody whose artwork you didn’t like or didn’t appeal to you. It sounds hard.
Marianne: It’s like being in a relationship with someone whose politics you don’t like.
Sharon: Oh gosh. How do you influence him, do you think?
Marianne: I think the storytelling aspect of my work and the fantasy aspect of my work was something he took in. He didn’t name his pieces at first, and I started naming them and giving them titles. I was seeing in the wood and the sculpture that he was doing a story the same way I do with a stone. I think that was internalized for him. I think it helped make him explore even more, but his influence on his field was beyond quantifying. He really changed the whole direction of the field. At the time he started sculpting these turned pieces, it was actually looked down on. There were some purists who were angry that he was sculpting the surface of the wood rather than letting only the wood speak. Bill thought he was releasing voices from it. He had a tremendous influence.
Sharon: I’m also interested in something you said in one of the interviews I read, about how you are naturally introverted, but you come out or get more animated or feel stronger when you’re displaying your work. Is that true? Can you tell us more about that?
Marianne: I can, and I want to let you know that last night, at 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning, I was thinking about that question. I hadn’t thought about being shy in a really long time, and I realized I wasn’t shy; I was afraid of children when I was a child, and I was afraid of my peers as I was growing up. I was always comfortable with adults, but my work gave me a safe place to communicate with people, even people my own age. They came up to me because they liked it and they wanted to know about it, and as you might tell, I’m really enthusiastic about it. I love every aspect of it, except sawing and polishing, and so I had a way of being myself with people instead of always feeling like an outsider. I wasn’t into sports. I didn’t have cute shoes, and I was very uncomfortable around other kids, but very happy in my little fantasy world, drawing and reading and writing poetry and that sort of thing. My artwork was a way to present myself to the world so I got accepted. It did bring me out of my shell, because if you’re at a show and you’re not talking to people, you might as well go home. I learned that I was O.K. with people and it changed things.
Sharon: Yes, at a show you have to be on, in a sense. You may not want to be, but you have to be on.
Marianne: You have to be. You walk around a show and there’s somebody in their booth, and they’re reading a newspaper or ignoring everybody, and everyone who is there at the show is supporting the arts. Whether they’re going to buy from you or not, they deserve your attention and they deserve your honesty. If they ask you, “How did you make this?” you have to tell them. If they ask you why, you have to tell them, and questions actually teach you how to put into words something that hadn’t gelled. It was amorphous in your mind. You knew the feeling, but you didn’t know how to tell it to someone else. I learned how to do that.
Sharon: Do you think that people at the shows—my initial question is not to you so much, but to myself. Have people gotten past asking, “Well, how much gold is in that?” or “How much silver is in that?” because people appreciate art jewelry more? Do they know that jewelry doesn’t all have to be diamonds and sapphires? Do they appreciate that these are art pieces?
Marianne: Yes, they do. Something shifted over time. I don’t know if people got more sophisticated or if it’s obvious that the pieces are valuable. People used to say all the time, “Why are these so expensive?” and I would explain how long they take to make and that sort of thing, but people don’t say that to me anymore. They ask how much they are, and sometimes they can afford them and sometimes they can’t. One of the smartest things I ever did was decide to do layaway. It takes a lot of the stress out of it. It’s so disappointing to tell somebody they can’t afford something, and I really enjoy the shows. They are a huge part of my social life and my friendships. When I can make a piece and see the “oh boy” factor in somebody’s face when they can have something for a small down payment and pay it over whatever time they need, it lets me keep working. I don’t sit there with my hoard like an old dragon and watch people walk away unhappy. Instead, way more people are happy. I’m happy; they’re happy. I get to make another piece, because when a piece I love goes away, the thing that comforts you is to make another piece you love.
Sharon: Being able to pay via layaway is probably—it mystifies me when dealers or jewelers don’t do it. We can go into it another time, but I think it’s fabulous. It makes my heart sing when I hear something like that. I don’t know why people don’t do that. You’re going to get the money; the money’s going to be spent somewhere. Anyway, that’s wonderful, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s funding your continued work, your continued creation, your continued passion. That’s fabulous.
Sharon: Marianne, thank you so much. This has been great. You used to do the Santa Monica Show, right?
Marianne: Oh, yeah.
Sharon: Hopefully I’ll get to see you at the show in the not-too-distant future again.
Marianne: I’m trying to talk ACC into doing a show like the San Francisco show here in Los Angeles. I’ve been trying to figure that out for them, and I’m working on that. If you are interested in jumping in, great. Just before the shutdown, I was working on putting together a small show in Culver City at the Veterans Building and Park. Roy had just closed the contemporary craft market, and I’ve got friends in L.A. that I’ve been seeing at shows since 1968. I now know three or four generations of the family, and I’m not going to lose those people. They are important to me, so somehow there will be another event in Los Angeles. If I have to do it myself, I will.
Sharon: We can talk more about that. Los Angeles has been such a hard market to crack in so many ways. Anyway, thank you again. It’s been so nice talking to you, hearing about your process and the artists behind the work, much more than what you might be able to tell me at a show. Thank you so much. I hope to have you on again.
Marianne: Anytime, and we’ll rope Bill into it, too.
Sharon: That would be wonderful. Thank you very much.
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