tai chi in metal

Wayne Meeten's route through silversmithing has been a circuitous one, but its international twists and turns have given him the practical experience and insight needed to create such striking work. Text by Eleni Bide.

Bringing silver to life is a hard task. Conventional designs rely on the metal's cold brilliance, but in expert hands it can be transformed into something suffused with feeling and energy. Wayne Meeten is one of those rare craftsmen whose work really does come alive, conveying sensations of serenity and movement. He achieves this by looking beyond a fundamental mastery of the metal, instead seeking to understand it and work in harmony with his materials.

These complex ideas reflect Meetens life and personal philosophy. He left school at 16 and started working for a manufacturing jeweller in his home town of Brighton. At 22 he broadened his technical experience, restoring antique jewellery in the workshops of Brighton's famous Lanes district, but proficiency as a jobbing workman was not enough to satisfy either his intellectual curiosity or wanderlust. He spent his mid-twenties travelling, living and working in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Along the way he continued to develop his skills and encountered many different philosophies and religions, from Buddhism to traditional Maori beliefs. After two-and-a-half years immersing himself in different cultures and philosphies, Meeten returned to the UK, filled with ideas and a desire to go back to the fundamentals of his craft. He enrolled at London Guildhall University's Sir John Cass School of Art, then renowned as one of Europes best jewellery and silversmithing academies. It was during his eight years at the Cass that he made two discoveries that would have a profound effect on his life and his work. The first had its roots in a serious accident. During his recovery, Meeten was introduced to Tai Chi, whose philosophy of balance and harmony answered his long search for spiritual enlightenment and prompted his move from the small scale of jewellery to larger, more expressive work. The other grew from his characteristic curiosity: bored by simply buying silver from bullion dealers, he began to experiment with ancient Japanese metalworking techniques, teaching himself from textbooks, as their complex secrets were virtually unknown in the UK.

He was particularly fascinated by mokume gane, which translates as "wood grain", and allows the craftsman to create surfaces of delicately mottled colour through repeatedly folding, cutting and hammering together different metals. Other techniques which gained Meeten's attention included shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold which also produces contrasts of colour and pattern, and shibori, a way of hand-raising metal. All these processes require infinite patience and concentration, and Meeten quickly saw a link with the tenets of Tai Chi philosophy. However, he realised that in order to truly understand them he would have to learn from the Japanese masters themselves.

During the first year of his postgraduate study Meeten wrote to the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and received a rather daunting reply: he had the necessary skill and experience to visit them as a lecturer rather than as a student, but could only come if he was fluent in Japanese. After a further two years of making, working a studying at evening classes he felt that he was ready, and travelled to Tokyo to learn under late Professor Hirotoshi Itoh (a Japanese National Treasure), and world-renowned sculptor Mr Masanobu Kitoh and Mr Norio Tamagawa, considered to be the leading expert on mokume gane living in Japan.

According to Meeten, their guidance did not only teach him technical virtuosity, it also revealed ways of thinking and working which form the foundation of these ancient metalworking practices. Kitoh advised him to "slow down and listen to the work, stop trying to run. If you make a mistake, ask the metal whether it wants to be repaired or whether it wants to become something different. It's alive. It will tell you."

"Without Tai Chi I would have had difficulty accepting such advice", suggests Meeten, "but it helps to slow down and think intuitively." Not all the lessons were easy – he remembers his dissapointment at receiving no reply to a letter he wrote to Norio Tamagawa before leaving the UK. When he later enquired if the master ever got the letter, Tamagawa replied that he had, but did not write back because they had not then been formally introduced.
In life as in silversmithing, there were no shortcuts.

It is not difficult to see a link between Kitoh's words and the qualities which make Meeten's work so distinctive. On returning to the UK he continued to translate these ideas into practice, first as an MA student at the Cass and then as an independent maker. The development of his style went hand-in-hand with success and, after he won a place at the prestigious Goldsmiths' Fair, he was finally able to establish his own workshop, which he has now operated for 12 years.

Talking about his work today, it is obvious that Meeten is still motivated by a passion for understanding silver's expressive qualities. He prefers the technique of shibori, whereby metal is raised forward over a stake towards the maker (rather than in the opposite direction, the traditional method in Western silversmithing) as it enables him to watch his work develop, and place each hammer blow precisely. This method also helps him to consider each strike and each pause. "It's the pauses between each hammer mark, each emotion of filing, sanding and taking rest which slow your mind and lets you see your work in a fresh way" he says. According to Meeten, each silversmith has their own "signature tune" created by the rhythm of hammer on metal, and by paying attention to the qualities of the metal you can "make it sing" – an audible expression of the metal's energy.

This concern for energy reflects his role as a practicing Tai Chi teacher. His work undoubtedly opens up a spiritual side to metalworking, but one which is attuned to the wonder of everyday life rather than empyreal. Teaching Tai Chi at a nursing home as a student, Meeten remembers realising that, like people, the true beauty of objects lay in their inner qualities rather than exterior attractiveness. As a result, the designs featured on his pieces always continue onto surfaces normally hidden to the casual observer.

Even the type of metal he uses echoes this concern for finding harmony in overlooked places. His delicately ridged vessels are all made of Britannia Silver – an alloy between the hardness of conventional sterling and the near-pure softness of fine silver. "Britannia has a balance I instinctively understand; it gives the work a feeling of movement", he says.

Looking forward, Meeten sees his work continuing to evolve, perhaps becoming more intricate as his understanding deepens. It will certainly continue to grow in popularity, as many important collectors from around the world become aware of his style. But whatever happens, he will never forget his lessons learnt over his 25 years in the trade. His advice to young silversmiths echoes his teacher Professor Tamagawa's warning against taking short cuts: "Root values give you the stability to grow and explore. If you want to learn about silversmithing, step into your garden". With this outlook, even a "cold, hard" metal can blossom and flower.

Eleni Bide