Mary Lee Hu: Cutting Loose

Mary Lee Hu: Cutting Loose

Mounting a retrospective spanning more than 40 years is no easy task, as Mary Lee Hu knows. The renowned jewelry artist spent months preparing for “Knitted, Knotted, Twisted & Twined: The Jewelry of Mary Lee Hu,” which opened Feb. 7 at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington. Then again, Hu, elected to the American Craft Council College of Fellows in 1996, is well-versed in handling time-intensive, detailed endeavors. Just take one look at her woven wire earrings, rings, brooches, and neckpieces.

Hu began incorporating fiber processes into her metalwork in 1966, as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University. She spent eight years experimenting before she hit on twining. Her work started out smooth and representational before becoming more linear and abstract in the ’80s, but her process remained resolute: The artist always meticulously drew out each piece beforehand.

Then, in the late ’90s, Hu stopped planning. She began weaving without direction or restraint, allowing serendipity to direct the outcome of each piece. “My work has always been a technical challenge,” Hu says. “Now there’s a whole catharsis – not knowing what will happen, the danger element that I might ruin something that took hours to create.”

A professor of metals and jewelry at the University of Washington from 1980 to 2006, Hu is as assiduous outside of the studio as she is within. In the ’90s, newly assigned to teach a course on the history of body adornment, Hu scoured texts from around the world, ultimately piecing together a family tree of sorts. “I became interested in the field,” she says. “Where did [studio jewelers] come from?”

That question became her passion, and while research sidelined the act of making for several years, it also expanded her appreciation for the work she does, Hu says. Now that she’s retired – and the retrospective is open (through mid-June) – Hu looks forward to not only returning to the bench, but also rekindling her study through the more than 3,000 volumes in her personal library.

Having spent so much time reflecting on her career, Hu doesn’t chalk up her success to talent, but rather to self-awareness. She knows where she excels – working with fingers instead of tools and with monochrome materials such as gold instead of colorful gems. Life as an artist, she used to tell students, is “about finding an avenue that matches who you are.”

Judging by the 90-some works gathered from more than 40 collectors and private institutions on view in Bellevue, Hu has followed her own advice.

Jessica Shaykett is the American Craft Council librarian.