Think Like Calder: Paulette Werger’s Design Challenge

I’ve just spent five creatively challenging days with Paulette Werger in a workshop at Metalwerx where the blend of design methodology, fabrication techniques and out-of-the-box thinking moved my work forward significantly. I was attracted by the title, “Think Like Calder” because I’m a great fan of Modernist jewelry. In fact, I was directed to the Calder book and Modernist jewelry several years ago by an artist who saw my work and thought it was reminiscent of the earlier work. As I learned more, I realized how much I had been influenced by the jewelry I saw as a young woman on the streets of Harvard Square in the Sixties as well as by the jewelry my mother wore in the 1950s.

I also remembered taking a class with Paulette several years ago where she had presented some unique thinking about design. She challenged us in that class, too. I don’t remember what the class was called but I do remember the challenge was to create a piece using one continuous line. It was a stretch for me yet I received the help I needed to create a pendant and earrings I really liked. So after seeing her new work at Craft Boston, I decided it was time for another course with Paulette that was sure to stretch and challenge me.

pearl pendant

Paulette’s first class in fusing Argentium

Argentium and white pearl earrings Argentium earrings with pearls

Before the class I was feeling very stuck. I have boxes of ‘components” created in metal, enamel, polymer and glass that didn’t seem to emerge into a fully completed jewelry design. While I had lots of fun creating the components, I didn’t like some of  standard approaches I had used for creating necklaces, bangles or earrings. I was beginning to feel like I had wasted my time creating the components because they didn’t become something I could imagine wearing. (Also known as the problem of having an mature design sensibility without having the matching fabrication skills!!)

Well, Paulette certainly got my design thinking unstuck! She brought examples from her own creative process and the work of other artists who ‘spoke’ in a way that she thought would inform my work. And she did this for all the other students as well. Each day Paulette began with a slideshow and/or demo that took the prior day’s work forward in a new direction. Clearly, she mused at night about what she could bring to class to take the creative process forward for each one of us. Some of us wanted to work with stones, some with glass or enamel and me with polymer. Paulette was able to offer specialized design inspiration to each one of us.

slide show

Paulette started each morning with specially selected slides to inspire us individually

paulette teaching

Paulette demonstrating forging and forming techniques on the anvil

After opening the class with an inspiring demo or slideshow, Paulette followed up by providing her expertise to solve pesky engineering problems. Each morning I would start sketching during the slideshow and demo, brimming with ideas on how I could use my ‘components’ in new and different ways. However, going from a sketch to a finished piece of work means understanding how things will hang, what will cause problems and what will break with use. I’ve often been stumped by this part of the process, hampered by my inability to do 3D modelling in my head (probably why I decided not to be an engineer). Having someone available while I’m trying to figure out how to fabricate my design ideas changes frustration to innovation. Paulette provided her expertise in thinking through the different ways I could secure something, suspend it, cage it or embed it. She showed how having a “frame” would enhance my pieces and start me exploring on different ways I could create frames for the pieces.

sea glass necklace

Still sorting out the pesky ‘engineering’ problems with this sea glass and PMC necklace. It’s had me stumped for a couple of years…

Thanks to Paulette’s inspiration and instruction, I stopped feeling that I had wasted both time and money on all the metalworking classes and equipment With the inspiration she provided as well as the help with those pesky engineering problems,  I rediscovered my passion for forging, forming, fusing and fabricating. I went back to my studio each night and dug out long forgotten stakes and forming tools, dusted off my anvil, set up a soldering and fusing station and went to work. I was in my studio several nights during the week, way past bedtime, just to keep working on a piece started in class!

studio bench

Fully outfitted for forging, forming, fusing, soldering…..









Being in a studio class with adult learners is also great fun. Seeing the different ways that people take their design after watching Paulette’s demo is wonderfully fascinating. When I see another student’s approach I’m often struck by the realization that I never would have thought of going in that direction…or at least not until I did lots of sketching, pushing the design in different directions. Learning from other’s questions definitely enriches the experience, too. Even if I’m not thinking of the question at the moment, the answer is likely to be relevant at another time.

Some of the students were self-confessed Paulette ‘groupies’ and now I know why. When you find a teacher who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do and can help you move your work forward, it’s definitely worth coming back for more. So, that’s why I’m taking her class in November, even thought I don’t think I have any interest in creating flatware. I’m sure whatever she teaches us will find it’s way throughout my designs.

I’ve made a good start on some designs incorporating glass beads I make with Argentium fused links. Now, feeling confident, competent and inspired, I can ‘riff’ on the designs I started this week…filling my sketchbook up as I muse on “what if”….

design notebook in studio

Iterations and permutations shape the design process


jewelry components

Fascinating but difficult pieces I need to finish with a completed design

My commitment is to keep the unfinished pieces on my studio table until they emerge into fully finished pieces of jewelry. I’m not  going to shut them back up into their containers so I don’t have to feel the discomfort of the blank canvas or the anxiety of empty page. As one of my other teachers, Marion Woodman, would say, “I’m going to live in the dynamic tension”. I’m going to leave the unfinished pieces out with my sketch book open next to them so I can capture whatever whimsy should strike me when I think of what I learned in Paulette’s class. And I’ll keep the Calder book close by, so I can feed my imagination with his design sensibility. (Thank you Kathleen Dustin for telling me to get the book several years ago as it is now out of print and very expensive!)


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