I've been making jewelry since early 2008, when I took a bead stringing class at a local bead store with a couple of girlfriends. I was completely and utterly hooked, but it was hard to find local classes in the things that really interested me - stone setting, metal work, and metal clay - so I turned to books and the internet. And I experimented - a lot.
There is value in experimentation. The process of trying, failing, troubleshooting, and problem solving has a tendency to imprint lessons more deeply than just reading about something or seeing it demonstrated. But after a while, I hit the limits of my own ability to intuit what came next - I was failing more often than I was succeeding and I was on the verge of deciding that metalwork (which was the thing I was most interested in) wasn't going to be something I could ever really do well. I was even questioning whether jewelry making was something I should continue pursuing - while I got compliments on my work, it mostly left me feeling unsatisfied. I knew the work could be better, but I was really struggling with how to get there.
Then, a year ago, I was re-introduced to a local studio called Wired Designs. They were primarily known for their amazing glass-work and related classes, and frequently brought in national level glass instructors. But I hadn't realized they also offered metal and wire classes, and I began signing up for everything they offered. I felt a little bit like someone who had been very hungry for a long time being ushered into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The first time I successfully completed a complex soldering project, I actually got a little emotional.
I want to be clear: I am not "knocking" books, written tutorials, YouTube videos, and online learning. I think they are all valuable and essential resources in the educational arsenal of today's artists. But I also think there is no substitute for real-time, in-person learning from someone who really knows their stuff - especially when it comes to the foundational skills on which so many other techniques are built. An experienced teacher can - in one session - pinpoint the reasons you're struggling with soldering connections, or sawing metal, or setting a cabochon. All the reading in the world isn't going to correct my sawing form if my technique is bad - but Thomas Mann told me I was sawing too hard and too far forward on the blade - just by listening to the sound my saw blade was making. In a single class and one session of homework, he had me sawing better than I had been able to saw in three years of trying to figure it out on my own. Gail Stouffer corrected the position of my torch and gave me the key to clean soldering and fusing that requires very little finishing work - in a matter of minutes, just by observing the way I was using my torch.
It's possible I might have figured out how to fix those things myself - if I'd found the right books and put in the the right number of hours (or years) of practice and experimentation and broken saw blades. But it's also possible that I would have either settled for substandard work or gotten discouraged enough to quit. Here's what's certain: in the last nine months of working with good instructors, my work has leapt forward exponentially, both in terms of quality and creativity. My new policy is to take every class I possibly can, from the best teachers I can find - and to submit myself willingly to the kind of humbling scrutiny, criticism, and correction that will move my work and my technique up to the next level.
So whether you're self-taught or traditionally trained, stuck in a creative rut or enjoying an exciting groove, I encourage you to make classes with a good teacher a regular part of your creative, artistic life. You'll learn (or be reminded of) shortcuts, tips, and creative ideas from people who have been doing this for a very long time and have created efficiencies around a whole range of skills. As an added bonus, spending some time exposing yourself to someone else's creative energy is a sure-fire way to jump start your own - especially if you take the occasional class in disciplines completely outside your own.
Until next time!
The photos featured in this post are examples of my current work that would not have been possible for me even six months ago. I'm grateful for the investment of time I've been given by gifted and skilled teachers, especially Gail Stouffer at Wired Designs in San Antonio, Texas.