The Success and Mastery of Wanaree Tanner

by Carie Ferg

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Award-winning master metal clay artist and teacher Wanaree Tanner has the kind of career that most young artists dream of. Her profound portfolio of work and list of awards and ac-complishments are remarkable for an artist of any age, let alone one of her still-few years. So Handmade Business found it fitting to feature her in our premier issue, where Tanner sheds insightful light on her business and her career path.

Handmade Business (HB): Describe your background a bit... what pathway did you take to become the acclaimed artist you are today?

Wanaree Tanner: I spent the early part of my childhood in Thailand surrounded by intricately decorated temples and incredible silver and ceramic work. By the time I was seven, I was already enamored with traditional art forms and its many manifestations. Then we moved to a mountain home in northern Idaho enclosed by pine trees, rolling hills, and still vistas. There, I fell in love with the natural world, discovering the creative beauty that exists beyond human conception. When I turned 18, I transplanted to Austin, Texas, and was thrown into a cosmopolitan culture of music and modern art. Each step opened my perception up to a larger world and nurtured my place within it!

HB: When did you first know you would be an artist, and what gave you the courage to follow the path?

Tanner: As I grew up, the reality of what being an artist would demand clouded my initial purpose, which I'm sure is a pretty common story. The cliché of ''starving artist'' was something I heard a lot, and it took years to shake. All romanticism aside, by the time I was 24, I decided working and dedicating myself to finding that path was more important than being secure and well fed. I approached the early part of my career as if I were enrolled in college. Sixty- to eighty-hour work weeks were not uncommon, but as anyone who has had to fund their own education knows, it's the price one pays in the immediate for the vision of your future waiting beyond the horizon. To be completely honest, often it was fear more than courage that motivated me forward. There was no back-up plan or safety net; it was my responsibility to bring it to fruition or to fail. At some point, that fear transformed into empowerment, and the commitment became its own fuel to continue on.

HB: Are there any role models you have who motivated you along your way?

Tanner: The long linage of unnamed artists, ranging from the ancient stone workers of Meso-America and the Sumerian and Etruscan gold workers to the remarkable heights achieved in Egyptian burial art, to name a few. All of whom toiled and accomplished a profound level of artistry, using the most basic of hand tools. They [created] the kind of work we would struggle to execute with modern means. It's true mastery, that kind of patience and dedication. It's both humbling and inspiring, and I find myself returning to those unnamed masters again and again!

HB: Why did you choose metal clay as the medium to practice your craft with?

Tanner: In a way, [metal clay] chose me. I had a head filled with ideas: everything from self-contained hinges to reliquaries with engineered mechanics and elaborately set stones, some of which would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish through traditional casting or metal working. With metal clay, you can build, sculpt, and enclose kinetic components without a single solder seam. The piece ''Winter's Rest'' features two hidden hinges (hinges where the pin is not visible), and an enclosed ball-and-socket clasp designed to allow this heavier necklace to move comfortably when worn. The clasp on ''Morning Moon Flower'' is a seamless captive sliding pin lock, built into the piece before firing. After years of testing and development, it's become the medium that's freed me to create in metal whatever I imagine.

HB: What do you consider your greatest career accomplishment thus far? And your greatest challenge?
Bracelet with Gemstones

Tanner: My greatest accomplishment thus far in my career is making the shift from production jewelry to creating art. For a number of years, I worked the art fair circuit, trying to find a balance between what sells and what I really wanted to create. Production work often leads to creative burnout, but I did find time to create a few art pieces which led to the development of new techniques. It also generated an excitement among other artists to learn those processes.I've been fortunate enough to work in a medium that is still relatively new, as much of what I was attempting hadn't been done before. This gave birth to teaching opportunities both nationally and internationally, which allowed me to shift away from production work. After two years of teaching, I'm taking 2015 off from traveling to give myself the chance to refocus on my studio work again. It's been a long transition process with its own ups and downs, but all of it has been worthwhile for the chance to create art full time.

HB: Can you explain your Metal Clay Arts Conservatory?

Tanner: I found people attending my workshops consistently had issues with technique retention and understanding how to translate those skills into their own work. Typically, classes are two days split up among 12 people, which makes learning difficult at best. Everyone learns in different ways--even when people can see the demonstration it's often only with repetition that comprehension can really settle in. I began developing the Conservatory's online courses to provide participants the opportunity to view each and every demo as many times as needed. I'm able to take complex processes and break them down into 10-minute HD video demos, step-by-step. This online platform allows me to illuminate the entire process--from fundamental skills to advanced mechanical application--in an approachable manner. I'm also able to provide closed captioning for the hearing impaired, and I plan to incorporate foreign language subtitles.

Additionally, the Conservatory studio provides a more intensive study in the artistic applications possible with this medium. With onsite accommodations, access to over 200 acres of lush upland woodlands, and a maximum class size of four students, it's not a ''retreat'' but, rather, it's an opportunity to break out of one's comfort zones. I believe it's only when we step further outside of ourselves and become uncomfortable, can creative innovation occur.

HB: Your website features sustainable stones; can you explain these?

Tanner: A few years ago I began researching lapidary (stone cutting) to incorporate into my pieces. I then met Steve Tieken, a phenomenal artist in his own right, and began questioning where stones, rough and finished, were really coming from. After watching a few videos online about stone mining practices and the damage often exacted, he convinced me of the importance of finding another way. Working in metals already means mining occurs somewhere down the line, although much of metal clay is composed of reclaimed materials. Even so, I realized there is a bigger ecological cost with anything we do, so it became critical to offset that in some way.

Bracelet with Gemstones Sustainable stones offer a green and artistic alternative, not only for my work, but for other jewelry artists. Steve had already spent years walking creeks and working in stone, so his experience made it an easy transition for me. Each stone is collected with virtually no impact on the environment. The glacial till sandbars they are found in turn regularly through natural flooding, and yield beautiful pieces to the trained eye. Through this partnership, we hope to pass on some of the abundance already given to us, and start considering what we do in the greater context of being a human living on this planet.

HB: What do you think draws collectors to purchase your pieces? What do you hope to communicate with your pieces?

Tanner: It seems people connect with the stories behind a piece of work as much as the expression itself. When I'm working on a piece in an authentic way, hours and days become irrelevant. ''Morning Moon Flower'' took over 600 hours to create. Each tiny appliquéd piece was hand-punched, and the entire piece was created with the most basic of tools. The stones were individually collected and cut, and the small bullet cabs are repurposed turn-of-the-century glass fragments, so there's a deeper connection to all the materials.

Aside from the time spent, the story of who I am and what I'm experiencing flows through each and every element. Although it would be difficult to accurately tell the story in written or spoken language, it's telegraphed through the piece itself. Art is a language free from the context of words. It's the kind of language that can speak through the ages and beyond cultural divisions. As an artist, that's the voice I'm communicating with, and the message I'm trying to express. It's the subtle and sometimes illusive thread that unites us all beyond the confines of our intellectual minds.

HB: What's new that you are working on for 2015?

Tanner: Larger non-jewelry pieces have been percolating for some time, and 2015 marks the beginning of those works. The exhibit won't be complete for a few more years, so this is just the first leg of a longer marathon I'm really looking forward to running.

HB: What is it about being an artist that motivates you to get up every day?

Tanner: Obsession and a connection to something beyond my own ego. I get up every day fully engaged in something I don't often feel I'm generating. It may filter through me, but that spark, inspiration, and vision is like a bolt of lightning flowing through a ground wire. I can simply choose to be a good or poor conduit for it. It's easy to become lost inside our own heads and feel this is all coming from within, but when you step outside and really look at the awe and wonder of nature, any grandiose ideas of self are immediately shattered. I cannot create a tree or a living breathing animal; all of it exists with or without me. Creation is a natural process, occurring continually, and I believe that bolt of lightning runs through everything. The realization of this shared quality has instilled a deep need to preserve this world not only for future generations, but for all of life. The desire to convey this message, whether through my work or through my words, fills me with a self-motivating joy for my artistic life.

HB: Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Tanner: While it's easy to become discouraged in art or in life, we are all participants in the fate of our lives and our planet. Working together authentically with humility in our hearts, I genuinely believe we can create and accomplish all we set our minds to.