Interview with Metalsmith David Huang

The work of metalsmith David Huang

I first saw David at last year’s SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) conference, which was held here in Seattle. A highly regarded metalsmith, he gave a demonstration on his signature technique—chasing on a vessel filled with microcrystalline wax. He held the overflowing crowd enrapt as he talked about his process while he worked on a piece.

Afterward, a friend and I bumped into a local collector who had just purchased one of David’s pieces. As she unwrapped it for us to look at, and as we examined it’s incredible surface up close, still a bit dizzy from the demonstration, I knew I’d just come across the perfect candidate for Pratt’s Master Artist program.

Now, almost a year later, everything has come together. I am preparing the Jewelry/Metals studio for his arrival. His master class next weekend filled just weeks after enrollment opened last fall. And, as we worked on tying up the loose ends of paperwork and supplies, David very kindly made some extra time in his very full schedule to accommodate an interview.

Rebbecca: We all know people who solidly knew what they wanted to do with their lives from a young age, who knew that they were going to be doctors or lawyers—and then followed through on this. But it’s pretty uncommon for a child to know he wants to pursue art for his career. How did this happen for you?

David: I was 11. My 6th grade art teacher held up my work as exceptional, and gave me encouragement and a push towards thinking about art as a career. It felt good to realize I was good at it, and that I liked it.

I grew up in a family that appreciated art. No one in my family discouraged me. My father, an electrical engineer, told me that the best job is one that you love and enjoy going to everyday, because then it’s play.

So I knew early on and stayed focused. In high school, my metal work started selling immediately, and this covered materials for me to make more. People responded to it. Right off the bat, a student bought my first bracelet from me in class.

Rebbecca: What motivates you to work?

David: This varies according to pressures. If I am teaching, I need to prepare examples. Right now, my galleries need work. I may have orders to fill, or approaching exhibition deadlines. I’m usually aiming to get past the pressures to get to exploring and new projects. I have a hard time branching out to new things when under pressure, and I’m looking at reducing my teaching schedule next year to help with this.

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Rebbecca: In addition to your art practice, you also teach. What drew you to this? And what is your approach to it?

David: I never wanted to teach when I was younger because I am introverted, and didn’t want to work with people. I had a naive notion I could just hide away in the studio and not deal with people. Then at a SNAG conference I met Linda Shapiro who connected me with Paulette Meyers at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Together they convinced me to do my first workshop there.

Once you start doing them, more people pursue you. The income helps your career, and your name gets out there. People begin seeking you out as “the expert,” and this also helps your career.

While the majority of my work sells through galleries, a significant portion of people buying my work are other metalsmiths. So there’s a financial incentive. But I also want to get the information out there—it’s important that people understand that elaborate work an be achieved with simple tools.

With teaching, I find that I do a lot of observing. I observe each student, and try to express the information in different ways that they can understand. I don’t work from a set script—I build it with the students, as they ask questions, which has the added benefit of keeping everyone awake!

Rebbecca: Living in a consumer-driven society, where we are all making decisions all the time about what we need v. what we want to buy, how do you see art-making fitting into this discussion? I ask because I grapple with this myself. We consume raw materials to create more consumer goods that, ultimately, we hope others buy—even though many of us frown upon our culture’s encouragement of conspicuous consumption of manufactured goods. How are we, as makers, different? Our footprints may be smaller, but we’re still participants, at multiple points, in the chain.

David: This is a problem that weighs on me at times. I’ve never come to a solution for this. My studio is completely off-grid, but metal is inherently one of the most environmentally destructive materials.

But, I honor the fact that I am fortunate to have sheet metal. I honor it by making the best piece I can. I think about permanence over time, heirlooms, pieces that will be around for generations after me. It’s not a completely frivolous thing—there’s something essentially human about it. I’m asking people to gently look within the space inside themselves and others. I hope that I’m providing some benefit to humanity at least equal to the resources my work consumes.

Rebbecca: You write, at different places on your website, that you were drawn to simple living as a way to facilitate the artist’s life you wanted to live, but also because it resonated with you in general. Since most of these writings are from several years ago, is there anything that you’ve learned or observed, since then, that has reaffirmed your commitment to this, or has shown you another aspect of it?

David: I fight with it a bit now. My career has snowballed in the past few years. Instead of my looking for galleries, they are seeking me. I keep going full throttle, thinking otherwise, my career will crash. I’m working too hard and asking what’s enough—how do I scale back in the right way while still reaching my goals?

I’m not necessarily doing it for the money at this point. I don’t want to let people down. I’m motivated into the studio by not wanting to disappoint people. I want to bring a balance back. This is a mental shift more than anything.

I’d like to stay at home and get into gardening, pare down even more and live more simply—this is more important now than when I began. It’s a buffer from the inevitable decline we’ll be experiencing.

Rebbecca: Your website holds a lot of information—finished work, process documentation, writing/articles, images of other artwork (drawings, collaborations). What made you decide to go in this direction and take a more enlarged, more personal approach, as opposed to using it strictly as a portfolio, as we’re accustomed to seeing with artist sites?

David: My aim was for this to be information, and not sales-oriented—a place where galleries could send clients to learn about me and help the sale. I wanted to personalize it for people. If you don’t let much of your personality show on your site, people don’t get a sense of who you are. It lets me be myself. People get to keep updated on my work without my selling to them.

Also, I don’t get to look back much myself, to see the changes in my work. Documenting some pieces step by step allows me to see the range of changes—it’s partly for me, but partly to get the information out there.

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Rebbecca: What about social media, Facebook?

David: I find I’m spending more time of Facebook. I get direct feedback from Facebook, as opposed to the website. At first, I used it for the online networking for ArtPrize. But then I found myself connecting with metalsmiths and collectors around the world.

Rebbecca: If you weren’t a metalsmith, what would you be doing instead?

David:  If I quit metalsmithing today I think I’d take a much more active pursuit of alternative building construction techniques such as cordwood masonry, super adobe, straw bale, etc.  I would also spend much more time learning organic gardening and investigating permaculture. I’d try to find ways to use this and more to build more robust local community, perhaps starting with organizing a local farmers market.

I must admit there are days I feel like quitting my career as a metalsmith and doing just this. Though I quickly realize I would miss the joys of shaping metal and being a part of this community of artists. As touched upon earlier, I need to find a healthier balance in my life where I have time for these pursuits and it’s not all metalsmithing all the time.

Rebbecca: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

David: Making a living as an artist. It didn’t come easy, and it took many years.

Also, I am proud of my homestead—my trailer and studio, the changes and reworking I’ve done to these.

Built by hand--David's studio in Michigan

Rebbecca: Any words of encouragement or advice to those new to the field, or contemplating metalsmithing as a career?

David: As the economy shifts from larger to smaller to local, there will be role for us to fill as makers. We can see from conception of an idea to finished product. Not many others can do this. If you have good skills, there’s a future for you.

Watch your expenses; keep your cost of living down.

Avoid complexity—the more technological your tools are the more expenses you’ll have to keep and maintain them.

Keep open and aware, watching broadly the field, culture, society. Look for where the future is going to be, so you can adapt.

Rebbecca: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, David. We’re all looking forward to your master class and lecture at Pratt this month!

David Huang’s Master Artist Lecture:

Date: Friday, February 17

Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

Location: Pratt Fine Arts Center, “Yellow Building”

Free admission & parking

Everyone welcome

For more information: 206-328-2200

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For more on David’s work: www.davidhuang.org