What strikes you immediately when you talk to Lisa Slovis Mandel is her enthusiasm in every moment. She’s passionate about her life and work and simply bursting with energy. Her passion is as evident in her new book, Pewter Studio, as it is in every piece of artwork she creates. (Don’t miss taking a look at Lisa’s beautiful jewelry and Judaica at LisaSlovis.com.)
Master metalsmith Robert Ebendorf writes of Pewter Studio, “Lisa Slovis Mandel stepping forward and publishing this new book will greatly encourage the creative use of the material and investigation into the world of pewter. The book is very user-friendly. The step-by-step material is well laid out. The gallery has numerous examples by other craftsmen; it is extremely stimulating and clearly demonstrates the versatility of this material. The book will also be an excellent manual for any university or college that wants to put pewter into its program.”
I was delighted to have a chance to ask Lisa about her development, family, and outstanding metalwork.
Lisa, why did you become a metalsmith? How did you choose metalwork as an artistic medium, and what’s your training?
When I was a kid, I was the athlete—volleyball, softball, skiing, rollerblading, tennis, basketball. I took ceramics sophomore year as an elective and loved my teacher. But I think that I got a little frustrated to see how easy it was for things to happen to my projects—all the kiln firings, people bumping into things, etc.—so that one day I came home from school and told my mom, “Mom, I want to make jewelry. Let’s go buy metal.” And, luckily, we did!
I experimented on my own with shears and beading tools, and then I started taking community-ed classes. I received a summer enrichment scholarship from my school for art classes and got into a fine-art camp for kids. It was there that I first learned soldering and other real metalsmithing techniques.
During the rest of high school, I took night classes at the community center, learning all sorts of jewelry techniques. I continued my studies by going to the University of Wisconsin—Madison, where I received my BFA in metalsmithing. They had a fabulous program, with great instructors like Fred Fenster, Eleanor Moty, and Martha Glowacki, and I spent most of my time in the metals studio.
I loved the permanence of the metal and the control that I had with it. I could obtain any shape that I wanted, and once I got it there, the shape would stay that way. I was introduced to pewter by Fred Fenster. I also went on to get my MFA at San Diego State University with Helen Shirk and Arline Fisch. At SDSU, I got to explore the meaning of my art more, the shape, the form, and find my artistic voice.
Why do you like pewter as a material? What are its strengths? And what are its challenges?
Pewter is exciting. It moves really quickly, which is good, because I’m not always the most patient person. I like instant gratification. And this can be good when you’re trying to create production work. If I were making the same pieces in silver, I would have to charge so much more for the retail price, just because of the time needed to create them.
Pewter is incredibly malleable. I can make it do whatever I want, and I mean whatever I want. I also love how forgiving it is. When I was an undergrad, when someone had an accident and messed up a piece, my studio friends would immediately say, “It’s OK! We can fix it!” With pewter, it’s true—you really can fix it. Pewter also is much more economical than silver, which is great
The main challenge with pewter is educating the public. Pewter has a bad rap, because people do not totally understand it.
I work in silver, too, but on a smaller scale. I refer to them as my left-brain and right-brain materials—I work both sides of the brain with silver and pewter.
You’re one of the artists featured in the upcoming gallery book 500 Judaica. What does making Judaica mean to you? When did you start? Is there a piece you’ve made that really stands out for you in terms of emotional or spiritual resonance? Which one, and why?
I’m very excited about the 500 Judaica book. Creating Judaica has been a really great way for me to feel a connection with my heritage and culture. I started making Judaica in my undergrad years, when I made my first kiddush cup—a wine chalice. I loved the fact that something I spent a few months working on was given a wonderful importance because of the ceremony it was supposed to be used in. It was not just a cup on a shelf now. It was a kiddush cup. Yet, because of its functionality, people had to touch it. The wine is passed around from person to person, and everyone gets their turn with the cup.
I really enjoy making my menorahs, because of the playful quality of them. I also love the interaction of making separate menorah pieces.
My Exuberance Menorah was made after my Grandma Vicki passed away. She was one of those women we all want to be like. She lived life to the fullest, and everyone who knew her felt lucky. I made the menorah with her in mind. It’s made of five pieces that look like people dancing and celebrating. When you move them so they overlap a bit, the look changes to a tree of life.
I like that I can create a piece like this—contemporary and whimsical, yet also carrying a real uplifting feeling to the viewer.
Who are some of your primary artistic influences? Is there an artist who transformed your worldview of what was possible to accomplish through art?
As I said, Fred Fenster was a big influence with the pewter, and he introduced me to Hans Christensen and Georg Jenson. In graduate school, I found Friedrich Becker. A few years ago, I found Eva Zeisel and realized that, although I did not know her name before, I was definitely influenced by her designs.
But I try not to be too influenced by other art and artists. Much of my design inspiration comes from nature, shadows, figures, and also games and interaction.
When I’m uninspired, I usually resort to physical activity, such as rollerblading. I’ll often just go for a long walk on the boardwalk and watch everything I see when I need to get some new ideas.
One issue many artists struggle with is balancing work and family. You’re married with two sons, you’ve authored a book, you teach metalworking, you sell through galleries and at shows. How do you do it all? What’s your secret?
I’m still working on that one! I’ve always said that I wanted to have a family. All too often I look at people in my field who are successful and realize that they do not have kids or a spouse.
It’s not easy. My children are young right now, so I’ve really slowed down the shows for the past couple of years. But I’m always busting my butt trying to juggle things. I’m always running, I don’t get much sleep, and I’m still really looking for the answer to this one myself.
What were your favorite craft projects as a child? And what kinds of crafts do you now do with your boys?
My mom was really creative. She would have us make stained-glass pictures with wax paper and melted crayons. We would do splatter paint through an old screen door. And I also found beading early.
My boys are fun. Jacob comes home all the time and says, “Mom, what crafts project can we do today?” He’s at a music school, so lately we’ve been making instruments. We made two cardboard box guitars, a poster tube rainstick, and an African rattle with a wire coat hanger and bottle caps.
We also love making stained-glass pictures with tissue paper and contact paper. We keep trying new ways to get good fingerprints, too.
That’s too hard—I have a lot of favorite tools. I have my favorite hand shears, which I use for everything. I’m not a big fan of sawing with the jeweler’s saw. I use it when I have to, but otherwise I use my shears and the band saw.
I believe that there’s always a tool to make things easier—just get the right tool! I love my flex shaft. I use sanding discs a lot—and I mean a lot. I also use the belt sander and band saw. And I also have my favorite planishing hammer. And my favorite Delrin hammer.
What further aspirations do you have as an artist, Lisa?
I’d like to build some really large-scale public art pieces. Then, I’d also like to have a whole line of my designs that is mass produced and marketed to a larger audience.
You teach many workshops and classes. What are your best tips for teachers?
My best tip for teachers: Have fun doing it. Your students will enjoy it more if you’re having fun, too.
Handouts are great, because then people can watch you and come back later to whatever they forget.
When you’re teaching metalwork, sometimes things go wrong when you’re demo-ing. Use a mistake as an opportunity for a good lesson on how to fix things.
When you’re teaching, or doing, pewtersmithing, don’t be nervous. If you’re afraid of melting your metal, you’ll be more apt to melt it.
Instead, relax. Take a deep breath. And go for it.