Inside the Studio with Liz Hanson

As I walk into Liz Hanson’s Ivy home, a few minutes behind Karen and Andrea, I notice immediately that its just that – a home. The door was left open for me, just enough to say, “come on in.” I can hear laughter from somewhere inside, while a lazy lab greets me at the door. There are no pretenses here.

Liz Hanson's Ivy, Charlottesville home.

I take a left and find everyone waiting for me in the living room. Liz, who always has an air of “grooviness”, shows us the turtles that used to be her daughter's, but who now live in a huge, bubbling tub at the base of the stairs that take us to her studio space.  They are not confined; the tub has no top, but that makes sense here.

We enter her studio. The walls are covered with her own work, images of her contemporaries’ work, and prints of famous art. Inspiration and respect. Her workbenches (there are three) obscured by books, bowls of various sizes, projects, equipment, bits of metal, ideas. We’ve come with questions, but we ask few of them.  We don’t need to. She begins showing us her process, telling us how her tools work (different metals require different tools), and how a local “country man” has helped her customize her space and her tools to save her time and sanity.

She walks us through her first piece, a steel cuff that she still wears from time to time, though her style has evolved. She shows us, with the skill and self awareness of someone who has done it over and over, how to make what she calls “just super simple earrings” (we know they are more than that). First, she hand saws a circle out of a small tab of sterling silver. Then, she stamps a hole into that circle, deftly deconstructs her saw, threads the thin saw blade through the hole she has just created, reconstructs the saw, and within seconds has sawed the center of the circle away, leaving a raw-edged, blocky “O” of silver behind. She tells us, she used to hand file the edges of each piece, but now she uses a flex shaft (a jewelers tool that resembles a dental tool) that has been modified to her specifications – she calls this new process zipping and you can hear the relief in her voice that she doesn’t have to hand file anymore.

Liz, hammering a hole into a sterling silver earring.
Liz, sawing sterling silver earrings.

Then, the fun begins. An earring is no earring if it cannot connect to the ear, so Liz turns to the solder station to show us how she connects the post. She turns on an oxyacetylene tank, one among several others, telling us again that different metals require different gasses, and sparks what looks like a miniature version of a welders wand. She corrects the flame and attaches the post in under two minutes. Nothing to it. She shows us how she “braises” metals – in her work this shows up in large silver or steel necklace links that are connected by a glob of contrasting brass.  It's uneven at first, uneven in the wrong way, so she quickly goes back to correct it. And then, the demonstration over, we move on. There’s still much to see.

Liz, sparking flint to light the soldering tool.
Liz, melting solder.
A close up showing braised links.

We head down to her basement, and as we walk through the house she points out all the small areas where different stages of jewelry creation happen.  The studio upstairs is an epicenter, and creativity expands outward touching every part of the house. The walls and shelves are covered in art, many pieces produced by her own family and close friends – she notes that it wasn’t always easy to live in a house full of creatives. Before we round the corner to the stairs that take us to the basement, she shows us a wet bar that used to be for entertaining and now serves as a chemical station—a second hand crock pot that she calls “the pickle” which removes excess solder, and a “magic machine”, a tumbler filled with steel shot and water that makes jewelry shine like new. In the basement, we see a large room with a ping pong table covered in supplies and pending projects, much like the studio upstairs, as well as an old bathroom that has been converted into an enameling lab with a kiln.  It’s clear that creating is not just a hobby for her, but rather a necessary component of her life, a compulsion. When she’s mastered one skill, she moves to the next, converting another nook of her house into a functioning part of her creative machine.

When we return upstairs, she shows us volumes of books filled with the artists she’s been most inspired by recently. Georgia O’keefe, Ellsworth Kelly, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian…she’s in conversation with them all, discovering her own art through understanding theirs.

A Liz Hanson necklace beside the sculpture that inspired it (sculpture, Ellsworth Kelly).

An art history major in college, her dream was to work in a museum,

“…my profession unfortunately was in the hospitality industry – I was an art history major and I really wanted to work in the museums in New York City, but that was when the museums would pay you $9000 to live, and I could make a livable wage of $15000 working in hospitality in the city.”

Many may know her from the South Street Inn, where she has been the general manager for years.  Today, you get the sense that that's only part of her life, not nearly the full story. In just three and a half years (yes, you read that right), she has come a long way.  She credits much of her progress to her teachers.  She’s attended eight classes at the Penland School of Crafts in those three years (which, for those of you who aren't familiar with Penland, is a lot). They challenge her, she says, not to idle in her comfort zone.  Recently, she was selected to contribute a special collection to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art for their current showcase on the work of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent.  Her inspiration for the collection? The Mondrian dress from the fall of 1965—fitting.

Yves Saint Laurent, A/W 1965

The jewelry she submitted features pops of primary colors. Her own simple, geometric designs powder coated with red, blue, yellow, black, and white. This collection was so successful that she was asked to create another collection for the upcoming terracotta soldiers exhibit, which is what she’s brainstorming and working on now.

Recent work by Liz.

Karen and I walk out together, after picking which pieces we will bring back to sell in the store.  We both want several pieces for ourselves.  The dogs are there, sleeping in front of the door.  I point out a necklace hanging on the wall, wondering if its one of the terracotta soldiers prototypes. Liz smiles and says no, that necklace has been there so long that she doesn’t even see it anymore.  It would take hours to consume all the art in her house. We don’t have hours. so we thank her, and make plans to return.


All photos (except the Ellsworth Kelly statue and the Mondrian dress) by Andrea Hubbell. ❤

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