How a Renowned Metalwork Master Gained Wisdom From Tai Chi
An interview with silversmith and goldsmith Wayne Meeten
“I was badly scarred at the age of 29, suffered PTSD, and considered taking my own life because I felt so low,” says world-renowned silversmith and goldsmith Wayne Meeten.
Meeten began learning the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi to help himself heal. One day, during a workshop in the countryside, his teacher took him to a huge tree deep in the woods.
The teacher said, “Look at the bark, the damaged bark. See all the scars.”
After walking five hundred yards back towards the campsite, the teacher told Meeten to turn around and asked him, “What do you think of that tree now with all of its scars?”
“It’s majestic,” Meeten said.
“That tree is you. It’s a mirror of you,” the teacher told him.
“I nearly broke down and cried. After years of therapy and plastic surgery, years of being ashamed of my scars, somebody was comparing me to a tree of life— damaged on the outside but majestic on the inside. This was one of the defining moments of my life,” Meteen said.
It was also an epiphany for him as an artist, helping him to realize that he was using mostly sharp angles and edges in his metalwork.
“That is exactly how I felt inside,” says Meeten. “I was feeling so raw, hurt and vulnerable I put up this hard exterior shell to protect myself. I hadn’t realized that I was portraying it in my art work.”
Following this realization, his designs became soft and fluid, emulating natural landscapes like flowing rivers and waterfalls.
“It was about taking the negative, finding the positive inside, and coming up with a creative solution. Yin is soft, yang is hard, in the centre is the Dao,” he says. “[The steps of] silversmithing—hammering, filing, cutting, annealing, soldering, designing—each step taken is slow and carefully considered. This is Tai Chi in motion.”
Seeking a master
Meeten’s metalwork began at age 16 with an apprenticeship in an antique jewellery workshop. Several years into his training he set out to repair a beautiful piece of Art Deco jewellery by a master craftsman, yet his employer told him to scrap it instead since the metal itself would make more money.
Bothered by this experience, Meeten decided to take his artisanship seriously. He entered university to study jewellery making, learning under the tutelage of artisans who crafted for Cartier, Garrard, and other top jewellery brands.
Meeten then began to study a rare form of Japanese metalworking called Mokume Gane, the ancient technique used to make Samurai swords. He soon realized that the authentic art was only being taught in Japan. Meeten knew he had to go, but first he needed to learn the language.
After studying Japanese for two years, he applied to all art schools in Japan. The first letter Meeten received was a rejection, stating that he had applied to an all-girls school. He persisted and even wrote to Norio Tamagawa, the renowned Mokume Gane master, who has since been acknowledged with the title of Living National Treasure.
Finally, Meeten was accepted at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, the sister college of the Royal College of Art in London. Once in Japan, he learned there are no shortcuts in metalwork.
“No shortcuts means you take your time. You get it right. You don’t start using grinders and machinery to do it faster,” he says. “If you’re one with the material and one with your tools, you know exactly at what stage you are. One can sense and feel the piece growing into shape.”
After a year of rigorous study, Meeten was preparing to leave Japan when one of his professors asked him, “Are you going to see Norio Tamagawa?”
Meeten replied that he’d never heard back from the master.
“We know, but we’ve been giving him updates of your work in progress for the last year. You’re ready to see him and you’re invited to go meet him now,” the professor said.