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.
During their first meeting, Tamagawa told Meeten, “You have one week. If you’re unable to make the metals flat your piece won’t be finished in time.”
Meeten toiled at Tamagawa’s studio from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., gently sanding the metal down one way, and turning it another, again and again. With mokume gane, there are no shortcuts. It takes an entire week to soften the metal down with charcoal to make it completely flat.
“I wasn’t really using my hands, I was using the centre of my body. Both hands rocked together starting from my dantian (energy centre),” he says. Meeten questioned this laborious process, thinking there must be an easier way.
Meeten asked his master, “How do you know when the metal is flat?”
Tamagawa replied, “The metal will tell you when it’s flat.”
“If I hadn’t studied Tai Chi, I wouldn’t have understood his rather ambiguous reply,” Meeten says. “Yet this made complete sense because I knew that metal is alive. When you hammer metal it gets harder and tighter. You then have to anneal or heat it to make it soft, so the atoms open. Then you hit it again, and they become closer and harder.”
“Metal and humans are made of the same particles. We’re composed of atoms, protons, neutrons, and electrons, and we’re part of the whole, which is the Dao. We must therefore listen to the metal constantly. There’s a moment when it starts splitting. The metal is crying, asking you to stop,” Meeten says. “You have to listen. You must be at one with your material.”
Before he left Japan, Tamagawa told him, “You’re more Japanese than the Japanese.”
Finding his voice
Meeten’s biggest challenge was finding his own voice and individual style. Along the way, his study of Tai Chi informed his direction.
“It’s rare to find identical things in nature; there are infinite colours and textures. Everything is unique. I want my pieces to be individual,” he says.
Once he develops a concept, Meeten begins to sketch and make maquettes.
“Eastern philosophy is about striving for perfection. Western philosophy is about becoming an innovator, designing and being creative. The Eastern side is mostly about process; the Western side is about individual creativity,” he says. “My wish is to fuse the two.”
When Meeten starts his design phase, he enters a semi-meditative state, a slow process of contemplation.
He then begins working with the metal. The hammering follows the rhythm of his heartbeat. It’s a dance alternating between pounding and pausing, hammering and breathing. At night, he wraps the metal in warm blankets, caring for it like a living being. If the metal freezes, it stiffens and many hours of work can be lost.
“Everything starts coming together when you slow down and understand every tiny nuance or idiosyncrasy,” he says. “I want the work to be filled with warmth, serenity, and feeling.”
A gift from the Dao
The design process isn’t always as easy and comfortable as the actual metalworking, which follows a rhythmic pattern. In one instance, a client with the surname de Leeuw (meaning lion in Dutch) asked him to make a figurine of a lion. But Meeten wasn’t interested in crafting an animal replica. His work had to come authentically from inside himself.
But a core principle of Daoist thought—following the natural way—helped the artist find a path to harmonize his wishes with those of the client. One day, Meeten was walking his Jack Russell Terrier when the dog jumped in a pond. The terrier ruffled her hair and head, flicking the water like a lion shakes water from its mane.
Meeten realized he could incorporate this concept into his work. He crafted a shimmering lion and encased it inside a vase. When the client looked at it he saw a reflection of himself as a noble, transformative lion.
“It was something utterly unique to him, completely one-of-a-kind,” Meeten says. The client then put the image of the piece on the front cover of his new book.
Meeten believes that the creative process unfolds similarly to his own journey in life.
“It’s like planting a tree. You root yourself and start growing. As you grow, you branch out, you reach up, and the leaves and flowers come, you blossom, and come to fruition. That’s the tree of life, isn’t it? It’s about rooting, growing, branching, and then flowering,” he says.