A Lasting Impression
Combining her talents for drawing and jewelry making, Kathryn Holton Stewart brings the ancient art of ornamental engraving to life.
Kathryn Holton Stewart is peering into a microscope at a nickel-sized circle of silver mounted atop a small ball. As she spins the ball with her left hand, she engraves lines in the silver with her right, the motion driving the fluid spirals and curves that appear on the medallion.
Trancelike, she becomes one with her tools, creating sparkling mist, a curling fern and a breaking wave. The delicate “footprints” of the artist — lines forming shapes — appear across the metal surface.
“It’s almost like I am in there, and I’m in that wave, and I’m moving around,” she says.
The 39-year-old goldsmith, jewelry designer and ornamental engraver is in the studio at Silver Bonsai Gallery in Manteo, which she operates with her husband, Ben. The two artists create fine jewelry that they call Modern Heirloom, for their use of turn-of-the-century techniques coupled with modern technology. They work with stones, gold, platinum and silver, welding, soldering, piercing, drilling, sawing, forging, layering and bending metal to craft rings and bracelets, earrings and necklaces.
Stewart adds the skill of engraving, which appears on many of the Modern Heirloom pieces. One of her specialties is these engraved medallions, on which she forms intricate miniature worlds, as with the mist, fern and wave.
Stewart’s designs start as sketches, but they can unfold spontaneously as she engraves.
Her patterns, she says, are inspired by a combination of art nouveau, gun and knife ornamental engraving, Japanese woodblock printmaking and fantasy illustration.
She came to jewelry fueled by a talent and passion for drawing and an artistic legacy on her mother’s side. Her grandfather was a watchmaker, her grandmother a pastel artist; her mother, a quilter.
After maxing out of art courses following her junior year at Manteo High School, she entered Savannah College of Art and Design at age 17. Her love of drawing initially led her toward graphics and illustration, but upon taking jewelry electives she changed her focus. Driven by process and technique more than concept, she found jewelry design a natural outlet for her creativity.
Nine years ago she took a class in engraving, a technique that takes years to master. It was a pivotal experience that saw her coming full circle.
“I can draw in the jewelry,” she says. “I can bring my illustrative self back to the piece.”
Like drawing, she says, engraving is a breaking down of lines and patterns that create shapes. Line by line, scoop by scoop, she engraves fantasy illustrations populated by mermaids, fairies and phoenixes, and also garden scenes with butterflies and flowers. Acanthus scrolls, an octopus, leaves, sea grass and shells show up as well, all beautifully formed in miniature.
Like her grandfather, Stewart is detail oriented and adept at operating tools within a microcosm. Still, her dexterity and patience are tested as she spins the graver ball with her left hand and cuts into the metal with her right.
“I hand-engrave and chase to sculpt my detail using a power-assist palm control engraver, the premise of which is inspired by Italian hammer chisel technique,” she says. “I am always working as the piece spins. … I am constantly changing direction and speed. I just hold the ball with my hand; it tilts, too, so I am adjusting angles and turns based on what is needed.”The depth of the cut and the density and placement of her lines bring light, shadow and motion to her scenes. Her work can be very sculptural, depending on the depth of her incisions.
As with drawing, the illusion of tone is created through hatching — etching a series of close, parallel lines — or cross hatching — intersecting two series of parallel lines. Though the process is labor intensive, the results appear spontaneous and lifelike. The intricacy and difficulty of the art make engravers an unusual species today.
“There aren’t many out there,” she says. “It takes so much time to master it, and it takes so much time to do it.”
Dating back to prehistoric times when human beings formed images on bird eggs, engraving has more ebbed than flowed over the centuries. Stewart learned traditional Italian gun and knife patterns, often found on knives, guns, jewelry and pocket watches, from her instructor, Jason Marchiafava at the New Approach School for Jewelers when the school was located in Virginia Beach (it is now in Tennessee). Marchiafava is now a master craftsman at Tiffany.
While Stewart has core themes in her engraving — garden of delight and fantasy art, to name a couple — her work is far from cookie-cutter style. She infuses the character of the client into her commissioned work. Her art also is about catching time, especially when she’s creating the medallion scenes.
“You just feel like it’s this moment when the butterfly is going to fly away, or just before the wave crashes, capturing this split second of motion.”
How does she make her engravings seem so lifelike?
“I don’t sit and stare at waves or ferns,” she says. “This is just something that comes very naturally to me. And that’s why I know it’s something I’m supposed to be doing.”
story by Mary Ellen Riddle photographs by Ginger Harvey