By Elyse Wild | Photography By Two Eagles Marcus
A group of local women are steadfastly utilizing their skills as metalsmiths to create beautiful wares and a supportive community in which all are welcome to thrive.
Inside of a geometrical building perched on a small rise of earth at 1606 Fuller Ave SE are walls lined with pegboards. Dozens of jeweler’s saws hang, along with a smattering of hammers in different sizes, a neat collection of pliers with blue, green, yellow, purple and black rubber handles, and further assemblages of tools. On a countertop rests an anvil, and on the floor are oxygen tanks fitted with wheels that let them glide easily across the floor. Gems, metals, wires, dremels and other jeweler’s tools are scattered over several benches.
Heather Murray is sitting at one bench, her glowing red hair tied back as she deftly holds a flame to solder pieces of her latest creation.
The space is small, but well organized, and it feels like an entire world apart—one teaming with immeasurable possibilities.
Welcome to The Hot Spot.
“I fashioned The Hot Spot to be for jewelers and metalsmiths to learn, collaborate and share ideas
about running their businesses,” Abbey Hunter, founder and owner, said.
Hunter graduated from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) with a degree in metalsmithing. She took out an LLC for The Hot Spot in 2012 with a vision of creating an inclusive, full-service public studio dedicated to allowing metalsmiths to work and connect with the community. Hunter launched the concept at a local makerspace, incubating the group while hosting workshops and meetups, until irreparable differences with the owners of the space caused her to make an on-the-spot decision to move the group out in 2017.
Shortly after, Hunter heard from a friend that the unmistakable building on Fuller was for sale, and she put an offer in.
“I saw it and said, ‘We have to do this.’” she expressed. “I left my job [as a welding fabricator] at Founders Brewing Co. on a Friday, and I signed the papers for this place the following Monday. It was very serendipitous.”
The Hot Spot offers tiers of membership to serve the needs of individuals, from those who would like to utilize space and tools for a few hours at a time to artists who require 24-hour access. Along with offering one-on-one classes and group workshops, they welcome the community with a monthly potluck-style gathering called Forge ‘n’ Gorge, which is open to metalsmiths and non-metalsmiths alike to learn about the space, share food, work on projects, and discuss ideas.
The group’s core members are, Alaina Clarke, Murray and Laurel Mills (who was available for interview). Clarke and Murray also hold degrees in metalsmithing from GVSU and testify to how these monthly gatherings embody a primary component of The HotSpot’s mission: to build a culture of inclusivity in a creative space.
“During Forge ‘n’ Gorge, you can really see that community building,” Clarke reflected. “We are very friendly and open and general, and we want to keep building on that culture. Patience is a trait a lot of metalsmiths have, because you have to have it… there is a deep empathy among the four of us that we really understand within each other.”
Murray adds that, due to the tool investment, metalsmithing is not an inherently accessible craft. She emphasizes that humility is of the utmost importance as The Hot Spot continues to establish itself in the community and extend access to individuals who face barriers.
“When I think of words associated with The Hot Spot, I think humility, kindness and a willingness to collaborate,” Murray expressed. “Working with fine art and metals is a privilege in itself. We are very happy and proud of our work because it will last for a very long time, but we also want other people to experience creating something with their hands and working with these tools that have been around for centuries.”
Hunter nods in agreement.
“That’s what I really wanted to harness in The Hot Spot,” she added.
“When I think of words associated with The Hot Spot, I think humility, humble and kindness and a willingness to collaborate.”
— Heather Murray
While Hunter, Clarke and Murray all work in the same medium (Murray and Clarke make jewelry, while Hunter now focuses on large-scale works), their work is vastly distinct.
“We are still coming together and working,” Clarke commented. “But our motivations are different. We help each other out and we ask each other for advice and critiques. We really work together.”
Murray’s voice is celestial, a quality infused into her earthly works that reflect a deep reverence for nature. Listening to her excavate the details of her craft and the intentions she brings to it is enchanting.
“My work is definitely inspired by the forest and the outdoors,” Murray expressed. “I am inspired by things that grow in the dark and things that flourish in the light.”
She currently creates jewelry for a line dubbed Forest Emporium, an apt moniker for her wares, which look as though they were plucked from the depths of the earth as relics of a far gone culture profoundly connected to the natural world: thick-banded rings with textures that mimic moss, lichen and leaves, upon which are striking candy-colored gems.
In college, Murray was originally a biology major before she decided to explore the arts and gravitated toward metal work.
“Metalworking was so therapeutic when I was feeling down because I could create these tiny, beautiful, precious things, but the process isn’t tiny and beautiful,” she reflected. “It’s a lot of hammering and loud noises and fire. It was something that really helped me through an emotional rut.”
While Murray’s work is bohemian, Clarke’s is contemporary, demonstrating her affinity for geometric shapes, sharp edges, structure and routine. She describes her process as “production-base” as opposed to outwardly conceptual.
“I love working with metal because there is such a process to it,” Clare expressed. “You have to do one thing before the other, and I am very process oriented.”
She sells her jewelry under A. Clarke Metalsmith. The first collection is a line called Trixie and Stella, and
it includes pieces for working mothers and contemporary lifestyles.
“My pieces start off with a shape and who I am designing for.” she described. “I think of what the price point is because I want it to be an everyday wear.”
Like Murray, Clarke finds solace in the metalsmithing process.
“I love being able to come in and know exactly what I am doing,” she said. “It’s healing and therapeutic. It’s very cut and dry; it either works or it doesn’t.”
When Hunter creates, she is led not by a clear vision of an end product, but rather by what she is feeling in the moment.
“I base a lot of my work on what I am feeling. It’s like an emotional exhale.”
“I base a lot of my work on what I am feeling,” she expressed. “It’s like an emotional exhale for me. It’s like purging demons.”
Hunter found metalsmithing while attending GVSU as she worked toward an art degree, unsure of her focus until a lecture on metal arts illuminated her path.
“I am all over the board creatively, and I saw these metal pieces with fabric and stone and ceramic,” Hunter explained. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ It had everything I could ever be interested in.”
The functionality of metalsmithing appealed to her.
“I struggle with painting something pretty just to stick on a wall,” Hunter added. “What sold me on it is that I could make something that has a function or personal meaning. You can imbue it with this meaning and hold it close to you.”
After graduating, Hunter was working as a janitor at Founders Brewing Co., when she was asked by the lead welder to lend a hand on a particularly busy day.
“He said, ‘You have a metalsmithing degree and I will teach you welding,’” Hunter laughed. “I have been running with it ever since.”
Hunter’s work has evolved from jewelry to larger-scale sculptural pieces, both of which have elements of Gothic architecture and dystopian structures.
After the death of her cousin, Hunter did away with the expectations of others and began harnessing metalsmithing as a means of self-expression.
“I put heart, soul and emotion into what I really love to do, instead of what the community wanted or what the price points would be,” she described. “I started making larger pieces and doing whatever the hell I wanted. That was a pretty big emotional exhale and self-discovery.”
Hunter’s pieces from that period were showcased during ArtPrize 9 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“Now I know what kind of artist I am,” Hunter said. “I know this is what I need to do, and I need to keep going with this.”
Hunter, Clarke and Murray agree that the metalsmithing community is uniquely supportive, a quality they continue to cultivate and embody with The Hot Spot.
“One of the things that is very apparent in the metalsmithing community is that if you are willing to give to others, they will also give to you,” Murray said. “Because the knowledge isn’t widespread, it is precious. If you are willing to open up and teach others what you know, they will do the same.”
Metalsmithing is nearly allegorical to life itself; the most beautiful things are born from pressure, sharp edges, hammering and fire, and as one continues to create, learn and share, identities are forged.
“We all talk about going through life, jobs and families,” Clarke reflected. “But when you are able to express these things and work in a culture of lifting people up, especially women, you really start to learn who you are instead of who other people want you to be.”