Fall/Winter 2016 UNIQUE MUSKOKA 22 Fall/Winter 2016 UNIQUE MUSKOKA 23 - Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Article by Sandy Lockhart / Photography by Kelly Holinshead

Longtime wildlife photographer Eleanor Kee Wellman is using the images she has captured through her lens in a different way. Years of observing nature have inspired her to explore a new artistic medium – metalwork jewelry. Using fine silver metal clay, she moulds and carves pieces inspired by nature and often her own photographs. A silver ring shows fine detail molded from an actual acorn. Delicate earrings feature tiny blossoms from a striped maple. “They are barely visible when hanging on the tree,” she says, explaining how she has learned to appreciate nature’s subtle details through her photography. Kee Wellman’s foray  into jewelry-making began when she asked an artist to use African free trade beads to make her a necklace. Tired of waiting, she did a bit of research and decided she would do it herself. First she took a metal clay course online. “I was firing fine silver over a stove with a butane torch,” she says of the first project. “To do bigger and trickier pieces, you need a kiln.” Now that she has a kiln, she’s only limited by her imagination. Kee Wellman finds items in nature to make moulds for the silver clay – fine silver particles mixed with a binder and water. The clay is then fired to create the final product. “I’ve always had a thing for claws and talons,” she says, explaining how a bear claw was used for one of her first molds. She created it in silver and then added 24-karat
gold to accent it. A variety of talons, claws and even leaves have also served as molds.  Her own photographs serve as both inspiration and a  physical template for some of her molds. To make her African necklace, she created a stamp, which started as a photograph. “I photographed African fabric and then made it into a line drawing and traced it onto a polymer plate using UV light,” she says. “Then I pressed the clay into it.” Another piece – a leopard’s face on a square pendant – was created from one of
Kee Wellman’s photographs and molded into silver clay. Small, sparkling jewels for the eyes bring the piece to life. To learn to carve the clay, Kee Wellman took a private Skype course with a Pennsylvania artist to study the repousse effect. A mould is created to make the approximate size and shape of the piece, in this case a bird on a square pendant. The metal clay fills the  old, thicker in some spots than others to create the approximate finished shape. The clay dries and Kee Wellman carefully carves the wings, beak and other fine lines to make the picture come alive.  Surrounded by nature at her home in Bala, Eleanor Kee Wellman has found a new medium to share her appreciation for the outdoors. “It shrinks as it is fired so the detail increases,” she says. “This carving is something I’m going to do a lot more.” She often wears the necklace she created using this method. A photograph taken in her yard of a bird at a thistle was the inspiration for this piece. Maple keys, petrified wood, acorns, tiny maple leaves, feathers, goldenrod, seeds and other natural elements become wearable works of art.

“These are some of the things I’ve been playing with,” she says, showing the assortment of earrings and pendants she has created. Touches of copper and bronze clay, as well as beads, are used as accents.  Kee Wellman says her parents were art collectors, but not artists. They appreciated the beauty around them, which influenced her from an early age. She’s also had a lifelong appreciation of nature that grew when she started videographing, and later photographing, wildlife. “My mother was ill; so couldn’t go out,” she explains of her start with video in 1993. “I started videotaping whatever I saw – so everything – for her to see.” In 2003, she bought her first digital camera and now her photographs are well-known throughout Muskoka and beyond. Art has always been part of Kee Wellman’s life. In fact, she spent a year studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design to become a portrait painter. “I was lousy at it,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t occur to me to try a different type of art.”

Since then she’s tried her hand at dressmaking, stained glass, silk screening, T-shirt making and metalwork.
With a childhood family retreat on Lake Simcoe, later a family home on the Credit River and then Lake Joseph, she has always been able to enjoy the natural environment. Today, she lives on 39 acres with 650 feet of frontage on a private 26-acre lake that she shares with just three other owners and only two other cottages. “I’m the only one here year-round,” she says of her Bala area home. The lake has no motorized boats and is a perfect place for Kee Wellman to watch wildlife. “I’ve taken almost all my loon photos here,” she says, explaining how the solitude of the lake is a perfect setting for her photography. It is also a perfect setting for her metalwork, which has given her another way to share her appreciation for nature’s beauty with others. “I’m having fun with this,” she says. “I have so many ideas.”

Eleanor Kee Wellman’s work includes rings, earrings and pendants.