Deborah Benninger: Once Upon a Dragon...

An interview with the Honorable Mention winner of the 2018 International Metal Artistry Awards. 
Benninger Dragon 1
Deb and Mary Ann
Debbie, on the right, at the BeadDreams and International Metal Artistry Awards exhibition at the 2018 Bead&Button Show, Milwaukee, WI. 

On the left is Mary Ann Helmond of MA Beads, the artist who made all of the glass beads used in Debbie's dragon. 
photo by Kathryn Keil
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A new peacock piece designed by Deborah Benninger.  She is wearing it in the photo above!
Deb Benninger 1
Another wire piece by Deborah Benninger. 
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Check out the fine detail on Deborah Benninger's wirework. 
Photo of "Life" on idjewelryanddesign.com.

In 2018, Bead&Button magazine and FacetJewelry.com, in conjunction with the Bead&Button Show, launched our inaugural International Metal Jewelry Artistry Award. This new award, a companion to our BeadDreams Jewelry Artistry Competition, is designed to draw attention to metal and wire artistry. This juried competition drew entries from around the world, and was judged by master metalsmithing instructors Michael David Sturlin and James Carter, and former Art Jewelry magazine editor Hazel Wheaton. A Grand Award and an Honorable Mention were awarded in both the Metal and Wire categories. 

We're so pleased to share the winner of the HONORABLE MENTION award in the WIRE category is ONCE UPON A DRAGON... designed by Deborah Benninger of Alliston, Ontario, Canada. 

This award, sponsored by Micro-Tools, was awarded in June 2018. We caught up with Debbie via email to learn more about her and her wirework. 

Tell us how how you learned jewelry making

I’m completely self-taught. I’ve been creative my whole life. My grandmother, on my dad's side, taught me to knit and crochet. My dad is also very creative. So throughout the years I’ve done cross stitch, scrapbooking, had a dollhouse miniature business, and been a polymer clay sculptor.

After my marriage broke down, I met an amazing man that I moved cities [to be with]. I was looking for something new to do. I thought about jewelry. It was a genre I’d never delved into. I was excited. I ran out and bought a bunch of beads, ready to start something new. After about an hour, of panic attacks, trying to figure out a repeating pattern, I was bored and very uninspired. Now please don’t take this wrong, people who weave have an amazing talent, just not one that I acquired. So I went online searching through jewelry sites to find inspiration.

I found this amazing world of wire. I got offline and immediately ordered different gauges of wire. I wanted to teach myself so I knew my ideas were my own. I was building my identity.

That was five years ago. I work 12 hours a day and love every minute of it. I do festivals and other shows almost every weekend. Always shoot for the stars, you may actually get there!!

As a metal artist, what are your preferred techniques? Is there an area you specialize in?

I work in wire weaving, dabble in metal clay and a bit of metal work. I mainly work in wirework. I weave everything. I use only pure metals such as raw copper, fine silver 99.9, brass and bronze wire. 

Why do you like to work with this wire?

I love working in wire because, literally, your imagination is your only limitation. I can build bezels, beef up beads to make a larger pendant and sculpt animals out of wire. My skill level is the only thing that can hold me back. You can never stop learning in wire. You can add it to metal clay pieces or soldered gemstone settings. I can make any component I need. I don’t have to wait for someone to invent it. I’m so lucky to have the best job in the world. 

 

Benninger Dragon 2
A close-up on the main section of the dragon, and the matching earrings. 

So let's talk about how you built your glorious dragon. What was tougher: the design or the execution? Why?

When I sit down to work, I usually have absolutely no idea where the pieces are going. I don’t draw...this way, wherever the design ends up I’m never wrong!

I’ve made a few dragons in the past so I did have a jumping-off point. In my head, I knew what the dragon’s head would look like. I had to add to his head on three different occasions to get it more filled in, and in scale. I won’t lie, there was quite a few times that he almost became airborne due to frustration.

Every year, I challenge myself to get more creative (and bigger) with the design. I want the piece to be multifunctional, being it is such a large piece. For this dragon, I chose to use handmade glass and wanted the tail and the body to be the focus. So I built it that the companion necklace (that goes with it) is half a bracelet and the other half can be added to the original necklace to make a belt.

What challenge did you need to tackle to finish this piece, or what problem did you have to solve? How did you solve it?

The biggest issue I had with this piece was making sure each section of the necklace hinged. There’s two beads woven together joined together by loops. Once I got the movement correct, next I had to tackle the head and wing pieces, because they needed to be removable. I made a series of hooks on the back of the head and wings so they could hook into empty loops I added to the necklace.

The last hurdle was how to make the necklace become a belt that fit a variety of sizes. To solve this problem, I added a companion necklace and added some empty loops behind the wing to hook into. Half of the companion necklace is a bracelet, and the other half adds to main necklace (first you must remove the head, then add the piece). This solution made it long enough to turn it into a belt.

What kind of a workspace do you have? 

I get asked this question all of the time. I do have a room that’s my studio. The real question is, do I use it? Nope. I sit on my couch in my pjs and that’s where I weave (and watch tv!).

I go into my “studio” to use my pickle to clean my wire or to get more supplies. I even use my creme brûlée torch over a cup of water on my coffee table. Shhhhh, don’t tell my spouse that! I’d send you a picture but who wants to see me in my Mickey Mouse pj's, weaving wire! 

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A purple and silver masterpiece by Deborah Benninger. 
Photo of "Everlasting Love" on idjewelryanddesign.com.
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Another stunning piece by Deborah Benninger. 

Ha! Do you teach?

I teach all aspects of wire weaving. From the very basic to the very advanced, including my dragons. I have lots of downloadable tutorials and 3 self-published tutorial books. 

What are your ideas to help bring new people (especially young people) into metal and wirework? Where should they start? 

If you’re looking into starting into wirework, I always suggest you find a REPUTABLE teacher. Check their work and references. Make sure THEY know what they’re teaching. Just because you know a few weaves doesn’t always mean you should teach. Also, it’s not bad learning from tutorials and on the internet, but please find your own voice in this amazing medium. What is it about your work that when people see it they know it’s yours without ever seeing your name? 

What tip would you give someone who wanted to enter the Metal Jewelry Artistry Awards?

Start early. I started my entry in the winter before the competition. Have a clear vision what you want to make, but be flexible if you need to make a change. You don’t have to be a professional to enter a competition. Put your best work forward and have fun!!

Of all the things you’ve learned on your metalworking journey, what’s the one thing you’d like to share? 

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Push your weaves back as you work. Sometimes less planning produces the best pieces. Breathe....it’s just a piece of wire. Find a way not to copy other artists work and find your own voice in this amazing art. And finally, practice, practice, practice. 

People can find Debbie's books, as well as more of her jewelry designs, on her website, I.D. Jewelry and Design

I.D. Jewelry and Design is a unique design house specializing in wire-woven jewelry. All of Debbie's designs are one-of-a-kind and utilize only pure metals. She takes on commission work, and provides teaching workshops throughout the year.

FIND MORE: wire , wirework , glass

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