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Charlotte teens learn jewelry techniques from noted artist – in surprising medium

Artist Nora Fok on jewelry

Nora Fok, who has work on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, taught techniques to teens in workshops at the museum.
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Nora Fok, who has work on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, taught techniques to teens in workshops at the museum.

So it turns out fishing line isn’t just for fishing.

Two pieces in the current “Body Embellishment” exhibit at the Mint Museum Uptown are intricate pieces of jewelry made by Nora Fok. The material? Nylon monofilament. In other words, fishing line.

Hong Kong-born Fok flew from her U.K. home to Charlotte last week to teach two teen workshops, part of the Mint’s NexGen initiative, which provides opportunities for teens to engage with art. She also taught a master class for adults.

Fok’s monofilament jewelry is renowned for two reasons. First, it is hand-crafted using only nylon monofilament, which Fok dyes herself. Second, it holds its shape thanks to a heat-setting process she developed after 15 years of experimentation.

The students were delighted with the notion that one simple material could be so versatile: Fok showed them several techniques – wrapping, knotting, weaving, knitting – that transformed fishing line into complex pieces of jewelry.

A conversation with Nora Fok

Q: You’ve studied both graphic design and 3D design using wood, metal, ceramics and plastics. How did you come to focus on nylon monofilament?

A: “In my second year (at Brighton Polytechnic) I was working with my teacher, Caroline Broadhead (who was) using nylon monofilament at the time. And I find her work very intriguing, very exciting, so I start using it and trying to find a way to do it my own way. At the same time (I had) another tutor who was a very keen fisherman, and he had a lot of used monofilament ... He didn’t want to throw it away because nylon is environmentally unfriendly material. So he brought it in a big box with all different colors and thickness and he put it in the student room and said, ‘Anybody want it?’ and ‘Help yourself.’ It was like a treasure chest to me ... Here I am, 34 years later, I’m still working with the material.”

Q: You experimented for 15 years to find a process to make it hold its shape. What was that like?

A: “At the time, there was no book on working with nylon,” said Fok. Nylon was only invented in 1935, and Fok was experimenting in 1979 – pre-Internet. “So it’s all about trial and error. ... I tried a lot of different ways by say, steaming it, putting it in the oven, cooking it. You name any method I could try, I tried. Eventually, in 1995, I started to use hot water to set the nylon, and it worked.”

Q: What was it like to finally find a solution?

A: She said she had nearly given up. “That was the best day of my life. I couldn’t stop – I was laughing and crying at the same time.”

Q: Can you walk me through the process?

A: Fok first succeeded using hot water to set a sphere knitted around a marble. “When the temperature is getting warmer I take it out and check it – it’s not working – put it back. So it’s many times of changing the temperature. ... When the water reach the right temperature ... the nylon will set and it will mold onto the former.” Variables like the brand and weight of the nylon affect the process, too. “It’s all about judgment. ... So, it’s experiment, experiment and experiment.”

Q: What’s unique about jewelry as a medium?

A: “Normally a piece of jewelry is a purely decorative object for the body,” said Fok. But her pieces can be seen in two ways, she said: as pieces of decorative art when they’re worn on the body, or as detached sculptures for contemplation.

Q: Where do your ideas come from?

A: “I really love the natural world and I was interested in plants, insects, the space, the sky, stars and planets, so all these different things influence my way of thinking. ... Sometimes it’s just directly a reaction to something I see, the things happen around me. But sometimes it can be emotional.”

Q: When you’re working on a piece inspired by a mathematical structure in nature, how much math do you use?

A: “Not a lot. It’s observational mainly.” Fok visited UNCC’s greenhouses while here. “They have fantastic plants,” she said, pulling out a photograph she took. “If you look at this cactus,” she said, pointing, “in the center (the buds) are very small and then gradually they go bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger. ... I’m thinking of making a piece of jewelry, so I sort of crop this area, enlarge it on the computer, use my ruler, and measure. ... The starting point is from nature.”

Q: Which piece are you most proud of?

A: “One of the pieces I’m most proud of is the one on show here (‘This Is Life’) because it took approximately two years to finish and research.” This, inspired by the role of genetic material, is dyed four colors to represent DNA’s four bases. “I very much love the helix twisted spiral shape.”

Fok also mentions a piece called “Next Generation,” spurred when she noticed kids at her children’s school. “They were all very cheerful, happy, running out of the classroom (with) very happy, bright eyes, and suddenly I felt I have the responsibility to look after the next generation... I was intrigued by all these little children’s eyes.”

Q: Do you teach jewelry making often?

A: “No, no, because I really like to concentrate on my own research. But I was invited to Charlotte: How could I say no?”

More design classes for teens at the Mint

All are free (and uptown); just register at www.mintmuseum.org/visit/nexgenmint/.

Fashion Design Labs (2-5 p.m. July 10, 11, 31, Aug. 1): Explore the “Body Embellishment” exhibition and create silhouettes using wooden mannequins and paper, inspired by displayed designers ThreeASFOUR.

Jewelry Design Labs (2-5 p.m. July 17, 18, Aug. 7, 8): Create a bracelet or ring inspired by artist Nora Fok.

Tattoo Design Labs (2-5 p.m. July 24, 25, Aug. 14, 15): Design a tattoo pattern inspired by ink artists in the exhibition.

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