Ultimate hybrid: art + function

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, March 13, 2009

In a rustic home-studio in the mountains of Los Altos Hills, artist Meryl Urdang sits on her deck and watches the birds glide through her panoramic view of the East Bay hills. The birds inspired Urdang.

“I envy their ability to race across the sky, glide on the air currents, sky dive and dance to their own music,” the artist said of her reasons for creating Focus on Feathers, a new collection in her signature Silk-under-Glass art for walls and tabletops. The line pays tribute to the detailed plumage patterns of the Ringneck pheasant.

Urdang’s collection can be seen next week at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show at the San Mateo Event Center.

Urdang began by painting silk Judaica prayer shawls for her daughter. This soon transformed into a process of transposing photographed feathers, flowers, butterflies and other custom designs onto silk, which is then fused onto the backside of curved glass plates. After three years of producing the Silk-under-Glass collection, region specific pieces can be found in approximately 15 galleries around the country.

Urdang went through an arduous process of trial and error to develop her products. “Every piece of this I’ve had to do like research and development, because I’m combining technique and materials that weren’t meant to be combined,” she said.

For one phase, Urdang had to test 30 different products to determine which would work best. “I’m a research person at heart. There’s always something new to explore and try,” she said.

But this is a familiar process for Urdang. “Before I was doing this, I was using the other side of my brain doing analytical work with numbers,” she said of her previous life as a market consultant in the health care industry. Six years ago she took a workshop in silk painting and three years later she made the decision to switch occupations.

Urdang’s recent union with the art world makes for a vastly different lifestyle with little delineation between home, studio and office, but Urdang said she loves all aspects of her new career.

“I love that I’m combining some of my background with technology with more organic and spontaneous aspects of my work. I love designing things, seeing people’s reactions and bringing that sense of joy that I have with my work,” Urdang said. “I love that I’m creating.”

As a child growing up in New Jersey, Urdang dabbled in an art form surprisingly similar to her current proprietary process: She made note cards decorated with construction-paper flower cut-outs and sold each for one cent. Then, the summer before college, the budding artist-gone-entrepreneur earned spending money for school by selling carved leather belts, necklaces and bracelets.

Urdang said she values functionality. Silk-under-Glass pieces can serve as wall d�cor, or they can be put in easels or on coffee tables; the dishes can be used for jewelry, or the plates can serve their traditional purpose and be used as tableware. Each size fits a purpose, according to Urdang.

Urdang’s artistic method combines many different techniques and mediums. Photography takes her to Northern California to capture wildflowers, in an approach that she said is somewhere between the abstraction of micro-photographers, where one can barely identify the photographed object, and photography that is more realistic.

“There is enough of a flower so you get a response to the image being a particular flower, but it’s also a little bit abstract,” she said.

Urdang said she likes how her design looks on square glass because the bent glass gives the piece complexity. Silk comes through the glass and handles the light beautifully.

“Silk painting is an amazing art form,” Urdang said. “When you have a brush filled with dye and you touch it to the silk and it just permeates the silk and spreads, the luxuriousness of both the silk and the way the dyes interact with it is just amazing.”

Generally, silk painting requires a laborious process of using Gutta, a latex-based resist that blocks dye from reaching the fabric, but Urdang figured out an alternative method to imprint images onto silk.

Urdang’s custom designs usually include imposing photographs of families and loved ones using the Silk-under-Glass technique. Urdang said she sees this as photographing people’s memories.

“The work is dealing with people’s memories and preserving them in a unique way that will really make them stand out,” she said.

Urdang said she sees very clear links between her past career as a health care consultant and her present work as an artist. “I think I was inspired and was able to express a different part of myself and then share that with others,” she said. “There is something about creating something and then seeing another’s reaction that’s a totally different reward than those rewards that people are usually looking for.”


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What: San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

When: March 18-22, Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Where: San Mateo Event Center, 2495 S. Delaware St., San Mateo

Tickets: $13-20/day, with discounts for youth, students; children 5 and under free; tickets available at local nurseries or online.

Info: Visit www.gardenshow.com.

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