In Studio With Silversmith Cara Murphy

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It’s not often that a maker has not one, but two studios at their disposal, but silversmith and Image Interiors & Living Design Award winner Cara Murphy has recently been lucky enough to list herself among them. For years she has worked from the Co Down studio of her father, fellow silversmith Michael McCrory. “The workshop that I share with my dad is dirty and disorganised,” Cara explains. “He has been silversmithing for over 50 years, and I have for 30, so there's 80 years of tools gathered up between us. We’re both very messy and can’t always find everything. You buy silver as a sheet or wire, and you've then got to manipulate that into the forms that you want to create, so you need many different tools to do that.” Her workbench is just six inches from her father’s, and she says it’s great to have an extra pair of hands, or another opinion if needed.

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However recently, she has also been venturing into the studio of her mother, enameller Deirdre McCrory, located upstairs from the silver workshop. After initially asking her mother to enamel some of her pieces, a bursary gave Cara the opportunity to learn enamelling for herself. The enamelling workshop, Cara says, is a complete contrast to the silver studio. “It’s all clean and white and crisp, because it has to be. You can’t have any dust particles contaminating the glass.”

It’s not only the look of the two spaces that is different. “When I'm enamelling, I have the kiln on which is very hot, so it's quite intense. Using a quill is also very precise. You're working with grains of glass, putting them on as evenly as possible, and then transferring the bowl quickly into the kiln without knocking it in any way. Silver's expensive and the enamel is expensive. I have to be precise, because there's no room for error.” 

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The product of Cara’s new combination of skills has been 100 enamelled silver bowls, now on display at the Ulster Museum, which she explains was a lengthy process. The shape of each bowl is formed by putting a sheet of silver in a hydraulic press, a process that is called deep drawing. Cara then engraves the bowl to create various patterns like bubbles or grass. To add the vividly coloured enamel layer, she uses a quill to make a very fine layer of ground glass particles on the surface, and then fires it in the kiln. She usually repeats this process around three times using transparent enamel, so the surface of the silver is still visible through the colour. The glass is then evened and re-fired, and the silver polished before each bowl is complete. 

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The ability to enamel has given Cara the freedom to add a new dimension to her pieces. “I've always enjoyed adding colour to silver, whether that is through natural forms with brick or wood, or through other metals, so I’m enjoying that I can now bring more colours into the work,” she says. She is keen to emphasise however, that she is a silversmith who uses enamel, as opposed to an enameller: “I’ve been enamelling for just over a year, so I’m only scratching the surface of its potential. With silversmithing I know what a piece of metal is going to do, whereas I can have grand ideas about what I want to make in terms of enamelling, and then I put it into the kiln and it doesn’t happen. Part of that is my inexperience, and part of that is that it’s a very difficult process. I’m not going to get the same result every time, but then that’s the beauty of craft, each piece is made by hand so it is different.”

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Over the course of producing her 100 bowls, Cara tried out different colours, patterns and textures, allowing her to really get to grips with enamelling. She documented a lot of her work on Instagram as she went, allowing the public to share in her experimentation. She started the project not focusing too much on what she wanted to create, just really on the process itself. “That was fascinating, and really enjoyable. I’ve already started on my next 100 bowls because I’ve decided that it’s a really good way for me to keep learning and trying out new things. It’s an ongoing journey.”  


WORDS Megan Burns  PHOTOGRAPHY Nathalie Marquez Courtney