Handmade Here: Meryl Urdang

By Holly Hayes

Mercury News
April 18, 2009

The greater Bay Area's creativity goes beyond new iPhone apps and innovative ways to harness solar power. In our midst are talented tinkerers and artistic souls. Here's one:

Who: Meryl Urdang followed her muse up a winding country road to an old converted barn in Los Altos Hills, where she has sweeping views of the valley that stoke her artistic endeavors.

The art:
Urdang has developed a method that transforms her original photographs and paintings into luminous art using dye on silk. The silk image is then affixed — by a process she won't reveal — to curved glass plates. The result is a stunning collection of decorative and functional pieces she calls Silk-under-Glass. The images include flowers, feathers and butterflies.

The start:
A few years back, Urdang felt the itch to turn her back on a Silicon Valley career as a management consultant specializing in analytical research and "use the other side of my brain." She started looking into ways she could display her photography in some way other than by making prints. "My family was in the textile business, so I grew up with an appreciation for the 'hand,' or feel, of fabrics," Urdang says. "Silk is one of the softest, most luxurious fabrics and has the most physical strength. And I love the clarity and the purity of the clear glass. With my process, the light comes right through the image on the silk. People say this is something they've never seen before."

But before that: "Looking back, I can see evidence of my creative side during childhood," Urdang says. "I was always working on some new art project. I remember that when I was around 8 years old, I made notecards by creating collages from colored paper. It strikes me as interesting that they were flowers. My entrepreneurial side also revealed itself at that time: I sold the notecards for one cent."

To market, to market: Urdang started showing her Silk-under-Glass at open studios events and at regional art fairs, where she did well. One day, she took some of her flower pieces to a gallery, where she sold several plates on the spot to gallery visitors. "The owner liked what she saw and asked for more," Urdang says. It was the "first acknowledgment" that she was on to something special. Today, her work is sold in more than a dozen galleries coast to coast and in museum shops in Birmingham, Ala., and Chicago. She's been at Silk-under-Glass full time for four years.

Maturing as an artist: She began moving beyond strictly flower images, although those remain her most popular items. "The feathers and butterflies are less recognizable, but those are the patterns that are captivating me now," she says. In the feather series, she turns the lens of her Canon Rebel XTi onto the intricate patterns and colorations of feathers from ringneck pheasants and Lady Amherst pheasants. The butterfly plates feature super close-ups of the wings of monarchs and painted ladies.

What's next:
Urdang is fascinated by the sculptural forms of succulent plants. And she wants to do more with vegetables.

Her favorite: A draw-the-eye triptych of a portion of a monarch wing. The center plate is 20 inches square and is flanked on each side by 10-by-20 rectangular plates.

Buyers' favorites:
Close-up images of a "Just Joey" hybrid tea rose and a purple iris she can't identify.

Where she takes her digital camera:
"We're lucky to live in a place where something is blooming all year," Urdang says. Places that keep drawing her back include Mendocino, Big Sur and Carmel. Closer to home, she finds inspiration at Filoli in Woodside and Gamble Garden in Palo Alto. She also creates pieces using regional flora for her galleries outside of California.

Enjoying her art:
Alone or in groupings, the plates are stunning hung on a wall. But they're functional, as well, as catchalls on a desktop, dresser or nightstand. And yes, they can be used at the table for noshing and serving, with some TLC — clean using a damp, soapy sponge on the front of the plate only and dry it immediately. Plates should not be immersed in water, put in the dishwasher or used to serve hot foods.

Personal: Urdang shares her treehouse-like aerie with studio cat Heather. Daughter Sara is a sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley.

On her art:
"In these times, people are trying to create more sanctuary at home," Urdang says. "People have an emotional connection and response to flowers and art that has a soothing, natural feel to it."

The plates range in size from 6 inches to 20 inches square, and she also does rectangles and some ovals. She also does custom work that transfers customers' own images.

Where to see the work: Head to the Los Altos Rotary Art Show, "Fine Art in the Park," May 16-17 in Lincoln Park near downtown Los Altos. You also can see the full range of Urdang's work at www.merylurdang.com.

Contact information: 650-559-5910, or visit her website: www.merylurdang.com.

"Handmade Here'' spotlights Bay Area artists who are creating unusual objects for the home and garden. Send your ideas for this feature to Holly Hayes, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190, or send e-mail to hhayes@mercurynews.com.