Maureen Dwyer and Pepe Fernandez

Artists In Silver and Gold

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Published, EAC Communiqué, May 1991

P

epe and Maureen have been creating elegant silver and gold jewellery in their workshop on Mill Street for three years, but Elora has been familiar to them for a long time. In the days of the ‘70s when they travelled to craft shows across Ontario, they marked it as a rich, nourishing and cosmopolitan community where artists could make a contribution to the life of the village.

The heart of Maureen and Pepe’s store is the metal and stone workshop with large windows overlooking the Grand River. Their lives are completely integrated with the designing and crafting of silver and gold seven days a week. In the workroom are clamps, tools, workbenches with large magnifying glasses, polishing machines for metal and lapis lazuli stones from Afghanistan. Pepe, with a flair for the theatrical, flourishes in this workshop open to the public. We are brought close to the life of the craftsman as we watch Pepe pulling gold into ever thinner filaments, heating it with a blow torch in the annealing process, cutting it to even lengths and flat-weaving the strands in an ancient textile mode to fashion a wedding ring.

From 1975 to 1985, Maureen, along with Pepe, designed and made jewellery using a variety of techniques. As the business grew, Maureen began to handle the retail and administrative aspects of Pepe and Maureen Ltd. Now in the workshop she focuses mainly on quality control and details demanding patience, while Pepe works on the construction of jewellery. Essentially they are a team. “The strength and popularity of our work derives from the combination of our personalities,” Maureen says, “Craftspeople become so deeply involved in creating, they don’t always see if a piece is in balance. Another pair of eyes leads to a finished result.” Jewellery created by Pepe and Maureen is guaranteed life-long care by the designers.

Both artisans are very independent people, and enjoy the freedom of a work life which allows them to make their own rules. Maureen, from Rochester, N.Y., studied History at University of Toronto. While a student she developed a love of Spanish culture through work in a remote Mexican village in the late ‘60s. To reach the village she rode six hours by horse through the mountains from the town of Pisa Flores. Though the inhabitants of the village spoke Spanish, they were not aware they lived in a country called Mexico. For three months she taught literacy, sanitation and first aid, learning Spanish herself through total immersion. The experience of living in this simple, traditional lifestyle brought into question everything she had learned at home. Every assumption was pulled from under her. A strong, clear vision of essential values still shapes her decisions today.

After returning to U of T and obtaining a B.Ed. Maureen taught grades seven and eight in Toronto. To counterbalance mental and intellectual preoccupations, she sought an evening craft course at Central Tech. Her interest was weaving, but because registration was full she accepted the option of metalwork. This decision changed the course of her life. Subsequently she took summer courses at Sheridan College given by Silversmiths Paul and Michael Letki. She observed with fascination the focused lives of craftspeople immersed in their work. That autumn she reduced her work to supply teaching, enabling her to continue experiments in hand-made jewellery in the workshop of a Toronto patron. This studio was a centre for the South American refugee community, seeking to work out the frustrations of a new culture through the catharsis of metalwork.

In this studio, Maureen met Pepe Fernandez. Pepe had fled Chile two days after the military coup of 1973. Leaving everything behind, he took refuge in the Mexican Embassy and was granted asylum in Mexico. His 14 years working in the Bank of the State of Chile were now useless for a career. A highly creative and imaginative man, Pepe fell back on a self-taught hobby of copper etching. In Chile he had established “Taler”, a studio making copper plates, wall hangings and trays for sale. Now in Mexico, Pepe taught copper etching at a community service institute, INPI. He visited the silver centre of Taxco. Drawing on the resources of his Theatre Arts degree from University of Chile, and his natural sympathy for labourers, Pepe produced a documentary film “Life of the Artisan”, depicting the silver labourers of Taxco.

In 1974, Pepe accepted political asylum offered by the Canadian Government to a number of Chilean refugees. Life in the safe harbour of Canada proved very difficult. This was a bitter and traumatic time for Pepe. A very verbal man accustomed to expressing his life through the Spanish language, he felt keenly the problems of communicating in English and adapting to a different lifestyle. In his frustration he welcomed the opportunity to return to metal work, and creative self-expression. With no resources he began to work scraps of copper in the Toronto studio where he found many South American compatriots, and his future partner, Maureen Dwyer. It was 12 years before Pepe returned to visit Chile, a time of painful separation from his family, language and culture.

 Through the ancient arts of silver and gold work Maureen and Pepe join themselves to artisans of past ages.

With typically intense willpower and determination Pepe decided to be self-employed in his new country. Maureen joined him in bringing their jewellery to small craft shows, encouraged by Pepe’s drive and vision. There was excitement, danger and challenge in being self-employed, and the craft world was vibrant in Canada in the ‘70s.

In 1975, Maureen and Pepe took a basement workshop on Adelaide Street, where they refined their skills in hand construction techniques of silver and gold. They moved to 404 Queen Street West, near Spadina in 1978, living above their shop, as did most people in the neighbourhood. They enjoyed the rich tapestry of Queen Street: the Jewish needle and thread industry, Eastern European family businesses, art studios and bookshops. Life here in the ‘70s was cheap and fun and exciting.

Pepe’s theatre training and love of the Spanish language found a focus in Toronto. He directed one play a year for the Spanish- Canadian Cultural Alliance. For two years Pepe developed a theatre group with friends called “La Caratula”. Three productions were staged in the George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto, among them a presentation of works by poet and playwright Jesus Lopez-Pacheco, as well as a production in tribute to the poet Antonio Machado.

Maureen and Pepe opened another small display space in the Village By the Grange, opposite the AGO. This became a retail outlet for their jewellery for four years. In 1981, they amalgamated this outlet with the Queen St. store into one large, well-lit space at the Village By The Grange. They hoped to de-mystify the artistic process by opening their workshop to the public.

In Toronto Pepe and Maureen developed a clientele for custom-made jewellery, which provided a firm base for their business when they relocated in Elora in 1988. Frustrated with the pressures of the recession of the early 1980s in Toronto and the materialism and competitive attitude they saw about them, the artisans chose village life in Elora where they made their home above the shop at 16 Mill Street West. Here they could live the integrated life they valued, contribute to the creative life of the community and enjoy many cosmopolitan friends.

Travel is a big part of the lives of Pepe and Maureen. They live simply in order to afford travel through which they educate themselves and experience the cultural visions of the world. Craft has had cultural dimensions throughout historical time. They have visited and studied Mayan ruins and have made land trips to many ruins and remote villages in Mexico and Guatemala, as well as fascinating visits to Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina. Through the ancient arts of silver and gold work Maureen and Pepe join themselves to artisans of past ages, crossing the time gap with eloquent designs and techniques, which echo the beauties of other civilizations and cultures.

by Beverley Cairns, May 1991

 Maureen and Pepe are treasured as artisans at the heart of Elora’s art community.

UPDATE – 1997

Maureen & Pepe are treasured as artisans at the heart of Elora’s art community, with their welcoming shop on Mill Street West.

UPDATE

Since 1994, Pepe and Maureen have continued to thrive, evolve and explore new horizons – together and separately. With Maureen’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1993, her vigorous role in the business halted, presenting both her and Pepe with demanding new challenges. Maureen turned to poetry and art and made life-style changes necessary for healing. With her intense, creative spirit intact, she attended art courses in Guelph and Toronto and on several occasions exhibited and sold her art in the shop on Mill St. W. In 2004, very strengthened, she dedicated herself to the study of spiritual science and immersed herself in the “Art-Capacities For Life” course at “Arscura”, an art school in Toronto based on the anthroposophical, spiritual view of art as an important catalyst for healing and social development. Explorations of watercolour veil painting and clay sculpture hold particular fascination for her creative impulses.

Maureen and Pepe also identified the need for change in the business. They renovated and refashioned the concept of the store from “retail store” to “custom design studio”. This change reduced the pressure for inventory and allowed Pepe to apply his knowledge and expertise to more challenging jewellery in gold and precious gems. He directed his energies to the creation of unique, custom-made jewellery and continued to charm customers with his flair and passion for his craft. In 1997, Pepe was excited to offer his unique, wire techniques along with other exciting custom designs not only in gold but also in platinum. Then, in 2001, he leaped enthusiastically into the difficult technique of “Mokume Gane”, the ancient technique of metal layering developed by Japanese swordsmiths. With the creative use of this technique, he unveils beautiful patterns in the layered metals (with amazing to watercolour)! This mysterious technique continues to capture Pepe’s imagination and thrill his spirit, leaving everyone in awe at his never-wavering capacity for creativity!

In 2005 Pepe & Maureen Ltd. celebrated its “30th Anniversary in Business”… the “business” of Art!