The versatility of pewter and adapting to change

As part of our series on ‘Sustainable, Clean and Creative Balsall Heath’ we feature Mel Berman of Metallix. Metallix is a pewter embossing studio in Balsall Heath, which creates hand embossed pewter items such as journals, keepsake boxes and original mixed media canvases. Earlier this year, in the midst of lockdown, Elisabeth Charis spoke to Mel about her passion for pewter and the challenges of her workshop based business in lockdown.

I’m a pewter and mixed media artist, dabbling in metal and other mediums, currently fabrics, wire and wood. Previous to that I’d done all kinds of things: children’s workshops, making fairies, dabbling in paper crafts, weaving…. I then did a short workshop in metal embossing when I went to Cape Town for a visit to my home country. I thought I’d really like to teach it back in the UK. Nobody does much pewter embossing in England and people don’t know about it. Many years ago, there used to be poured pewter, like the tankards that people used to drink out of. It used to have lead in it. People think of it as an old craft, but It has evolved over the years, with pewter being an alloy, a mixture of copper, tin and antimony (no more lead) and the thickness can be varied and used in different crafts.

I just love the versatility of the metal. Pewter is very malleable and it can be scribed and raised with various simple tools.  I like the plain metal but, embossed and embellished, it takes on a different dimension. You can sew it. You can stitch through it on a normal sewing machine. I dabbled in free machining but I never carry anything on. Pewter is the one thing that has stuck with me…and so I add it into everything else.

It’s like colouring in, in 3D. The process of it is very satisfying. It’s relaxing. You know, when they sell colouring books for adults? You’re chilling out and colouring in. It’s like that. Drawing on the metal. It’s just line work really. When I do my classes and teach my courses – that’s how I teach it. It’s just a simple process of drawing and colouring in. It looks like it’s harder than it is. I make a raised line. Then I colour it in. Then I put my patina on it. It darkens the whole thing and then it’s polished to a high shine, with the patina staying in the grooves.

I’m the kind of person that when I want to do something I’ve got to get everything else out of the way first. So, all the other different workshops and things – I had to get them all done and dusted. Then I could start my pewter. I need to be 100% ready – all my tools bought, all my workshops ready. My studio set up. That’s when I’ll start. It took a few years of back and forth to bring pewter and all the tools…but it is finally readily available in the UK, so I finally have everything up and running.

The studio is also my chill out space. If I’m at home, I’ll find 101 other things to do and I’ll never actually work. I commend all the people who’ve started working from home over lockdown. I’m at the studio 7 days a week. Weekends I’ll do family things in the morning and then come in and work for a few hours, then I’ll take stuff home and won’t look at it until I bring it back to the studio the next day.  

I used to teach my workshops in my studio. During COVID I was going out into the passage way and teaching behind screens. I will evolve that and start teaching various workshops online, with a craft box sent out in the post . My workshops are local and for adults but I will be able to extend that to teens, as well as to people all over the UK. Normally the most rewarding thing is doing my workshops. That is amazing for me because I never thought I’d be teaching anybody anything.  I taught people for years doing stuff.  But to me it was always just stuff. This is now a business. It’s a different dimension. I enjoy the teaching part of it.

Promoting is extremely challenging at the moment. I used to do all my workshops in the studio and I used craft markets to market them. I can’t sell my workshops or talk to people about how it’s done. So that’s where it’s impacted greatly, so I have to find another way. Online marketing is a learning curve for me. There are groups that I have joined on Facebook and I have joined online markets.

Online is hard. People can’t touch my work.. It’s a very touchy-feely thing. People walk past the stall and go ooh, ahh and touch it. Where I’m online now – they can’t see and it looks different online as it does in person. When you’re looking at a piece and you’re touching it and turning it over and opening it. I can’t get that across online. Saying that, I am building a small following online and I have a couple of collectors of my artwork, so I’m quite happy about that.

Mel has recently launched her online adult and teen workshops. To find out more about those or to browse her beautiful range of pewter products, visit her website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Sustainable, Clean and Creative Balsall Heath is a series of portraits of local people and projects supported with funding from The Active Wellbeing Society.