Capturing the Fragility of Nature

MONTREUIL, France — With fewer than 600 followers on Instagram, no website and not even 10 exhibitions to date, it is not surprising that few people know Julie Hamisky’s name.

But Ms. Hamisky prefers her art to take the spotlight anyway.

Her specialty is electroplating, a process she learned from her maternal grandmother, the celebrated French sculptor Claude LaLanne, who died in 2019.

Traditionally, electroplating involves plunging organic matter — usually flowers — into a galvanic bath of copper sulfate, a mix of liquid and electrical current that coats the items in copper, effectively freezing them in time. Ms. Lalanne used electroplating to create floral jewelry, which Ms. Hamisky does, but she also uses the process to embellish designs like mirrors, sconces and chandeliers.

Ms. Hamisky, 47, grew up in the area south of Paris, only about 20 miles from her grandparents’ home, so she visited often (her maternal grandfather was François-Xavier LaLanne, another noted sculptor). But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s, after art school in Paris and a year’s study in Mexico, that she began a 20-year apprenticeship with her grandmother that seemed as rigorous as it was free-spirited.

“Sometimes she would let you do the things you wanted — that was cool, that was easy,” Ms. Hamisky said. “But sometimes you’d come and there was no time for tea or talking and it was straight to the studio and working.”

Today, Ms. Hamisky is based in the growing artists’ hub of Montreuil, a Parisian suburb, where she lives with her husband, Darius Metcalf, and their two daughters. (Mr. Metcalf is the son of the sculptor James Metcalf, who has been credited with introducing Ms. Lalanne to electroplating. In the 1950s, they both lived in the renowned artist community of Impasse Ronsin in Paris’s Montparnasse district.)

Ms. Hamisky’s studio is strewn with examples of her work, all petrified to permanence: begonias and passion flowers in antique pink finishes, full heads of broccoli covered in electric green patinas, and bundles of lilacs and aster frozen in dusty purple copper.

The artist explained each piece in turn, from a small bunch of buttercups dipped in gold to a large mirror frame of wisteria branches laid on the floor, a work-in-progress that is a private commission.

Creating such specimens is about “catching the fragility and ephemerality” of their original forms, Ms. Hamisky said, preserving each wrinkle, fold, vein and imperfection. The process starts with the right flower or piece of produce, which Ms. Hamisky usually buys at Rungis market, the sprawling wholesale market in the Parisian suburbs where many of the city’s restaurants are known to source their ingredients.

Ms. Hamisky said she has become something of an expert on how to spot a fresh flower (“everything has to be firm, watery”), and once her subjects are selected, a kind of race against time begins.

When working with flowers, the first step is to thread copper wire up the interior of the stems to facilitate the passage of electricity. One slip, and she risks losing petals — but “with time, you learn to recognize which way you can go,” she said.

To further enhance conductivity, she then sprays the flowers with a thin layer of silver, another exacting task. “The moment you put the silver on, you’re already in a kind of anxiety because it can wilt or have a reaction — it’s acetone and very chemical,” she said. “I always have tension in my shoulder because I’m spraying carefully, but also need to do it quickly. It’s so delicate — you spray, and you pray.”

Once the flowers are plunged into the 200-liter bath, Ms. Hamisky introduces two to eight amperes of electricity. “I’ve learned with time to be patient and not too anxious — because if you move, the flower will get a bad shape,” she said. “It can really ruin the work you’ve been doing for hours.”

She credits her grandmother for that knowledge, as, she said, Ms. Lalanne often removed the flowers prematurely. “It would have been better to leave it longer,” she said. “But she had so many projects on at the same time and was impatient.”

While the freezing of the flowers usually happens within an hour, Ms. Hamisky said it is best to keep them in the bath for at least one to four days, to achieve the best results. She also plays with the intensity of the current, depending on how many pieces are in the bath and how precise she wants to be with layer upon layer of copper.

A pump keeps the galvanic liquid moving, so the copper molecules can “joyfully go, swimming everywhere,” Ms. Hamisky said. But it is rather loud, and she has been known to turn it off at night because “I can’t stand it any more,” she said with a laugh.

After galvanization, she uses a propane torch to burn away the remaining organic matter inside the copper coating. (If that wasn’t done, the galvanized matter would flake off over time, which is especially unpleasant for jewelry worn on the skin.) Sometimes Ms. Hamisky actually has to cut the piece in half to clean it out, then solder the two sides back together again.

Brass rings or rods then may be soldered on if Ms. Hamisky is making jewelry, and the entire piece is plunged into the bath for a few hours to achieve a final, seamless finish coat.

Finally, more heat is applied to oxidize the copper, followed by a plunge into cold water, producing colors that range from blue and yellow to purple and red, depending on the heat.

There has been little change in the electroplating process since her grandmother’s time, Ms. Hamisky said, although she has added her own flourishes. For example, she had galvanized lilacs made four times larger on a 3-D printer and then used them to create a pink-tinged chandelier.

As painstaking as the process may be, “it’s magical,” Ms. Hamisky said. “I’d do it and again and make more and more. Just the process alone is already very creative.”

That may be welcome news for Ms. Hamisky’s growing clientele. “Julie’s work is exciting because it continues along the trajectory of Claude LaLanne,” Edith Dicconson, senior director at the Kasmin Gallery in New York, said in a phone interview. But, “she has a singular voice that she’s really developing.”

The gallery has scheduled an exhibition of Ms. Hamisky’s work for the end of 2023, although the precise dates are not yet available.

Ms. Hamisky acknowledges she is “a little bit more drastic on technique” than her mentor. “Claude would say: ‘Let’s leave it at that stage, it’s good enough.’ But I prefer to go further — I’m really careful about things being done well, to last in time.

“Claude had worked so long and so much that she had the experience. She didn’t need more time on a piece,” Ms. Hamisky added. “I’m trying to let my imagination speak and not just follow exactly what she was doing.”

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