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The Many Layers of Donald Stuart

by Barbara Isherwood - © Metalsmith Magazine - Fall 2004
Someone once called Donald Stuart a Renaissance Man, an that doesn't seem too far from the truth. In a career that has stretched over 35 years, Stuart has mastered the arts of gold and silversmithing, textile weaving, and woodworking. He has taught jewelry-making around the globe, has founded a unique postsecondary jewelry program, and is an acknowledged leader in the craft world. Not content with his long list of achievements, exhibitions, commissions, titles, awards, and accolades, Stuart presses on, creating "Souvenirs," a new body of work that combines his uncanny design sense and signature inlay technique with a personal iconography that is a fresh element in his work.

 

Oceana, 2003
14k gold, Philippine beads, beach pebbles (Costa Rica, Hawaii), lapis lazuli, various inlays including opal, labradorite, chrysocolla, bloodstone pendant 1
1 1/4 x 3 1/8"
Photo: Ron Katz

"Souvenirs" is a series of jewelry objects created using pebbles and beads collected during Stuart's travels around the globe. Geography played a role in Stuart's earliest creations, inspired by the landscape of the far north. From 1969 to 1972, Stuart lived in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island in Canada's Arctic. The task he undertook there sounds formidable - teaching weaving to the Inuit, a people who had no tradition of working with fiber. He was hired because of his studies at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where he had majored in textiles and metals, and minored in wood. As Director of the Weaving Training Project, Stuart established what was to become the largest handweaving studio in Canada, a successful enterprise still in operation today. While on the job he learned to be an administrator, a skill that has served him well in his roles as craft world leader and teacher.

Bracelet, 1994
18k gold, steel, diamonds 3 x 21/4 x 13/8"

The effect of the Arctic sojourn on Stuart's object-making was immense -- the crisp lines, windswept vegetation, and earth tones of the land still resonate in his work more than three decades later. The northern motifs appeared first in his weaving, but then carried on into metals, which became his focus beginning, in 1978. Sometimes the references are overt. A piece of multicolored labradorite evokes the mottled hues of the Aurora Borealis when set with diamonds and nestled in a golden mountain (Starry Night Brooch/ Pendant, 1993). Planes of steel set with round and triangular shaped diamonds echo a brilliant night sky in the clear, cold, northern air (Bracelet, 1994). In other pieces, the influence of the Arctic is less obvious, but just as deeply entrenched. It took an observer to point out to Stuart that the circle that appears so frequently in his work is a stand-in for the Arctic sun. As Stuart points out, the sun is of paramount importance in the far north, where the Land of the Midnight Sun endures six months of darkness.

Starry Night Brooch/Pendant, 1993 18k gold, labradorite, diamonds 2 3/8 x 1 1/2"
Photo: Diamond Information Centre

It was in the Arctic that Stuart first tried inlay, the technique that has become his signature. The resource-rich land provided a wealth of colorful semi-precious stones that the artist felt inspired to incorporate into his jewelry. Having studied weaving and woodworking as well as metals, Stuart was comfortable working with mixed media. However, his knowledge of the centuries-old technique was theoretical rather than practical. Looking at ancient Egyptian jewelry had given him an appreciation of how colored stones could enliven a piece, but he had no experience in creating inlay himself -his training at the Ontario College of Art had been strong on design, but limited in technique due to the rudimentary equipment available at the time. So he taught himself. With hindsight, Stuart laughs at his first crude method of cutting stones, which consisted of "hacking off edges with wire snips, then using sand paper in order to get them to fit." In the late 1970s Stuart went to Labrador to teach jewelry-making at a company that produced cabochon stones. While there he discovered lapidary equipment, and was able to refine his technique considerably.

Years of working with inlay have led to a number of innovations, most notably the setting of slices of tubing into epoxy resin to create areas of geometric design that provide a contrast to the sections of flat colored inlays. Often the tubing is so tiny, one marvels at the patience that must be required to work at such a minute scale. Stuart cites his astrological sign, Virgo, by way of explanation Virgos are typically meticulous and dedicated to perfection.

Filipina, 2003
18k gold, Philippine coral beads, various inlays
large beads 1 3/8 x 1 1/8 x 1"
Photo: Ron Katz

Virgos are also noted for their developed social awareness, and their knowledge of, and interest in education. Whether celestial predetermination or simply coincidence, these qualities fit Stuart to a T. Upon his return from the Arctic in 1972, Stuart began a teaching career that lasted 29 years. He started as an instructor in textiles, metals, and design at Georgian College, in the city of Barrie, one hour north of Toronto. In 1985 he was asked by the dean of the school to develop a Jewelry and Metals Program. The resulting course is Stuart's pride and joy. During a tour of the facilities, he jokingly refers to it as the "Jewelry Empire," a term he came up with when, in deference to the fine art department's need for high ceilings, the jewelry program was moved to the outer perimeters of the college. Stuart made the best of the situation and, through his drive and charisma, both the program's stature and facilities have grown tremendously; today the program is recognized throughout North America as unique. Studies include a paid co-op placement, so graduates enter the field with valuable hands-on experience. In speaking of his graduates, Stuart beams with pride at their achievements, which include numerous international awards. In 2001, he was named Georgian College's first Professor Emeritus, in honor of his exemplary contributions to the college and to his field.

With his illustrious teaching career monopolizing the limelight, does Stuart ever feel that his work as a craftsperson is overshadowed? "That I've been able to balance all of that is very gratifying," says Stuart. However, he does admit to some frustration at what he perceives as a lack of appreciation for teaching. "You're teaching a new generation, developing the future, but there's little recognition for that."

As the sole supporter of his wife and two children for many years, a career in teaching was not an option for Stuart. The only break he took in 29 years was a sabbatical from 1978 to 1981, when he studied for his Master of Fine Arts in silversmithing at the School of American Crafts in Rochester, New York. The return to school was prompted by his decision to give up working in textiles, which no longer excited him, in favor of concentrating on metals. In Rochester, Stuart studied stone setting and casting, and fell madly in love with silversmithing, inspired by his teacher, the Danish silversmith Hans Christensen. He chose a thesis topic that would stretch his skills the creation of a tankard with square corners, which won an award. One of his first efforts in casting also won an award -- his Penannular Brooch from 1979, inspired by Celtic pins. Featuring inlays of agate, caribou antler, tiger's eye, ligmavitae, ebony, jasper, pyrites, and copper ore, the piece illustrates Stuart's skill at combining multiple colors and textures while retaining the simplicity and spare lines of the British and Scandinavian Modern design that has been his prime artistic influence. Winning Best of Show in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Show with this piece was Stuart's first international award, and a significant boost to his confidence.

From the early 1980s on, Stuart's artistic production included numerous pieces made for competitions, and many private and corporate commissions. Stuart loves the challenge of competitions. It is in this realm that his outstanding skill at rendering comes to the fore. "It took me years to develop a system which I think is no-fail," explains Stuart, who has developed a process of simplification that successfully captures the sparkle of the precious materials he relishes. In contrast to the reverse snobbism that eschews gold and diamonds, Stuart takes pleasure in using "luxury" metals and stones. Noting that the cost of his labor is the same whether he's working in brass or 18k gold, Stuart explains, "The truth is, 18k gold is so much more wonderful to work with, it's easier to work with than brass."

Unlike some craftspeople who prefer to delve into their own psyches for artistic material, Stuart cherishes the commissioning process, where his ideas combine with that of the client to create a piece. He tells a story of the commission for a coffee service for Canadian craft connoisseur Joan Chalmers. She at first resisted participating in the design process, simply stating that she wanted it to be the best of Donald Stuart. "You just go ahead and make it," she told him. "Well, then, I won't," was Stuart's reply. "Where I get excitement is coming up with some concepts based on your likes and dislikes, and having you react to those," he told Chalmers. "And you might send me off in a direction I'd never thought of."The resulting work bespeaks a magnificent union of minds and matter. The pyramidal silver forms are echoed by ebony handles, while 14-k gold rods provide a contrasting horizontal element.

Lei Palaoa, 2003
sterling silver, fresh water pearls, various inlays
pendant 1 1/4 x 1 3/8 x 2 3/4"
Photo: Ron Katz

Another important source of commissions has been the church, for which Stuart has designed liturgical vessels, candelabras, crosses, and large wall pieces, including the beautiful Gloria in excelsis, a twenty-five-foot-high dossal created in 1989 for the Benton Street Baptist Church in Kitchener, Ontario. Stuart exercises his facility in multiple media in this colorful work, as layers of brass, copper, aluminum, purple heart, birch, mahogany, and fabric applique soar toward the heavens.

The aspect of human interaction that Stuart enjoys in his commission work is a thread that runs through all his activities. Alongside his teaching, Stuart has accumulated hundreds of hours of volunteering in the service of craft. Tenures on the boards and as an executive of the Canadian Crafts Council, Visual Arts Ontario, the Canadian Jewellers Institute the Royal Canadian Academy of the Art,, the Ontario Crafts Council, and the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) have given him insight into the larger picture of crafts in North America, and allowed him to be an active advocate on behalf of his calling. His efforts have been recognized through the bestowal of such honors as the Order of Ontario, the John Mather Award for Service to the Crafts, admittance into the Royal Academy of Arts, and most recently, the prestigious Order of Canada.

Whereas Stuart speaks volubly and passionately about the trials and triumphs of establishing the jewelry program, his adventures in international volunteering, or the inner machinations of the craft world, he needs some prompting when it comes to talking about his own craft. His motto on his resume expresses his philosophy in that regard: "I want to design and make beautiful objects in such a way that the beauty and craftsmanship speak for themselves." Discussions of his work frequently digress into tales involving people, rather than objects. The creative impulse behind his impeccably designed jewelry and holloware arises from an intuitive level that is perhaps less easily articulated than an anecdote about his days as SNAG president. It seems significant that it is teachers and how they taught (both good and bad), rather than artists and their works, which have left a lasting mark in his memory. People are the reason craft exists, and are foremost in Stuart's mind.

Penannular Brooch, 1979
sterling silver, inlays of agate, caribou antler, tiger's eye, ligmavitae,
ebony, jasper, pyrites, copper ore 3 x 8 1/4"

So what about "Souvenirs," this new body of work that Stuart created based on his travels? Well, there's a significant "people" element here, too. "Souvenirs" grew out of Stuart's international teaching activities. As a volunteer with CESO (Canadian Executive Service Organization), Stuart taught jewelry-making in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, and Lesotho. CESO volunteers are billeted in local homes, and participate in community activities as part of the family. "This is seeing a country like a tourist doesn't see.You may not be able to speak the language but you share the same love," the artist enthuses. Although the facilities he encounters during his assignments may not have modern equipment, Stuart is unfazed. After all, we're taking about a man who still uses a propane torch on occasion. He thanks his first days at the Ontario College of Art for his philosophy of tools: "Doing it with what you have, as opposed to, you have to buy a $30,000 machine." That's how he teaches students today, so that they can still make work without the benefits of a luxuriously equipped studio.

The fond times and new friends garnered through his trips come together in Entre AmisEast / West (2003). Featuring beach pebbles collected in Nova Scotia and California, this necklace hangs together in the form of a lariat, an innovation that Stuart credits to a friend, who looped the piece's stone pendant under and through the central stone disc in order to secure it. Entre Amis showcases Stuart's latest wrinkle on the inlay technique -- setting inlays within inlays. A tiny opal circle sits in another inlaid circle of lapis lazuli, ebony, and miniscule gold spheres, which is in turn set into the work's center piece, a large beach stone that has been hollowed out and lined with 14k gold. Another pebble, also inlaid, drops through the central opening on a steel cable. Stuart gets a kick out of the combination of steel, pebbles, and gold, flying in the face of the hierarchy of materials in a bolder way than he has done before.

The travelogue vein pursued in Entre Amis reappears in the necklaces Lei Palaoa, Filipina, Oceana, and Sea to Sea to Sea, all created in 2003. Lei Palaoa combines geographical references and sculptural form with inlays that occupy the object's surface in a new way. The unusual form, somewhat like a fishhook, was inspired by a traditional type of Hawaiian regal ornamentation seen by Stuart when he was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii. The curved bottom of the cast silver form is dotted with circular inlays, more spaciously and irregularly arranged than his usually tightly knit compositions. On the form's side, a breathtaking section of inlay featuring an intricate pattern of circles echoes the small spheres on the bottom. The inlays on the upper stem are more densely applied, with triangles, rectangles, tube sections, and teardrop shapes fitted together, mosaic fashion. The palette speaks of the sea and the tropics, with shades of blue and green predominating. Chains of seed pearls and silver beads marry the natural and constructed aspects of the piece. Like much of Stuart's jewelry, Lei Palaoa combines beauty with a weighty feel this is a piece that could be worn by either sex.

Filipina showcases coral beads collected in the Philippines. The large red beads are irregular pyramids that have been sanded smooth. Three 18k gold beads of Stuart's creation punctuate the bottom center of the necklace, their forms echoing those of the coral. Stuart's beads are inlaid all around, a process the artist likens to "three dimensional chess," as the curved surface created extra challenges in fitting. "I generally think of an hour to cut any one inlay -- those took several hours." The fastening mechanism, a gold bar and triangle, was designed to be sculptural, to complement the bead forms. Each half is set with tiny inlays that go all the way through -- typical of Stuart, every detail is considered.

Donald Stuart conducting a class in Cebu, Philippines, 2003

Oceana is the most striking piece of the series, pared down in both color and form. Round and wonderfully nubbly off-white beads from the Philippines form a necklace that culminates in a oval-shaped piece of lava from Hawaii, from which a small cube of lapis lazuli and a pebble from Costa Rica are suspended, skewered by an 14k gold rod. Inlay is sparingly applied, with a tiny opal in the center pebble, a miniscule gold sphere in the lapis cube, and a four-sided pyramid inlay of opal, labradorite, chrysocolla, and bloodstone in the bottom pebble. Despite its apparent simplicity, Oceana was technically demanding. As Stuart points out, "There's no magic way of cutting a square in a stone -- I just hacked away at it with my diamond drill and a flex shaft." Making a circle would have been less work, but Stuart doesn't cut corners when it comes to the integrity of his designs.

Now that he has retired from full-time teaching, Stuart plans to spend more time creating work -- or so he says. Already the inner professor has sent him off for more overseas volunteering in the Philippines, and at the time of writing he was preparing to teach an inlay workshop in California organized by colleague Marilyn da Silva. In 2002 Stuart was made a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest honor for lifetime achievements. In their summation of Stuart's career, the Chancellery of the Governor General's office states, "His effect on Canada's arts and crafts industry has been profound and lasting." A significant portion of Stuart's contribution to craft stems from his outgoing perspective and the generosity with which he shares his skills and knowledge. Whether his production increases, or continues sharing the stage with his teaching and volunteering activities, the craft world will only be enriched by his contributions.

Barbara Isherwood is a Toronto-based writer on visual arts.


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