What is the purpose of a SNAG conference? Why do people come? What are their expectations? Why do some cease to come? Were their expectations not met? Each conference chairman imprints his/her vision onto the conference. He sets the tone, whether it be festive, intellectual, questioning, self-questioning, informative, demonstrative or social.
A SNAG gathering is a rare thing. For 12 months of the year the average metalsmith labors in a basement studio, coping (in cloistered bliss) with paperwork, slides, deadlines and assorted business complexities. Then the SNAG conference rolls around and hundreds of metalsmiths flock together to prove they are not alone. But always there is some disenchantment. Some grumble it’s not intellectual enough, others complain it is too political, too social and that the same people (academics) are running the show. Other discussions center on the content of Metalsmith or the current polemic between full-time metalsmiths and academics.
SNAG ’88, coordinated by Tim McCreight and held at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, was a different kind of conference. It was SNAG’s 20th Anniversary celebration. Festivity was a major theme, reflection on the past a necessity and talks of the future inevitable. Conclusions and solutions? No. Questioning? Yes. Introspection? Yes. Festivity? Yes. Intellectualism? No time.
Instead, the audience was constantly flooded with one-liners (pithy generalizations posing moral questions), i.e., Why am I me and not you? Who are you—someone who makes things happen, someone who watches things happen or someone who wonders what happened? . . . Life is uncertain; eat dessert first. This moralizing approach, appealing to one’s sense of guilt and values could have been offensive and one might question its use at a conference.
The intent was to send the conferees back to their studios with a new kind of motivation, a stronger sense of self, a raising of consciousness, a rejuvenation of energy, the gusto to be all one can be. Most SNAG conferences employ an alternative approach, one which conveys factual information that provokes and promotes intellectual discussions and that brings newfound depth to an artist’s work. The latter format is expected and looked forward to. Yet, let us examine the merit of the first approach.
Both methods stimulate, one on an intellectual level and one with a sense of “interiorness”: not something that can be pinpointed but felt, not factual but visceral. The introspective point of view is sensitizing. It allows for an opening of the psyche. As a result, barriers are weakened, homogeneity and assurance established; all are in the same boat. The myth of “superiority” (strength based on knowledge and experience) is disbanded. Every artist possesses the same allegiance to the craft. The responsibility is to defy mediocrity.
The format of continuous one-liners allows for introspection instead of showmanship. The result was humanizing. A feeling of ease, warmth, comradery and equality—a community. The debate between academic metalsmiths and full-time jewelers ceased for a small time. Hierarchies were ignored and dismissed (slides were not shoved in the faces of metalsmithing “mafia” dignitaries) and more revealing, less formal discussions began. True celebration could occur; one could relax; one did not have to perform; all intellectual intimidation had been eschewed. A true gift-giving process occurred. The gift was an exposing of our real feelings resulting in a bringing together of people—a bond. The gift of leaving one’s ego at home allowed for festivity without self-consciousness.
So, when David LaPlantz opened the conference with his lecture, “If Who’s On First, Then Where Are You?” he was setting the tone for the conference through his tirade of one-liners, cliches and moral questioning. “Is winning something we try to do to impress others? If that is the only reason to win, I’d rather play another game. I’m not out to impress others or to puff up my own ego. I can do that by winning inside . . . Keep focused on that which is special, unique and vital to your spiritual, intellectual and technical growth. These are the truths to attain and all the rest of life’s riches, including respect from your peers, will be an automatic given. Your spirit will thank you for discovering just who you are working for and who you wish to impress. Is that you? If not, why not?”
David LaPlantz depicted here the type of internal self-questioning that is inevitable from lectures based on questions instead of answers. What continued this tone and its resulting mood (discussed already) was a similarity in approach to didacticism by the lecturers following. Even before the lectures began, the titles alluded to the type of conference that would occur (i.e., “A Self-Examination: Reaching for Spiritual Expression,’Gentle Solitude'” by Hiroko Sato Pijanowski, “The Creative and the Precious” by Howard Evans).
Tim McCreight’s choice to have two out of the eight major lectures given by nonmetalsmiths-Gioia Timpanelli, writer and storyteller, who enlightened as well as entertained, adding to the visceral and festive, and Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, who defined the properties and consequences of the gift-giving, process and explained how a gift establishes bonds among people – showed that the emphasis for the conference was on the visceral and festive, not the technical and intellectual.
The introduction of the tool auction further developed this theme. Each tool was a donation to raise money for SNAG—a gift passed from the isolation of the studio to the interactive environment of the group. Its sale, repossession and return to isolation, brought with it the magic of the gift. The gift had been shared—not hoarded—thus keeping its creative spirit alive. The viability of the group was assured, and pageantry and entertainment were created for the conferees.
Deepening the sense of community and making the experience more humanizing was an admission among the lecturers of their fears and vulnerabilities. David LaPlantz expressed how he was almost crushed by the process of writing his book. He stated that he got so tired that he started liking it. “I liked feeling numb.” Bruce Baker and Patricia Daunis-Dunning admitted how they are still apprehensive before shows.
Hiroko Sato Pijanowski revealed. “Of the approximately 25 students in the department of metalsmithing at that time (Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1966), I was one of the least promising. I was certain that I had chosen the wrong direction, since it seemed obvious that I had no talent in that field.” In general, people are accepting of and believe in what people in positions of leadership say no matter how inconceivable it might seem. Since similar doubts were shared, intimidation was subdued and empathy felt. The leaders of the conference, by admitting their insecurities, heightened the tie, allowing for sharing to occur.
Let’s return to the beginning question: What does one want from a conference? Seeing that it was SNAG’s 20th Anniversary, a festive occasion, the format seemed appropriate. So, it was not intellectual, yet it allowed for a freer atmosphere, bringing communication to a new level. Maybe once in a while we need this cohesiveness so that SNAG can exist and that our work can flourish. To end with a one-liner seems appropriate. Howard Evans stated that it was necessary to “seek out the companionship of the community you find yourself in and improve your ability to stay in trusting contact with it for longer and longer periods of time, asking that you will discover along the path, what you are supposed to make next, where your preciousness lies.”
Lisa Bernfield is a professional jeweler living in Highland Park, IL.