This article is a review by Matthew Hollern of the 1992 SNAG Conference held in Providence, Rhode Island on June 17 – 20, 1992.
The SNAG conference convened this year with an agenda entitled “American Metalsmithing: A Diversity of Intent,” and diverse it was. The 1992 conference included lectures and slide presentations that were well researched and professionally presented but did not make up an agenda of any discernible intent. The selection of presentations was markedly different this year, with the obvious absence of technical papers and retrospectives.
Jan Yager led off the conference with a discussion of her education at RISD under John Pripp, her introduction to industry and manufacturing technologies in Providence and her own successful business. She closed with an appeal for artists to interact with industry for “one percent for the arts” within industry and for greater advocacy for art education. Yager was a late addition to the agenda, replacing David Macaulay, author of The Way Things Work. The next presentation, Carol Green’s graduate thesis on “souvenir Spoons of the 1890s: Artifacts of Popular Culture,” used spoons to discuss the material culture of the period. Edward S. Cooke, Jr., presented “Beyond Style and Technology: New Perspectives on American Silver 1870 – 1920,” a very well documented discussion and refutation of the theories of Ruskin and Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Cooke discussed the importance of understanding the object within its own context and argued that there was a coherent and logical progression of styles led to by the return to mechanization of the 1920s.
Allred M. Weisberg gave a very entertaining history of Providence, from the triangle of trade (molasses-rum-slaves) and the acquisition of wealth, to the arrival of silversmiths and the evolution of Quaker Providence, to the jewelry manufacturing capital that it is today. He also gave a brief and funny history of the “Gods of Goldsmithing.” Jeannine Falino of the Boston Museum of Fine Art discussed.
American silver between the wars. Her presentation emphasized the firms that stayed in business during the period and the reasons for their success. The discussion of the manufacturers, industrial designers and machine technology demonstrated the ability of firms to succeed by feeding on the ideas generated by the individual. A case in point was Chase Brass and Copper’s rip-off of the 1934 Saarinen spherical coffee urn.
In the continuation of the Emerging Artists series from past conferences, a student slide show was presented to showcase the diversity of work from the student sector. It was organized, juried and presented by students from the Northeast. The work was innovative, well made and beautifully presented through image melts backed up by an instrumental soundtrack. It would have been complete and perfect had subtitles been used to allow the audience to know the name of each artist.
Joyce Scott, a performance artist and sculptor, was the most original addition to the traditional SNAG agenda. She combined performance and podium to deliver a potent presentation on three generations of Afro-American artists. Her songs, stories and slides distinguished her lecture as a performance piece.
In a crush of bad scheduling, the final afternoon ran 3 hours straight through, taking much of the punch from three of the most significant and influential lectures. Beverly Penn’s presentation of “Narrative in Contemporary American Metalsmithing” was a very thorough examination in three parts: allegory, series, and words/text and images. It included discussion of the work of Fred Woell, Bob Ebendorf, Bruce Metcalf, Susan Hamlet and many others. Penn spoke of the resurgence of narrative and many artists’ return in recent decades to life as a source for art.
Sean Licka’s anticipated paper, “A Critical and Historical Look at Metalsmith Magazine,” was disappointing. The use of slides of Gold Dust, Goldsmith’s Journal and Metalsmith covers was an unnecessary distraction to a demanding presentation. Moreover, the topic deserved a forum for discussion beyond the interpretation that Licka presented. The presentation would have been much more effective as a panel discussion with Licka as presenter and moderator. When the floor was opened to questions and comments, only one was made. It was an opportunity lost to involve the membership in an important subject.
Jan Brooks Loyd, speaking on critical inquiry in the crafts, called for divergent forms of discourse, interdisciplinary discussion and the breakdown of boundaries between design, technical, intellectual and critical points of view. A second important subject lost its punch and potential due to bad scheduling. Loyd’s paper would have elicited more response had it been scheduled in an earlier slot of greater length. She too could have benefited from the presentation/panel discussion format.
While the lecture series suffered from lack of direction and good scheduling, the always popular tours and exhibitions benefited from the resources of Providence. The Fortunoff “Silver: New Forms and Expressions III” exhibition was again held in conjunction with the conference. This year’s show was more polarized in quality than the previous two and included recent works by metalsmiths from six decades. A reception at the Rhode Island School of Design museum was held to view the Gorham Silver Collection, an exhibition of over one thousand pieces, including a 740-piece dining service. Donald Friedlich organized a series of tours of the jewelry manufacturers for which Providence is famous. One tour featured a comprehensive walk-through of B.A. Ballou and discussion of the manufacturing of finished jewelry, findings and their facilities. The tour also included a stop at the Providence Jewelry Museum and demonstrations at the plating laboratories of Technic Inc., where a recently developed noncyanide bright silver was presented.
Part of the reason that the conferences are well attended is the occasion to get together with colleagues and friends and enjoy the program. It is an effective means to bring the membership together, exchange ideas and gather information. It is also a forum to promote discussion and accomplish specific goals. Each year we have the opportunity to discuss the state of the field, education, new technology and commercial practices, and too often we don’t. It appears that we lay the burden of determining the emphasis of each conference on the parry who volunteers to host it. Conferences would be of greater significance and influence were they held with the intent to accomplish something specific, as political conventions are held to establish a platform. Too often they are like turning on PBS without looking at the TV listings; you know the program will be educational, but you don’t know what it will be about.
Matthew Hollern is an assistant professor of metals and jewelry at the Cleveland Institute of Art.