1994 SNAG Conference
8 Minute Read
SNAG '94 was a patchwork of voices. The conference theme, "Transformations: Personal Artistic Evolution", was dedicated to the individual creative experience. As each speaker addressed the broad notion of "Transformation", each imparted a separate agenda: some voices were hopeful, others furtive, and even a few were antagonistic. In recognizing the importance of the individual voice, the conference allowed for some discussion of multi-cultural and outsider agendas. Further, diversity was highlighted by juxtaposing often disparate objects and ideas: technical agendas were countered by philosophical inquiries; economic concerns and business ventures were offered along with folklore and Native American storytelling; jewelry, sculpture, and hollowware were accompanied by eyeglasses, hats, masks, and musical instruments. In spite of this variety, however, some voices were obviously absent, including those of the historian, the critic, the collector, and artists motivated by current political agendas.
My views of the conference were framed by my experiences as an artist and an educator. What attracts me in the world are those things which speak honestly and directly to an issue, which engage through the interrogative rather than the imperative, and which qualify rather than quantify. Seen from this perspective, the conference had some strong moments, most notably that the focus was not SNAG's usual attempt to consolidate divergent opinion into consensus. What surfaced in the web of voices, both spoken and unspoken, were threads of untouchable canons, a few clairvoyant responses, some genuine searching, and a little proselytizing.
The theme "Transformations" implies an assessment and exploration of the changing relationship of self to sell, and to one's artwork, culture, and planet. Gai Gherardi launched into one of the most dynamic and relevant presentations at the conference with a lively description of how she and her partner, Barbara McReynolds, had developed their small eyeglass business into the international design phenomenon, L.A. Eyeworks. Their advertising motto "A Face is Like a Work of Art. It Deserves A Great Frame" is a concise metaphor for how their work has crossed the boundaries between art and design, art and technology, art and industry. Gherardi's presentation was much more than a self-indulgent biography of success: she engaged listeners anecdotally by describing how copyright laws can apply to individual artists, the means by which large scale manufacturing philosophies could apply to small scale production, and ways in which business can become socially and politically conscious. Her voice was an invigorating call for transformation, encouraging artists to push at the boundaries of conventional marketing and manufacturing practices with optimism, humor, and creativity.
Several speakers addressed the topic of "Transformation" from a point of view that was centered on the making of their work. Deb Stoner explained the recent development of her custom-made eyeglass frames and Florence Baker-Wood extended the parameters of wearable art with her presentation of contemporary hats and headgear. Martha Banyas discussed her on-going artistic evolution as a process that is encouraged by direct experience in other countries with other cultures. For example, when she traveled to Bali, Banyas apprenticed with a master mask-maker. She now incorporates many of these new techniques and cultural influences in her jewelry and sculpture. Her talk pointed to many intriguing issues related to multi-cultural interaction, although I would have liked more discussion regarding the similarities between influence and appropriation, the differences between structured learning and osmosis, and how ceremonial accouterment in one cultural context can become independently objectified as Art in another context.
"Transformations" took on a global dimension in a panel discussion entitled "Beyond Decoration", moderated by gallery owner Susan Cummins. The voice of Susan Cummins has long contributed to the field of metalsmithing. She enters the arena with various talents, including that of the scholar, advocate, critic, and contemporary historian. Though her particular voice was substantially diluted by the panel format, she guided the four participants, Keith Lewis, Kiff Slemmons, Sylvia Kennedy, and Donna Schneier, through their maze of concerns. Lewis and Slemmons spoke to complimentary sides of an issue that explored the interrelationship between the jeweler and culture: Slemmons explained ways in which social issues and material culture have inspired her work; Lewis made a crisp analysis of contemporary culture and insisted on the need for his jewelry to infiltrate and subvert. Sylvia Kennedy gave a brief overview of the talismanic function of jewelry among the people of Yemen, and Donna Schneier spoke of her experiences selling jewelry in the contemporary art market, specifically how historical and contemporary jewelry are perceived by her buying public. The subject "Beyond Decoration" was familiar territory for anyone who has ever made, taught, sold, bought, or worn contemporary art jewelry and, as the panel participants extended their dialogue, the focus evolved into a discussion of how a more rapid and meaningful assimilation of art jewelry could be promoted into the culture at large. Though audience participation was sparse, the implied conclusion was the need for more extensive educational outreach.
The role of Metalsmith magazine in this educational outreach, as well as the responsibilities of the publication to SNAG, were the focus of the informal gathering "Meet Frank Lewis, Editor of Metalsmith". The tone of the meeting was straight-forward and energetic, largely because Mr. Lewis, with two years tenure as editor, does not support a single philosophical agenda, but rather, a multi-dialogical one. During the meeting Lewis fielded a host of questions, of both empathetic and antagonistic intent. His answers revealed an umbrella optimism for the future of the magazine. He voiced a genuine concern about the many and varied needs of the organization, and had innovative suggestions as to how the magazine could function in SNAG's multi-dimensional future.
Other conference presentations included Bruce Metcalf's oration, "His Work". This talk included more contemporary critical references than any other presentation at the conference, making it somewhat difficult to follow. Metcalf explained how he both is and is not a Modernist, a Post-modernist, and a populist, in addition to being a teacher, an artist, a craftsman, a jeweler, a writer, and, as well, engaged in art criticism and theory. By implication, Metcalf raised one of the most difficult issues Facing the field: How closely can we ally ourselves with contemporary critique and still acknowledge the perspective allowed us by our history in the applied and decorative arts? While it is true that one can be many things over a period of time, one simply cannot be all things at the same time without incurring some degree of philosophical schizophrenia. Mentioned within the quantity of words, however, were some interesting ideas such as the power of the miniature, the issue of the moral responsibility of the artist, the purpose of heroism, and the balance between freedom and responsibility. But without the time frame to develop these ideas, they were reduced to being distractions. There seemed to be simply too much said in too little time.
The subject of transformation was the spontaneous point of departure in the work of both Martha Glowacki and Chris Ramsay. Their concluding presentation was a split podium, and they each discussed their respective bodies of sculpture through slides, quotations, and sensitive, intelligent commentary that spoke directly to the work. Both artists derive influence from the physical world around them, and spoke of themselves as a filter for the profound experience of their relationship with Nature and Culture. Glowacki's studies of the history of science, particularly astronomy, cartography, metallurgy, and horticulture, find their way into her sculpture through individual elements that she orchestrates into intriguing Poetic narratives. [see "Measure and Alchemy: The Curiosities of Martha Glowacki", this issue, Ed.] Chris Ramsay's sculpture evolves as he responds to his immediate surroundings. He is a collector of fragments which he enshrines with photo-etched drawings that commemorate the physical world as a part of a larger spiritual cosmology. While the appearance of each artist's work differs significantly from the other, their sources are the same, thereby fostering a meaningful comparison of their separate artistic evolution.
An important part of acknowledging SNAGT broad spectrum was the quantity of artwork presented in the form of exhibitions and slides. Given the infrequency of metals galleries and exhibitions in most major cities, the SNAG conference has become an important visual resource for contemporary metalwork. Co-coordinators Christine Clark and Megan Corwin are due enormous congratulations for their Herculean efforts in orchestrating a total of nine different gallery venues for metalwork. Curatorial interests were diverse, with exhibition themes ranging from "Op Art: Eyeglasses by Jewelers", organized by Deb Stoner, to "Contemporary European Jewelry", curated by Charon Kranston, and "Borne With a Silver Spoon", organized by Rosanne Raab. In addition, the SNAG conference committee curated the invitational "Emphasis Sculpture" at Blackfish Gallery, and the Contemporary Crafts Gallery featured the "North American Juried Student Show", which was expanded this year from a slide presentation to an exhibition format, offering a more extended professional experience to student members. To further the variety, more than half of the presentations included slides of contemporary American metalwork, with one four-carousel extravaganza by Micki Lippi entitled "Northwest Metals - The Here and Now".
"Transformations: Personal Artistic Evolution" was dedicated to the voices of individuals within the larger context of the field and, by extension, to the significance of the personal within the dynamic of the group. A view of SNAG as an organization in transition and attempting re-definition emerged through these varied and distinct voices. Though this emergent definition was not neat, linear, or singularly conclusive, it seemed an honest and realistic assessment of a group of individuals recognizing the strength, resilience, and importance that is inherent in diversity.
Beverly Penn is a metalsmith who resides in San Marcos, Texas.
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