In a promotional flyer from the early 1950s. Art Smith offered a “fanciful ring of space, silver and gold.” The main ingredients in his work, from about 1946 until his death in 1982 at the age of 65, were sheet, wire and “space . . . which I use very accurately, very concretely . . . somewhat because of my orientation towards designing that way but also as a very cheap component. . . . You can find it and make it tangible.”1
The emphasis on space and its implication of human structure is essential to be understanding of Smith’s design. “A piece of jewelry,” he said, “is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. . . . Like line, form and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.” The question is “not how do bracelets go, but what can be down with an arm?”2
Art Smith had graduated from Cooper Union in 1945, where he was exposed to three-dimensional objects (sculpture and constructions) for the first time. Having been encouraged by a dean to major in architecture because he could easily find a job in the nondiscriminatory civil service, he rejected this proposition because he didn’t want to abandon the other artistic discipline. Although he had an instinct for the design of exciting structural form, mathematics escaped him. Ever-present was the conflict of whether to give in to the niche provided for the Black man in mid-century American society or to make a place for himself in the New York art world.
Constructions interested Art Smith more than painting. He wanted to “create something that was tangible, not just illusion.”3 Entertaining and then abandoning thoughts of going into advertising, he took a part-time job as Crafts Supervisor at the Children’s Aid Society in Harlem, where he would design prefabricated objects for the children to assemble. However, attendance was poor and the trustees of the organization were reluctant to explore ways of making the program truly effective. After four years, he quit. But while there he had met another teacher, a black woman named Winifred Mason, who was to be instrumental in his career. Mason was a jeweler and after seeing her work, Smith became very excited about the possibilities for creative expression through jewelry. When she offered him a job in the shop that she was to open on Third Street in Greenwich Village, he jumped at the opportunity.
In the Village he met other artists and metalsmiths who were to influence and encourage him. Always a great lover of jazz, Smith would go with painter Charles Sebree and choreographer Talley Beatty to hear Billie Holiday sing in a club around the corner from the Third Street shop. Ralph Ellison, Gordon parks and countless other writers and intellectuals, both Black and White, were customers and friends. A mecca for both craftsman and consumer alike, Greenwich Village was already home to several other innovative metalsmiths: Paul Lobel, Sam Kramer, Arthur King and the Rebajes brothers. Lobel, actually, offered Smith a job when he eventually became disenchanted with Mason. Although he admired Lobel a great deal, he decided it was time to strike out on his own.
Upon leaving Winnie Mason, Smith opened a tiny shop on Cornelia Street, in Little Italy, where he remained for four difficult years, subjected to both racial prejudice because he was a Black man and social antipathy because he was an artist. His shop windows were broken, apprentices heckled when they came to work and his very life was threatened in a hit-and-run attempt. The Civil Rights Congress came to his aid after his plight was publicized in The New York Times, resulting in his store receiving police protection. But the time was right to move back to the artists’ colony in the Village. With financial backing from Craftsmen’s Equity, an organization dedicated to maintaining high standards in the craft field (of which he was president), he turned his energies to a new, and what was to become, permanent space at 140 West 4th Street.
By this time his reputation had spread, due mostly to his inclusion in the second national exhibition of contemporary jewelry, held in 1948 in the Everyday Art Gallery at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The purpose of the Everyday Art Gallery was to promote good design in ordinary objects. This exhibition included 282 pieces of jewelry by 30 craftsmen. The Spring 1948 issue of the Walker Art Center’s publication, Everyday Art Quarterly (later renamed Design Quarterly) lamented the fact that although innovative design and new materials had entered the realm of other common objects, such as dwellings, furniture, pottery, fabrics and clothing, jewelry had remained tediously the same. “In jewelry . . . hardly a change is noticeable. A search of jewelry stores reveals only the same stars, clusters, rosettes, floral motifs, and other traditional shapes that have been used for centuries.”4 “Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars,” as this exhibition was entitled, traveled around the country for two years, thereby stimulating widespread interest in contemporary handcrafted jewelry.
History had been made two years earlier, however, when the landmark exhibition, “Modern Jewelry Design 1946-47,” at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, created a watershed in the appreciation of modern jewelry. This exhibition displayed the work of 26 makers (seven of whom were artists working primarily in another medium) “whose design show that the artist had considered the characteristics of the materials used and made us aware of their intrinsic beauty in contemporary terms.”5
Paul Lobel, one of the jewelers represented in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, whose shop was a few stores away from Smith (at 130 West 4th Street) and whom Smith admittedly admired as previously mentioned, exerted a strong stylistic influence on him. In Lobel’s work, Smith saw formal freedom.
American studio jewelry design, in its seminal stages (c. 1936) had continued the trend of antihistoricism and rejection of traditional design conventions begun by Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement some 40 years earlier. A pioneering spirit spurred craftsmen on in their exploration of dynamic form, asymmetry and ornamental approach to structure. Those principles coupled with a creative observation of the images seen in the modern art movements just preceding and contemporary with it”6, led post-World War II studio jewelers to redefine jewelry.
Fundamental to this new approach was a respect for material. Form was no longer to be imposed on metal. The integrity of the material and the concurrent empirical exploration of its formal possibilities were to be primary avenues of investigation. Cheaper materials were used, such as brass, copper, nickel, chrome and stainless steel. Technique was subordinated to expression, which often produced a “primitive” result. Just as the tribal metalsmith learned the limits of his craft by trial and error, so did the modern studio jeweler. Just as the Western European metalsmithing tradition had conventionalized technique, the modern metalsmith rejected that principle, as such. This is not to say that he was purposefully sloppy, only that craftsmanship, per se, was irrelevant. And when one perceives a piece of jewelry made by Alexander Calder, Harry Bertoia, Sam Kramer, Ed Wiener, Paul Lobel or Art Smith, the expressive energy—the “hand” of the craftsman—is evident.
Biometric forms, as seen in the painting and sculpture of the Surrealists were appropriated and reinterpreted in the metal imagery of Art Smith. The huge silver cuff bracelet comprised of two undulating masses superimposed one upon the other, brings to mind the amorphous shapes used by Miró and Arp. The duet of forms seems to slither amoebalike around each other, attached securely at some points, while at others the upper mass strains to free itself. The whole projects the characteristics of some primeval entity. Imagining the bracelet on a wrist, the ends would curve away from the human element, negotiating its protoplasmic “escape.” The areas where the silver is curved most deeply contain dramatic negatives spaces—to be filled in by a forearm; air replaced by skin—always a strong element in Smith’s design. “Things should really play with each other and they should play with the body. It should be fun, it should be an exploitation. It should be an investigation. A good piece of jewelry literally caresses the body and fondles it and as I say, plays with it . . . it enjoys itself and it enjoys you and you enjoy it.”7
By drawing with wire in space, Smith created graceful neckpieces, intensely asymmetrical yet visually balanced. Tension was produced by an uninhibited linearity, perhaps arising from the unconscious mind as in the “automatic writing” of the Surrealists. Curves of silver encircle the neck and are then punctured by pendant spheres of rock crystal. In the “scribble” neckpiece, the closure is incorporated into the overall design by providing the necessary counterpoint to the hanging stone and echoing the linear element from which it hangs. A “question mark” grips the neck from which a clear quartz ball dangles, counterbalanced by a smaller stone at the top end.
Smith had a flair for the theatrical. He often designed for the dance companies of Talley Beatty, Pearl Primus and Claude Marchant. There were always special challenges involved in such jewelry, as the pieces had to be large but light enough not to encumber the dancers. Very often costumes had to be changed frequently, so great care had to be accorded to the fasteners. The jewelry had to be worn udner abnormal conditions—to withstand somersaults and the like. Additionally, the pieces had to fit into a narrative context like the costumes. However, frustrations notwithstanding, the moving body had always been the armature upon which Art Smith, most satisfactorily, hung his jewelry.
As mentioned earlier, when any maker approaches metal empirically, he allows the materials and tools to dictate form, and the result will be visual phenomena that the untrained eye might read as “primitive” in character. This is not to say that direct exploitation of metal’s properties causes unsophisticated jewelry but jewelry that seems basic and primal upon first inspection. Closer scrutiny reveals, however, ingenious methods of connection and conscious technical display, as in the “loop” neckpiece. The whole consists of intertwined S-shape units, the bottom of each becoming a flattened open loop placed perpendicular to the body, and the top a row of parallel hammered tongues. Technique is used as an element of design in its proud display. Smith wants us to know how he forged this piece. The small flattened edges stand parallel to the neck, which they partially encircle, providing a counterpoise to the knife-edge loops sweeping across the chest.
Reminiscent of ambira or African “hand piano” is a cuff bracelet made from copper sheet and brass wire. A single, round-edge copper rectangle was cut to within about ½” of the edge; the two halves were splayed in opposite directions, then curved towards each other to enclose the wrist. Oxidation emphasizes the recesses on top of the bracelet. Brass wires, their ends flattened, pierce the copper and gently curve to complete the cuff. The overall effect is one of tribal strength. Allusions are made to the primitive, both in the simplicity of a direct technical approach and the humble material used, as well as in the anthropological associations. Yet the juxtaposition of solid with vacuum and mass with line and suggestions of human skeletal structure leave the viewer with a very sophisticated product.
Never wanting to be identified with any particular style or technique, Smith explored fused forms and textural effects, as well as plain wire and sheet. He abhorred mannerisms gimmicks and was, reportedly, thrilled when a friend commented that a piece “didn’t look like him.” His foray into fused metal was, however, restrained when one compares it to Sam Kramer or Ibram Lassaw and in many bracelets and earrings there is a staunch linearity. The earrings, especially, are figural in character, the end blobs representing appendages or joints, the whole making reference to bones.
Finger rings were an area that Smith researched completely. “What could I do in and around the finger, not just on the finger; what could I do in relation to a hand? . . . You have to call [these ring] hand decorations.”8 One of the most ingenious engineering feats was a three-part ring designed for a customer with arthritis. The three rings, connected by chains, add poignancy and dignity to distorted joints. The human structure fascinated him in its contorted as well as natural presence.
Smith wanted to create big, bold rings. Very often stones would travel up the hand or across three fingers. The effect he wanted to achieve was as if someone had dipped a sticky hand into a batch of stones and their random placement, when the hand emerged, formed the ring’s configuration. Smith found calmness in stones; he chose them for the quiet energy they generated, for his emotional response to them. They were almost always semiprecious, often flawed or defective. He created “families” of stones in one piece. If he utilized precious stones it was usually for a commissioned work, which he did not enjoy as much as following his own muse, unless the stone or person was particularly exciting to him. Among his most noteworthy commissions was a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt, presented to her by the Peekskill NAACP, and a pair of cufflinks for Duke Ellington, which incorporated the first five notes of “Mood Indigo.”
In 1969 Smith was given a one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the American Craft Museum), and in 1970 was included in “Objects: U.S.A.,” the Johnson Collection. He therefore enjoyed a certain amount of recognition while he was still alive. He was invited to lecture and exhibit his work at institutions around the country, such as Bennington College, Indiana University, Brookfield Craft Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Staten Island Museum of Art and Sciences. In addition, due to the traveling nature of several museums exhibitions in which he was represented throughout his career, his work became nationally known. Several regional galleries and department stores carried his jewelry, although he found it far more satisfying to sell solely through his own shop and to devote his time and energy to creating jewelry instead of to managing a business.
Never on to follow fashion’s dictates, he did benefit from style because his jewelry was always designed for the body—very wearable, yet dramatic. When large earrings became popular, for example, he gained many new customers, who remained even when the trend was over. They were “hooked” to his jewels that made a new kind of personal statement, that depicted the wearer as adventurous and in touch with her body and its visual presence. In 1979, Smith developed heart trouble and because of ill health as forced to close his shop.
What struck me, in listening to several former customers discuss their patronage, in conjunction with the Hatch-Billops Collection’s Art Smith project9, was the close friendship which often developed between them, how Smith would invite customers to the studio at the back of the shop to have a snack and a conversation with him while he worked. The radio was always on as he shared his other passion: music. He was a member of the Duke Ellington Society until his death, and, certainly, his jewelry can be viewed as a visualization of the rhythms, melodies, harmonies and balance of his beloved jazz. Mel Tapley, in Art Smith’s obituary in the Amsterdam News, March 6, 1982, wrote, “. . . his . . . creations . . . had [the] elegance, creativity and distinction of an Ellington composition.”
Arthur Smith was a man who grew up in a period in American history when achievement for a member of a minority group was an uphill battle. His father had been a militant in his own day, an officer in the Marcus Garvey movement and felt that he was “a maker of destiny.”10 Brought up by a loving and supportive mother, Smith felt, early on, that he was different from his peers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He liked school and had ambition, aspiring to more than a practical but demeaning job. “A good job for a Negro, in those days was an usher at the Paramount of a porter at A.S. Beck.”11 He always wanted to be an artist but didn’t want to go to a Negro college. Although he wasn’t philosophically a nihilist (militancy was suppressed in those days), he railed against social injustice and the concept of segregation. Without money for higher education, he applied for, and was awarded a scholarship to Cooper Union. There were six Black students in the entire school, and, because of the tenor of the times, they always felt as if they were second-rate. He always praised Cooper Union, however, as a school that encouraged innovative ideas and not simply mimicry of the past.
Arthur Smith was a self-taught metalsmith. His years with Winifred Mason gave him the technical skills necessary to practice his craft while his innate sense of how to combine form and space resulted in his art. Understanding of the body and the possibilities for its embellishment gave rise to his jewelry. There are few jewelers who have used the human silhouette so effectively in creating three-dimensional wearable forms as Art Smith. He drew inspiration from anatomy—bodily structure. He reflected it, took off on it, made allusions to it, added to it, went further than it, at times laughed at it, but consistently respected and applauded it.
The author wished to thank Charles Russell, Camille Billops and Yvonne O’Neal for giving so generously of their time and resources.
Toni Lesser Wolf is a jewelry historian, lecturer, curator and writer living in New York City.