Ettagale Blauer: Soul Searching at 7000

We invited Ettagale Blauer, formerly New York Editor for Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone, to attend the 1986 Society of North American Goldsmith’s (SNAG) conference at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and to provide an outsider’s point of view. Here is her opinion on the conference.

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The forces of good and evil jousted throughout the 1986 SNAG conference held on the campus of Northern Arizona University in the cool, thin air of Flagstaff but the designation of good and evil depended entirely on the participant’s own point of view. As usual, “art” and business were the opposing factions: after three days of seminars. panels and a great deal of talk, both organized and informal, the gap between the two sides had widened even further. While honest differences of opinion make for lively discussion, this particular ongoing argument has become both entrenched and tedious, and threatens the very future of the organization. Accommodating two groups so diametrically opposite in their notions of why SNAG exists may not be possible: one sad but likely result will be a dropping out of members who find their needs unmet while the battle rages on or who simply tire of hearing this same argument, year after year.

While the sparring continues unabated, another split was proposed. Not only is the “art” faction in opposition to the business faction, even going so far as to see a “taint” in the act of selling one’s creations, it now demands to know, is it “art” (which is good) or “craft” (which is not). According to this faction within a faction, it’s not enough to make beautiful jewelry, the pieces must be imbued with significance, with earthshaking meaning. This need can only be certified by the artist’s inner thought process, which must follow certain specified lines, according to the speaker who proposed this idea.

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Meanwhile, the jewelers continue to create, to produce innovative work. Three among them offered views of what’s happening in the field today. Donald Friedlich’s slide show of 11 jewelers’ work started things rolling; Vernon Reed’s visual presentation of his own explorations into cybernetics moved things along in a dazzling new direction and Michael Goods heartfelt talk on his philosophy as a production jeweler provided a direct refutation to the “don’t sell” faction.

Professionalism, or the lack of it, is the key element that will make or break SNAG and this theme was present throughout the conference. The conference indeed is a microcosm of SNAG today, although, as an event, it is far more successful in attracting attendees than the organization itself. More than 350 people turned up in Flagstaff tor the meeting. According to some highlights from a membership survey presented by SNAG president Michael Croft at the opening session, the entire organization comprises only 1700 people. That is a spectacularly high proportion of members attending an annual convention.

But where are the rest of the metalsmiths who should be members of SNAG? Those missing members could contribute the dollars needed to begin purchasing professional services: to promote Metalsmith magazine; to pay writers more for articles; to fund the myriad activities of any professional organization. And where are the subscribers to the magazine? Other than the members of SNAG, there are only an additional 2000 subscribers. There should be at least three or four times that many. With additional subscribers, advertisers would find the magazine a more appealing buy. SNAG has existed for over 10 years, long enough to have decided on its mission in life. It’s long past time to concentrate on fulfilling that mission.

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One obvious way would be to release some of the statistics from that very interesting membership survey [see Fall, 1986 Metalsmith, p. 57]. Perhaps SNAG could take a page from Stefan Aletti’s seminar, given twice at the conference: How to promote yourself and your work; how to find a market; how to write a press release. With every seat taken at each of the two sessions, it’s clear that members are eager to make a business of making jewelry. Only those supported by the academic world can afford to ignore the realities of the marketplace. Offering work to the public does not taint it: as Michael Good said, “If you choose teaching, you divorce yourself from the world. In the academic, community, they want to protect themselves from the reality of the world.

There is nothing wrong with making a connection with the world. It does not have to be a giving up.” On the contrary. Good believes that only the true artist, with a clear vision of himself and his work, can successfully enter the commercial world. We no longer have patrons in the classical sense, such as when Russian czars supported the work of Faberge; instead, we have hundreds of patrons called customers. Every time they purchase a piece of work, they are making exactly the same statement as Czar Nicholas did when he commissioned Faberge to make another Easter egg. The customer admires your work and pays for it. What is all the discussion about? And what else is the university that pays Bruce Metcalf or Brent Kington (two of the panelists who discussed art and crafts and who were virtually arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin) but a patron that permits them to create other work? Is it arrogance or ignorance that leads Bruce Metcalf to insist that jewelers take their esthetics from the art magazines, from the vocabulary of modern art when he says. “A piece should have a deep philosophy. A piece should change another person’s thinking. Just making a piece look good is a naive view. It does not ask: what are we doing? What is the purpose of being a jeweler in this country today? What can you do besides selling your work?” And finally, “Is the function of art to please or to disturb?”

While that’s valid question for a painting or piece of sculpture, it’s a heavy burden indeed for a piece of jewelry. And one has to ask if there was ever a period during which jewelers made jewelry that was not intended to be used? In informal discussions following the Metcalf, Kington and Gary Griffin panel, I pursued the thought that perhaps these artists were so against jewelry being merely wonderful, decorative and salable not because they were accepting money for their art, but because jewelry takes on the wearer’s own style and personality. Unlike painting or sculpture, jewelry is always changed by the wearer’s choice of dress style or color; her shape and the color of her skin; the other pieces she wears with it. I think the “art” faction cannot bear seeing this interaction with their work and so turn either to pure sculpture or to jewelry that is too big or too difficult to wear. That the panel could seriously debate the question, “Is it okay for an object to have a utilitarian function” made it clear that this idea of wearer interaction surely grated on their relined sensibilities.

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While some people left the panel discussion stimulated by the talk about art and craft, many more left disgruntled and visibly angry. The talk did not stimulate them, it left them depressed. The absolute antithesis of the panel’s notions of art versus business was provided on the final day of the conference by goldsmith Michael Good. His lecture topic “Survival Skills for the Jeweler/Metalsmith” could have led to a nuts and bolts discussion of money, marketing and promotion, along the lines of Aletti’s talk; instead, Good offered the audience a much broader, basic philosophy: the essence of what drives him as a creative person.

For Good, everything revolves around the artist’s continuing questioning, a talent that is usually destroyed in conventional schooling. He noted ”You are born curious, but from the beginning, the sense of curiosity is trampled on. The essence of art is people’s curiosity and trying to find out who you are. That is the primal question. The ecstasy from learning comes only from asking a question.” But school demands answers rather than questions. The artist is in a continual struggle. “You decide what is art when you see something that moves you. If you want to know art, start with yourself. If you do things with a purpose, you will leave a trial behind.” Rather than shun the world, Good says, “Use the public to train your sensitivity. You can sell anything if you keep integrity in your work.”

Presentations at the conference ranged from the desultory to the inspiring. In the former category was ”New Possibilities for the Jewelry Designer.” The various panelists’ views simply floated out over the audience disconnected one from the other. Some were optimistic: panel moderator Doug Steakley suggested that with 10,000 jewelry stores in California, there’s certainly a place for a great deal of the jewelry and the designers at the conference. Some cheered on the audience: Carolyn Benesh of Ornament magazine said. “If you weren’t making it, we (the magazine) wouldn’t be making it.” Gallery director Liz Rueven went on and on and on about how to deal with a gallery, particularly her gallery. And Gary Griffin dourly commented on the position of line artists in art galleries.

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Ironically, this presentation followed Donald Friedlich’s lively slideshow “American Jewelers, The New Generation.” Friedlich concentrated on jewelers who were making a living from selling their jewelry, in almost in all cases after struggling to achieve financial viability. (Although he said he had chosen the 11 because none of them taught, inexplicably he included one who does indeed teach part-time to support her jewelry work.) The jewelry was beautifully presented and the talk was much more than just a slide show because Friedlich had interviewed each of the 10 (plus himself) and included some of the negatives the metalsmiths had overcome to reach their present positions.

There came up during the conference a phrase from the U.S. space program—pushing the edge of the envelope. As used in Tom Wolfe’s brilliant depiction of the astronauts in The Right Stuff, it describes someone stretching his material or his milieu to what may be the breaking point—to go beyond the known limits of the medium. No phrase better describes Vernon Reed, SNAG s own spaceman. For a conference-wide audience, Vernon tried to keep the technical aspects of his computer-mediated jewelry to a minimum, and he succeeded for about the first hour of his talk. Using computer graphics, Reed includes a moving visual display in each piece of his jewelry. It is, he admits, just a baby step visually, but the work is a real break-through in introducing the dimension of time to the three dimensions of space. His workbench is a computer station. As Reed sees it, “Granulation was at the cutting edge for the Etruscans. In his own way, he is “expanding the envelope. Jewelry is a reflection of the culture we live in. The TV generation is accustomed to an avalanche of images. We have the ability and the need to acquire more information in a shorter time. This is jewelry for the information age.” [For a synopsis of Reed’s article, see p. 30.]

And now, a word about the panel on “An Introduction to “Form Beyond Function, with Brent Kington, Director of School of Art, Southern Illinois University, Bruce Metcalf, Assistant Professor, Kent State University, and Gary Griffin, Head of Metalsmithing, Cranbrook Academy of Art. Since this was billed as a sculpture panel, Brent Kington’s statements that “function is not necessary” (in metalsmithing) and that “technology is used only to express an idea could be accepted. However, the panel did spend much of its time presenting its views on jewelry and jewelry clearly must function, otherwise it is simply an objet d’art. It was not clear what Bruce Metcalf had in mind when he discussed such ideas as instincts being tainted by knowledge,” and said “we must demand sophistication in our thinking. This field (jewelry? sculpture? art?) is dominated by received ideas and concepts invented elsewhere. We’re accustomed to having critics think for us. Think for yourself. Read the art magazines. Know the vocabulary of modern art.” Gary Griffin said, “There is a difference between the way a sculptor thinks and the way I think.” That may be, but the difference was not revealed to the audience. What the panel seemed to agree on is that art has a function and that function is to communicate esthetics of some type.

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That evening, the conference members were taken to the Coconino Center for the Arts to attend the opening of the “Form Beyond Function” exhibition. One assumes these pieces represent the great ideas, the deep philosophy demanded by the panel, especially since they all contributed essays to the exhibition catalog. Yet here were pieces expressing ideas that had barely been translated into art and instead were more along the lines of, “I’m mad as hell and l m not going to take it anymore.” Other pieces were in the form of well-made but pointless jokes in metal. As is often the case with the current generation of metalsmiths, technical virtuosity far exceeded design inspiration. [An article on this exhibition will appear in the Spring 1987 issue.]

Perhaps the content of the conference was not so much the point as the opportunity to hear differing points of view, to know that people are thinking so passionately about jewelry and metalwork in general. Certainly one of the most delightful presentations was made by Jim Wallace showing the construction of the National Ornamental Museum. For the majority of the audience who will never have a chance to see the museum in person, Wallace gave us the next-best thing—a lively, humorous slide show tour of the hands-on work that made it a reality. Love and dedication were evident in every word; it was one of those rare talks that made you glad you were there and that created a true sense of community among the disparate members of the audience.

Ettagale Blauer has been writing on jewelry for 14 years, covering a broad spectrum from contemporary handmade to commercial work.

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By Ettagale Blauer
Metalsmith Magazine - 1987 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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