Fred Fenster is a compact man whose quiet friendliness and diffidence belies the intensity that lies just beneath the surface of his personality. The face is friendly in a strong sort of way and there is genuine force in the hands. This is a man to take seriously.
During his recent visit to the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, where he served as visiting artist during the annual repair days event, I was able to watch him work for two days. We also had an opportunity to talk, and I had a chance to see much of his own fine metalwork. I have admired Fenster’s work since my first acquaintance with his wonderful pewter pitcher, in an exhibition at the museum some four years ago, and I was anxious to get to know the man behind such work.
Fenster’s background includes an interesting blend of practical experience and esthetic honing. New York born and raised, he began his professional career as an industrial arts teacher in the New York City schools, where he taught wood and metal shop. In a short time he became dissatisfied with the level of teaching that was possible in the high school context, finding that his own interests lay in a serious, art-oriented approach to metal.
In 1958 he entered Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit and for the next two years was occupied with an intensive exploration under the watchful eye of one of this country’s first real artists in metal, Richard Thomas. Cranbrook was a good place to be in the late 1950s. Begun in the late 20s as an academy for European craftsmen to work on decorative stone, metal and stained glass during the construction of the great Cranbrook Church in Detroit, it had evolved into a school that attracted some of the best young artist/craftsmen in the country. Fenster blossomed in this atmosphere. Already interested in holloware, he now discovered pewter, and Richard Thomas was careful to encourage his interest in this little-used metal. During his two years at Cranbrook, Fenster also was able to acquire many of the basic tools of his chosen trade and became the unofficial repairman for the shop’s equipment. Brent Kington (now Professor of Art at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale), who was also a student at Cranbrook in the late 1950s, remembers Fred Fenster as an intense young man who was willing to put in almost unlimited hours in search of mastery of his material and his tools. The two men became friends at Cranbrook and have remained friends ever since.
With his M.F.A. in hand, Fenster spent the summer of 1960 at Rochester Institute of Technology acquiring additional technical skills from Hans Christensen, the great silversmith. Christensen’s European training in advanced techniques such as raising and forming of silver went beyond what Richard Thomas had been able to show Fenster and gave his work a final “finish” that might have taken him years to achieve on his own. In terms of his intellectual development, Fenster gives credit to Thomas and Cranbrook, for it was there that he was able to develop his own sense of direction and style; but there is no question that Christensen at R.l.T. had a great deal to teach him as well. By the end of the summer of 1960, Fred Fenster was an accomplished young metalsmith, ready now to develop his own visual ideas and to impart his knowledge to others.
The problem was finding a way to support himself. With graduate school behind him and no immediate prospects for a job in a university, Fred was lucky to find a truly congenial job in the private sector. For a year he worked in a commercial fabricating shop in Detroit, run by Roger Berlin, a genius at improvisation. Berlin had put together a shop that could, as Fenster recalls, “do anything from silversmithing to fabricating industrial components.”
“We made tachometer boxes for G.E.; we made designer tables for interior designers; we did racks in stainless steel for banks; we made laundry chutes for schools. . . . The work changed every day and we were always problem solving.” Fred particularly recalls a large project that seemed impossible to him. It involved a tapered standard for a sign, made of angle iron and some 30 feet high, tapering from about a foot across at the bottom to a point at the top. Two pieces of thick angle iron were torched to the desired taper and then welded together to form the standard, but during the welding the whole thing warped into a giant spiral!
“So Roger said, ‘we’ll take that out,’ and I said, “How? I mean, it’s ⅜” steel and it’s a foot wide at the bottom and 30 feet long! Well, they did. They had these giant C clamps that had a throat of three feet and a 1″ screw and we just clamped and pulled and heated and clamped and by golly, we got it straight. . . . So, I learned that you never say no to anything. There’s always a way to improvise if you stop and analyze your problem.”
After a year with Berlin, Fenster opened his own shop in a suburb of Detroit, working with a local gallery, doing repairs and producing the jewelry and small items that he favored. It was pleasant work, but the money was low and the pressure was high. Besides, Fenster was a teacher and he felt the need to teach. After a year on his own, he was offered a job in the Art Department of the University of Wisconsin. He took it and has been there ever since.
What sort of teacher is Fred Fenster? From conversation over a two-day period and, more importantly, from watching him coach younger craftsmen through the intricacies of various repairs, it is clear that he is a caring, noninvasive teacher. Advice is offered gently, with a strong technical grounding. He is much more likely to tell a student how to accomplish a process than he is to push his own or anyone else’s esthetic judgment. This is particularly true of graduate students, where he feels strongly that it is not the instructor’s job to instill a specific esthetic.
“In my mind,” he says, “the obligation to a graduate student is to get that person to dig into himself or herself . . . and that’s awkward and painful and uncomfortable, at the least, because they are going to turn out work that doesn’t look so good for a year or maybe two years and they’re going to be disappointed and frustrated and difficult to get along with. But it’s a personal exploration—and in some magical way, at about the middle or the end of the second year, something strange happens and they start not needing to ask for a lot of advice and the discussion level is different. You’re talking to a peer at that point.”
In short, Fenster’s approach is aimed at producing mature artists, not acolytes. “I don’t believe in the ‘Guru’ approach where you get these little clones,” he says. “The people never find who they are; they find who you are and try to ape you.” Fenster’s students prove the point. Few produce work that looks anything at all like his. To take just two examples, Bernard Hosey does large architectural pieces—gates, fences and the like—while Bruce LePage has evolved into an extremely fine gunsmith. Fenster is much more willing to discuss shop plans or methods of repairing a broken vise than he is to hand down dicta on esthetics. This is not to say that esthetics does not interest him: A piece that is out of balance or a piece in which the materials are at odds bothers him deeply; and, if pressed, he will make suggestions as to how it might be improved. But the point is that they are just suggestions, not pronouncements from Olympus.
In this all-important area of esthetics, Fred’s pieces speak for themselves and they speak very clearly indeed. All are characterized by balance and harmony of line and structure. Although he works in virtually all the major metals, from gold to pewter, in recent years he has concentrated on his love of pewter. The work ranges from rings and chokers in gold, utilizing precious stones, to vases and pitchers of great variety and ingenuity. All have one thing in common: they are in one sense or another functional. To my question about this common thread in his work, he replied:
“I’ve set myself the problem of really dealing with function. I think it is important. Now, on jewelry pieces you can get away from that a lot, although the pieces have to function—an earring or a pendant has to hang well or lie well—but you can play around with the form. The pieces I do all have to do with an exploration of form—and the interrelationships within the piece itself. Almost everything I do is functional because I find that a way to define the problem and it gives me a starting point within the limits that I set myself. I want my pitchers to pour well and I want them to clean well and I want them to handle well, but, beyond that, you’ve got a world of experimenting you can do. If you do things that are more decorative than functional, like vases or containers, then there are virtually no limits.”
Fenster particularly likes to do table pieces: cups, creamers, pitchers, salt and pepper containers and so on. For him, these pieces have to do with home and family and the rituals of sharing food together. In his own home his pieces are in daily use. Fenster’s increasing interest in his Jewish heritage has clearly had a part to play in the design of his pieces, with their feeling of strength and solidity and mass. Many of his pieces are made as gifts for friends, and it is clear that he enjoys the act of giving. The table pieces, with their strongly functional lines, are among Fred Fenster’s very nicest work. Good pieces made by the hands of a good man, for good people to use together at good times. Fenster also enjoys doing ceremonial pieces. As he puts it, “Here the problem is well defined, but there’s a lot of freedom within that definition.” In one series of wine cups designed for use in the Jewish ceremony of Kiddush, he has folded the base of the cup into a six-sided star, effectively uniting a powerful symbol of Jewishness with a functional piece.
During the coming year, Fred Fenster will not teach. He has decided to take a year’s leave in order to re-explore the springs of art within himself. For the past 24 years his primary focus has been on teaching, and, as he says, “It eats up everything. When I teach, that’s all I do—I teach—and I try to squirrel in work between teaching obligations.” For a year he will leave Wisconsin and live on the East Coast, concentrating on three areas. First, he will spend considerable time designing and producing jewelry, because “I really enjoy doing that. I like the direct processes like forging and fabricating and I do some casting.” Second, he will enter pieces in several of the major juried commercial shows, like the Baltimore Craft Market and the Washington Craft Show, hoping to exhibit both jewelry and other small pieces to see if there are markets for his art. As he puts it, “I’m curious to see what I would produce for those things because there is a different kind of thinking involved.” And third, and perhaps most important, he will make a major commitment of time and energy to designing new ceremonial art pieces. As he talks about this part of the year’s plan, it is clear that he has given particular thought to this area.
“So I’ll be working in silver and I’ll be working in pewter a lot—trying to get together a large group of religious pieces. . . . I think that the level of Jewish ceremonial art is not very high right now and I’m curious to see if I can make a contribution. I’ve done a whole series of Christian chalices and Jewish wine cups. I guess I feel a need to enlarge on that.”
Much of the ceremonial work will be done in pewter, partly because it does not have to be treated like a precious object and partly because it is, as he puts it, “an inviting material. The way I’m finishing it, it doesn’t have that bright shine that people are afraid to touch, but it has a nice warmth and usability which I want. I want people to touch the pieces. They should be tactile.”
Fred knows that the next year will be a difficult one of self-analysis and searching. For the first time in over two decades, he will have to function without the confining yet disciplining context of the teaching studio. He will be trying new ideas and new techniques and there will be failures and frustrations. In a way, he will go through much the same process that his graduate students endure at the University of Wisconsin. Yet, he believes that the time has come for him to do this. His three children are grown. He has reached that point in early middle age when one needs to pause and look forward and backward. Well over 20 years of teaching and study and careful thought about fine metal have provided him with a tremendous backlog of ideas which now need to be developed in full, three-dimensional form.
Whatever forms emerge from the strong hands and fine eye of Fred Fenster, we can be sure of several things. They will be beautiful, expressing his own drive to endow both the common moments and the high moments of life with excellence. They will be functional, capable of being a working part of human life. Whether cups or pitchers or jewelry, they will invite use. They will be pieces to live with and love. They will reflect a solid technical grounding and a thorough understanding of the materials used, and, most importantly, they will express his love of his own heritage and the best of all human culture. It is this love of people that makes him a great teacher and a great artist. Above all, Fred Fenster is a humanist, a student of and lover of people, completely caught up in the processes of life. Like his art, he is not designed to sit on a pedestal, proclaiming himself to be precious, but instead to work hard and wear well. It is a good way to do art and it is a good way to live.
All quotes are taken from a taped interview by F. Jack Hurley with Fred Fenster, Memphis, Tennessee, May 4, 1986.
F. Jack Hurley is a professor of history at Memphis State University and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Ornamental Metal Museum. He is also an amateur blacksmith.