Everybody knows Pat Flynn. Pat Flynn, the jewelerly jeweler. Pat Flynn the goldsmith’s goldsmith. The bear of a man from whose impossibly long fingers come those impossibly tiny hinges. The New Paltz student whose folded copper sacks amused us, whose slate brooches made people use words like transformational, whose rusty nails with gold accoutrements were followed by beakers of pewter, silver, and gold. Now the hand-forged nails, studded with diamonds, draped with pearls, wrapped with gold. And the hearts, always the hearts. For twenty years Pat Flynn has given us jewelry to wear forever because he believes jewelry is for wearing.
The boy who was born to a Pennsylvania dairy farmer and found refuge from the harshness of farm life by making models and customizing his match box cars grew up to make his own tools and pour his own gold. Along the way he acquired what many have characterized as a “near-European aesthetic.” But the formative dailyness of farm work and the sheer necessity of doing things in order, just the doing of them, became the crucible of Pat Flynn’s world view. As if to explain himself, Flynn refers to Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass, Gary Paulsen’s elegiac memoir of farm life and the dailyness of tasks, but even more, a valentine to the sense memories of childhood, seasons, and, always, work.
Being habituated to work has enabled Pat Flynn to do what had to be done to support the family he had even as an undergraduate, whether it was construction, factory work, or benchwork for other jewelers. But always a few days a week were reserved for his personal vision, the playful, the witty, the unlikely pairing of materials, the tweaking of what jewelry was all about in “the industry.” All the while, Flynn honed his skills (“I wanted to be Whitney Boin”) by just doing it. In the end his willingness to remain in the background has brought him to the forefront, so that the brief history of American art jewelry now includes Pat Flynn.
To many people that name means a silver frame barely more than an inch square enclosing a voluptuous heart. After a decade in the public eye, the heart pin still provoke critics and public alike. They just won’t go away. At one time a collection of four heart pins represented Flynn’s only sale at Rhineback. Now they represent the marriage of commerce and art. Are t
hey but one idea infinitely repeated? Too formulaic? Audiences are both fickle and deeply conservative. Critics clamor for change but the continued commercial success of the hears says the public wants a sure thing. Impatience for the new is the dark side of the artist’s ambivalent relationship with the marketplace.
The image may be familiar, but even the simplest pins are not what they seem. They spring to life in your hand as you press the steel pin stem to release it from its fabricated catch, the sensory shock a delight that is just what Flynn intended. Each one is different, and despite a certain preciousness creeping in with the use of gold, platinum, and, yes, a heart-shaped pearl, the individual design still have something to say. They also represent the closes Flynn comes to narrative. While the rest of his work is formal and modernist, the hearts have stories and titles. Susan is pierced with nails, Gate opens and closes with a working catch, like a miniature reliquary; its predecessor might be the 15th century gold hat ornament with doors that open to a scene of the Annunciation. A classic French chef’s knife pierces one silvery heart “because most fights start in the kitchen.” But some viewers see this as a dagger, or relate it to their own surgery. Despite the scores of hearts Flynn has produced in the past ten years, he still has the first two: one of flat, woven wire with no soldering, and one volumetric, wrapped with a soldered, handcoiled pin stem. Meanwhile, the hearts are paying the mortgage and building Flynn’s new studio. Characteristically, Flynn does what he must to be able to do what he wants.
By the time Terri Lonier’s profile of Pat Flynn appeared in these pages in 1983, he had already made a series of little copper sacks, a significant collection of slate brooches, and his first nail pin. This was a gnarled nail with a gold pin stem soldered directly onto it with two gold nuggets and a Biwa pearl. He had exhibited in Young Americans 1980, and put in several years at the bench of industry designers. During these years the nails were a way for Flynn to get beyond the superficial in using salvaged materials. They also provided welcome relief from the soulless jewelry he worked on in New York. “When I got back to my studio the last thing I wanted to do was perfect polished things….I was drawn to slate, busted pieces of glass, saw blades and nails, bits of iron. I’d take my garbage to the landfill and come back with a bunch of cool stuff to make jewelry with.”
By the time the seminal exhibition Jewelry USA opened in 1984, Flynn’s mastery of the brooch form was well under way. In a review Lisan Norden stated she was looking for a “point of view”, some evidence that the maker has gotten beyond a fascination with the NEW and has something to say. She noted Rose Slivka’s criticism of American jewelers who “appropriate and decontextualize stylistic or esthetic effects, while disregarding the sources that inspired them.” Such energetic assimilation of multiple viewpoints is at once the strength and curse of the American approach to jewelry-making. Flynn’s attitude – flawless construction with hand-of-the-maker finishing, the touch he values – has not changed in the intervening decade since Norden observed that: “Flynn is exceptional in his ability to coax profound meaning from precious and discarded matter, alike. His inspired compositions establish absolute equivalencies between the most unlikely materials and shapes.” Norden noted that Flynn’s pin, while utilizing the now common juxtaposition of uncommon materials, manifests an equivalence of precious and non-precious. Flynn makes this work because he confronts equivalence directly, rather than relying solely on the superficial contrast of materials. What emerges is a true dialectic, a duality that implies dynamic equilibrium, not just dividing the world into opposing groups.
A stroll through Flynn’s personal collection reveals the turnings that the artist himself often misses in telling his own story. Flynn’s first forged pieces were completed with Ronald Pearson at Haystack, and show the early promise of delicacy of form and sinuous forged line. Flynn’s use of line turns out to be a hallmark of his design, regardless of medium or stylistic change. A small shepherd’s crook is held together with tension at the top, anticipating by twenty years the nail bracelets that snap together. Not surprisingly, even his student work shows the Flynn touch: tiny hinges, handmade findings, the burnished edge. A large pearl isn’t attached with a wrapped wire, but with another tiny hinge. A sheet or strip of metal is never used where a tiny rivet or fragment of wire will do the job, so that pins are light and airy.
Even early pieces that don’t quite work, such as an early slate fragment partially framed in sterling silver with a gold nugget on the surface, show the same care for detail and surface. One edge is reinforced from behind, so that it is more substantial. Even with simple forms there is much to see: layers and levels, a shaft of light piercing the gold surface because of the lintel that is raised just enough above the overlapping planes. Pins that would otherwise be just squares have soft edges and barely perceptible interstices which leaven the solid form and allow a line of light to cross. This is the same mentality that a dozen years later created a heart-shaped opening behind a diamond on a ring that would otherwise be just a little too Cartier.
During the 1980’s Flynn continued his contemplation of the brooch form. Many pins from this time are intimate squares of silver, gold, slate, and precious gems, and most have the characteristic Flynn line, which often serves to segment the form into two halves. Like the bifurcate tablets Moses carried, both halves of these pins have equal valence. Cleaved from top to bottom with a linear element (there’s that line again), the vertical nearly separates the two halves, like a rift not quite healed. Many pins are visually held together by a stitch, or rivets, or just a suggestion of surgical suture. By its vertical dichotomy, this arrangement creates not only equivalencies, but what Kandinsky has called a position of “warm rest”, or, that of “the greatest contrast.” Contrast being the basis of drama, Flynn aims for “that sort of tension that’s created [in]…a real strong form that’s handled in a real fragile fashion.”
Flynn’s achievement of intimacy and technical mastery rests on a foundation of thousands of years of European goldsmithing. “As a forger of [metals]…and as a powerful, creative agent of change, the smith…often appears as a ruler over fire, as a healer of diseases and as a rainmaker…” Egyptian reliefs from the First Dynasty show smiths at work. Gold is mentioned in the very first chapter of Genesis, chain-making in Exodus. The 12th century monk Theophilus devoted seventy-nine chapters to the art of the goldsmith in his description of the arts of his time. “The goldsmith was required to be a modeler, sculptor, smelter, enameller, jewel-mounter and inlay-worker.” As if personally bearing the weight of 3,000 years of tradition, Flynn was slow to accept the mantle of goldsmith for himself. Asked to name his heroes, he chooses the Italian master Mario Pinton.
Pinton’s Italian sensibility was once described by Arline Fisch in a way that applies no less to Pat Flynn: “…bold simplicity of form, classical proportion and finesse of surface texture and finish – a machine accomplished by hand….[Pinton himself] is essentially a humanist. A jeweler who cares about the wearer as the ultimate goal, he combines restraint in execution with innovation in form and expression.” Flynn’s colleagues use this same vocabulary to describe his work, and Flynn himself says: “jewelry is made for people to wear, and it should be warm, and that warmth is real important for me….Otherwise, make objects.” Fisch describes a Pinton bracelet as “tense with implied movement, rather like a spring poised on the arm, arrested momentarily….[in a brooch,] one small stone focuses the energy of the linear composition and invests the brooch with a monumentality quite contradictory to its actual size.” These descriptions perfectly characterize Flynn’s 1995 collection.
More often Flynn is compared with Hermann Junger and the German school to which Flynn aspired in his early years. But once he had achieved that level of technical expertise, Flynn found it emotionally unsatisfying, as he preferred the “rawness of parts being incredibly skillfully handled and other parts left ragged or left with just the saw cut, or file marks, but perfectly, beautifully constructed….” Still, philosophically he remains close to the European model. In catalogue notes for Junger’s Jewelry as a Sign Language, Helmut Friedel notes that, for Junger, “jewelry takes on its own real meaning when intimate relation is established between the wearer and the object worn.” Flynn says simply, “I hope people just wear these things out, enriching their lives with it…, all that other life that the pieces have after they leave my hands”.
These pieces begin life in Flynn’s workmanlike sketchbooks, each page filled with process, as if talking to himself, and in a quieter way one can see ideas being turned over and over in his mind. They also contain the germs of Flynn’s philosophy of art and life, as he muses to himself at the end of the day. On the last page of one large spiral bound pad he writes that “the back of the piece may be the most important part. What doesn’t appear in the slide. Like the unseen, what doesn’t appear in people may be the most important as well, the part that doesn’t show, what people hide….The people who take the time to flip the piece over, actually get to see the guts, the underbelly, the bottom of a turtle, the insides of a really fine watch. They get to see my world….” Like the artist himself, the sketchbooks are private, some measurements, precise renderings of ideas, but in a way always something a little held back, as if proof of his belief that the magic should be saved for the bench. As Flynn works, he likes to leave a little bit unsaid; as a result people talk of his restraint. “It’s important for me not to completely understand certain elements of my work.” Like a Japanese potter, he believes “if you think too much things lose their spirit.”
A recent bracelet shows how this creative process works. From a tattered folder Flynn removes a fragment of graph paper containing a drawing for a bracelet (nail, movable pearls) made while gallery sitting for Ellen Reiben at Jewelerswerk; not coincidentally, he was away from his bench with nothing else to do when the solution came to him. The drawing is a simple sketch with just a reference to an idea in a kind of shorthand, not a lively finished drawing. Details of the piece are not worked out ahead of time, so there’s room for freshness to remain in the work. Once he had the basic design, Flynn made a silver model, going back to an earlier, problematic bracelet for reference. He knew from fixing pocket watches that much of the success of a catch is in the hinge, and that the average person might break a clasp only another jeweler would understand. Building catches became “almost like a puzzle…. Then they got simpler and more sophisticated and the hinges were built in so they were flush.” Hence the hinge is so subtle that not only will the average person not break it, but another jeweler is often hard pressed to find it. The latest bracelets show the evolution of multiple approaches to problem-solving and the gradual refinement of technical achievement.
They also document Flynn’s romance with the nail, culminating in the single sweep of black line that forms the latest necklaces and bracelets. Flynn has pursued the semiotics and aesthetics of the nail through permutations of found object (Duchamp’s ready-made) to the formality of pure line in his current body of work. Through sheer volume of work produced, he has laid claim to the nail. As a cultural object, what could be more mundane? At least 3,000 years before the Romans made nails famous as a deterrent to crime, artists in Mesopotamia “used them to fasten sheets of copper to wooden frames to make statues.” Now machines spew out 500 nails per minute, but not too long ago they were made by hand. Flynn knows his history, and without being didactic he manages to recall a time when nails were always “hand-wrought…children’s work. They’d sit around the hearth at night and forge nails by hand….During the big land rush [people] burnt their buildings down to take their nails with them to build new buildings….Those things were so incredibly important to them….”
Such knowledge informs Flynn’s treatment of these slender rods of iron. In fact, we may be tempted to overlook the fact that the nail is a nail, because it has been transformed into an object of ordinary beauty, transformed from object to ornament. Flynn’s jewelry is both about the nail and about jewelry, in the way Abstract Expressionism is about paint. A hand-forged nail is layered with meaning from a sensory-rich past in which the air sang with the blows of the blacksmith’s hammer. Flynn eliminates the voyeurism of found objects by forging his own nails. He can “hollow them all out and solder in platinum tubes….I like that sort of trickster-fox sensibility, sort of upping the ante….I like the idea that what they’re really all about is not so evident up front.”
Flynn uses the nail to continue his exploration of a visual dialectic that has intrigued him for years, keeping the implied tension using the simplest of forms, the line. Over time, each jewelry form – brooch, bracelet, neckpiece – has grown more confident than its predecessors. Like a late Beethoven quartet, they seem distilled and purified to the very nature of their form. The bracelets in particular have come into their maturity after years of experimentation. Thinner, lighter, more spare, and more elegant, they are now more than ever about the line. Even more than the nail/diamond/gold brooches of a few years back, they represent the best of the many ideas Flynn has confronted with his materials. There’s temporality in the eternal gold and transitory iron; gender, even class, are represented in the resolutely blue-collar iron and elite, noble gold. The mythology of the diamond itself, the perfect crystal, holds that it can “cure disease, render poisons impotent…make one invisible, and grant men good luck with women.” Naturally occurring South Sea pearls recall, as well, our marine origins and salty, fishy sexuality. Flynn’s choices seem single-handedly to prove “what metalworkers believe material to be influences what they make.” Each fluid back line ends in a different clasp articulated by a gold hinge. A nail end slips past the head to snap into a box clasp, or snakes around a ruby tear drop, to slide into its gold housing. One opens like a pirate’s chest; another tapered end snaps into a volumetric fabricated leaf that swivels to accommodate it. A square ruby slots into an opening in a hinged clasp adorned with telltale crosshatched file marks, the entire confection so smooth it will never snag the hairs on your wrist.
Equally wearable is a necklace forged of a single nail; direct and sensual, it wraps right around the head and lays lightly on the collarbone. Even a massive hollow nail brooch inlaid with forty-three diamonds miraculously curves along its vertical axis to accommodate the wearer’s body. Nearly invisible mechanisms underscore a sympathetic physicality, for example, the way the springy metal snaps onto the clasp or pops out of its tubular closure. Seemingly controlled, the gestural line threatens to spring open and release its energy. Paradoxes of modern life are expressed in pairing iron, which only seems permanent and unyielding, with truly enduring gold and diamonds. These elements (Au, Fe, C) are gouged out of the same earth we walk and to which we return.
Although tangentially related to the nails-with-diamonds of only two years ago, the new work shows a startling freshness. Jolted by life changes – losses sustained in divorce, auto theft of all his tools, and relocation from New Paltz to the Washington, DC area – Flynn has perhaps unwittingly turned a corner in his work. The vocabulary of the bracelets and necklaces has moved far beyond the Celtic-inspired torque of years past, through the superficial, more self-conscious pairing of nails and gold from his 1991 work. He even updates a classic brooch of gold, precious gem, and linear embellishment by making the line a brazen, hand-forged nail that spirals the coiled energy right off the plane, past a triangular opal of shocking green. Making bracelets from nails is a way for Flynn to involve men in his dialogue; he wears them himself. Unlike a pin attached to clothing, the nail bracelets and necklaces are worn directly on the body. Flesh and iron interact temporally in an intimate confrontation of mortality and longevity. Together they might even represent, for Flynn at forty, a connection between the historical tradition of smithing and his personal values as a maker of objects.
Flynn’s jewelry is unrepentantly beautiful, but by using the proletarian nail and by hand-finishing, he avoids what might otherwise be a retrogressive celebration of the merely decorative. Nor does he harangue the viewer with his commentary of utility and beauty, but like the best of craft, creates a bridge between the visual/masculine and the tactile/feminine sensibility. Without a hint of postmodern self-reference, a Flynn necklace or bracelet has everything the late 20th century audience could want. Sex? A slender terminus nestles in the cleft of the hollowed out nail head. Violence? The iron is beaten by its creator’s mighty arm to a submissive taper. Add style (with substance), color, wit, movement, history, even intrinsic value, all within an object that could conceivably be worn without feeling self-conscious. Democratic material origins perform an upwardly mobile dance to uncontested aesthetic achievement. Without relying on the iconography of popular culture, Flynn injects an American freshness into a decidedly European respect for craftsmanship.
But ultimately it is the relational aspect of jewelry-making that attracts Pat Flynn. “I like the fact that people wear jewelry. I like the intimate scale. That although an object can be diminutive it can have a tremendous power and soul. I like the human connection to jewelry…the way jewelry is very important to people.” The extent to which Pat Flynn’s jewelry continues to draw us into his journey will determine his focus in the marketplace. It is his place because he values mastery, accepts the dailyness of routine labor, and comprehends the redemptive power of work.
The author gratefully acknowledges editorial feedback from Shellie Jacobson, Ann Parkin, Don Friedlich, and Judith Mitchell.
Majorie Simon is a critic, writer, and jeweler who lives in Highland Park, New Jersey.
Donald Hall, Life Work, Beacon Press, 1993.
Bruce Metcalf, Metalsmith, vol. 14 #3, 1994, p. 6.
This and all unattributed quotes taken from conversations with the artist in February, 1996. For an eloquent statement of Flynn’s philosophy in his own words see Metalsmith 1994 Exhibition in Print, p. 17.
For criticism, see reviews of Pat Flynn by Deb Stoner, Metalsmith, Summer 1989, p. 43 and Matthew Kangas, Metalsmith, Fall, 1993, p. 45.
Terri Lonier, “Giant Energy in a Little Precious Thing.” Metalsmith, Fall, 1983, pp. 28-30.
Linda Norden, “Review of Jewelry USA,” Metalsmith, Fall, 1984, pp. 8-15.
Vasilty Kandinsky, Point And Line To Plane, Dover Books, New York, 1979, p. 130.
Udo Becker. The Continuum Encyclopedia Of Symbols, Continuum, New York, 1994, p. 273.
Artwork in Gold And Silver, Handbooks of Practical Art. Henry B. Wheatley, New York, 1882, p. 133.
Arline Fisch, “Goldsmiths of the Veneto”, American Craft, Dec. 1986/Jan. 1988, p. 40.
Ibid., p. 41.
World Book Encyclopedia, Vol 14, 1982, p. 4.
Becker, op. cit. p. 83.
Griffin and E. Stefanutti, “Remaking Materials”, 1995 SNAG presentation, p. 26.