In the three years since her retirement from 31 years of teaching, Ramona Solberg has had three exhibitions of her jewelry, participated in several invitational shows, given jewelry workshops, moved her household and studio and taken seven tour groups to China, India, Mexico and South America. At the first attempt to contact her for this article, she was away in India and Borneo, and a couple months later, she was off again to the Mediterranean.
Ramona Solberg is a person who communicates warmth and enthusiasm, whether concerning her work, her friends and colleagues, her teaching or her love of travel. Although she would acknowledge that she, like other academic artists, has been fortunate, to create work without confronting the artistic compromises caused by the marketplace, Solberg’s success derives from an inner strength that transcends academia.
Solberg started making jewelry in 1939 when she was a student at the University of Washington. After a five-year hiatus, serving in the Women’s Army Corps and a year of study at the University of Michoacan in Mexico, she returned to the University of Washington, where she studied with Ruth Penington and received her BA in 1951. During 1953 and 1954, Solberg studied jewelry at the Statens Kunst og Handverk Skole in Norway, and in 1957 received her MFA, also from the University of Washington.
Many of her teachers, both in Norway and the United States, took a traditional approach, feeling that jewelry should be made only from precious materials. Solberg, easily overcame that prejudice during her first teaching position in the Seattle Public Schools. She encouraged her students to make jewelry using available, inexpensive materials, and soon she herself felt liberated, “using found objects and stringing beads with the best of them.” This was the beginning for Solberg of a style that dominates her work: nearly every piece contains a found object or beads that are often quite old. These objects are combined with cast and fabricated metal components, which are occasionally electroformed or enameled and often patinated. Solberg is a true collector, confessing to “love junk stores, antique shops, street fairs and bazaars,” and while she is sophisticated and selective in her choices, she has “a terrible time passing up any sort of game pieces, old compasses or miniature tools,” pieces with a past or an intrinsic symbolism.
In writing about the recent craft revival in this country, Barbara Rose posed the dilemma, how can we speak of a “craft revival” when there is very little craft tradition to revive?* Solberg, however, embraces this situation. Acknowledging that there is little indigenous jewelry tradition in the United States, with the exception of the Native American work, she maintains that she is left free to experiment without “cultural hand-ups.” While one can plainly see cultural influences in Solberg’s jewelry—her work reveals a deep appreciation of both folk art and primitive cultures—she has selected her resources thoughtfully.
Mudra, the name of the hand positions of the Buddha, is the title of a necklace that conveys a sense of reverential humanity. Strands of African clay beads of varying and slightly irregular shape, of pale earth colors accentuated with deep browns and grays, are loosely intertwined and strung with ivory beads into a rich coil. Small, cast bronze and silver hands, of a single, stylized design, are suspended from the strands; some of these hands have a warm, reddish-brown patina, others are the natural silver or bronze color. Hands hang from the necklace, lie across the interwoven strands or are half-covered by them; some reveal an open, oval palm with deeply incised lines, some show the back of the hand with its stylized markings. Reminiscent of African and ancient jewelry, two darkly patinated, tapered structures of silver extend from a simple hook-and-eye clasp and support the beaded strands. Mudra contains many levels of meaning: the ancient rituals of a rich culture, whose symbols are lost to us; the universal hand, suggesting prayer, the Buddha and the many races of man; a meditative quality created by quiet colors, subtle textures and long, gentle curves; and the beads, which could be prayer beads.
The necklace is Solberg’s chosen form of jewelry—it is the one form, enclosed or circular, which is repeated again and again in her oeuvre. Abounding with symbols and cultural artifacts, the necklaces are contemporary talismans, carrying contemporary myths. One necklace, made in 1968, suspends from a simple structure several small objects: a bit of Alaskan ivory, a stylized silver fish, a small totemic figure, a pointing hand and an old coin bearing the image of an Indian. Its title, Shaman’s Necklace, refers to the magical medicine man of the Northwest Indian. Another necklace, strung with ancient beads and bearing a pre-Columbian textile fragment, which is sealed within acrylic, is titled Craftsman’s Amulet. Titles such as these emphasize Solberg’s sense of history and her emotional connection with the primitive artist. Unlike today, the primitive artist was an integral part of his community; he was even endowed with great power. The shaman’s fetishes were feared and treasured; amulets and talismans could bear great potency. There was nothing frivolous or vain, or even pretty, about many of these objects; they contained the magic, superstition and the myth that for the primitive explained the terror and vulnerability of his life.
For many years, Solberg has returned to the themes and objects that hold meaning for her. She is enthusiastic about the recent accomplishments of contemporary jewelers, yet is completely true to her own style. She writes that “seeing the work of today’s jewelers, the current exciting designs, I often ask myself, ‘why don’t you do something like that?’ . . . When I sit down at my workbench all those marvelous little objects and beautiful beads beckon to me and the next thing I know I’m combining a domino with an ivory bead and have forgotten all about the avant-garde jewelry.”
Dominoes, old tokens and dice, miniature and antique tools, old measuring devices, worn ivory buttons—these are the artifacts of our culture. They impart a sense of age and mystery to the necklaces, suggesting past lives. Often these objects are presented with a wit that reveals the maker’s enjoyment of her own game. Game pieces, a Chinese lice comb, allegorical figures and printed fragments disclosing a taste for 19th-century kitsch reveal both humor and a keen esthetic sense.
Ampersand, a neckpiece incorporating cast and fabricated elements of silver and bronze, ivory and an antique ruler, is one of these evocative works. The ruler suggests succeeding generations of craftsmen: the maker, the original user and the jeweler. For Solberg, old tools such as this have a rich meaning. She strives in her work for a “well-worn, primitive quality . . . the richness of old amber and dull silver, the color of red coral, the tinkle of bells or coins that hit against each other. . . .” The elements of her own making combine harmoniously with the found objects, which have been, in many cases, well-used. The necklaces are sturdy; they are meant to be worn and touched and to conform easily to the body. This jewelry does not have the perfect, highly refined surface or the spare design of much contemporary work; it is richly textured and patinated. It is timeless. Solberg confesses that these necklaces are initially, secretly, made for herself which accounts for their consistently personal iconography. The directness and simplicity of these pieces of jewelry are qualities integral to Solberg’s own personality.
Beads—metal, clay, stone or glass—are Solberg’s favorite materials and have appeared in her work for the past 35 years. In Dinka Mauve, a thick cascade of old, mauve, glass beads from the African Dinka tribe is suspended from fabricated silver, tubular sections set with coral and interspersed with dark, purple bands of small beads. The result is a colorful and sensuous piece, which, in its combination of the contemporary American sensibility with the ethnic antiquity, reveals Solberg’s personal stamp.
Countless objects fill jars, boxes and shelves within Solberg’s studio. “I just like to look at them, I don’t even have to do anything with them,” she exclaims. In addition to all these bits and pieces is a fascinating collection of ethnic jewelry, gathered over the years from many countries, particularly the East, the Middle East and Africa. Solberg is drawn to jewelry that carries a certain symbolism or ritualistic meaning, such as fetishes and talismans, or ceremonial jewelry. She loves jewelry that has movement, that has the mellowed surface and patina of years of wear or that combines materials, such as shell or bone, with silver or bronze structures and fastenings.
Since retiring from a 17-year professorship at the University of Washington, Solberg has found more time for her own work and also for the extensive traveling that is such an important part of her life. Hardly the finickly, easily frightened tourist, Solberg seems to thrive on the challenge and uncertainty that typifies not tourism, but travel. When asked if she missed teaching, Solberg replied, “Not at all!” However, she loved teaching and is a rare teacher. Solberg is generous with her time and energy, and her own enjoyment of metalsmithing is contagious. While she works rather simply and directly herself, her technical experience is wide, and she encourages students to experiment, both technically and stylistically. She shares a genuine happiness in the development and success of her students, many of whom now have established careers as metalsmiths.
Solberg is an important member of the first generation of metalsmiths involved in the craft revival of the 50s and 60s, metalsmiths who re-learned, developed, researched and then passed on their craft to the next generation. Solberg’s work, in its own way, symbolizes the craft revivals of this century. The humanity of the handmade object, and its history and process, the magic of symbols and of certain objects, ancient or universal, revive for our contemporary culture spiritual and precious qualities, which mechanization, modernization and mass production obliterate. Just as the anthropologist or historian seeks out a culture’s customs, artifacts and atavisms before they disappear, just as a museum documents our past through its material culture, Solberg preserves something precious about jewelry: in her collecting, in the knowledge that she has shared generously and purposefully with her students and, most of all, in her work, which generates a magic of its own.
* Barbara Rose, New York Magazine, June 19, 1972, pp. 71-72.
Cindy Cetlin was first inspired by Ramona Solberg and her teaching at a 1980 Penland workshop. Cetlin is now a resident artist in metalsmithing at Peter’s Valley and teaches jewelry and enameling at Pratt Institute.