The Jewelry of Sue Amendolara

Once upon a time, all art was about nature, the simplification (abstraction) or elaboration of natural forms. Egyptians assembled leaves of the thinnest gold and molded fruit in vividly colored glass into necklaces and diadems. Ancient Greeks fashioned ears of wheat from beaten and chased gold. Islamic prohibitions against showing the human face have led to highly developed and abstracted plant imagery, and in Japan Nature herself is sanctified.

For a millennium, Western art that reproduced nature was considered the highest achievement. Even Dryden called art “Nature’s handmaid.” And during the apotheosis of the Western paean to nature, the Art Nouveau movement, the prevailing belief was that nature is not only the subject of art, but the source as well, expressed in decorative arts from ironwork to wallpaper to textile design. As a noted text of the time proclaimed, “We look… in ornament for the order, rhythm, [and] harmony of natural growth.” [1]

Nest, 1999
sterling silver, 18k gold, imitation coral
3 1/2 x 7 x 1″
Photo: David L. Smith
Photo reference for the Nest

Another interpretation of the origin of ornamentum has to do with grace, an association appropriate to the work of Sue Amendolara. [2] For fifteen years, Amendolara’s vessels, holloware, and functional objects have fanned their leaves in satiny silver. And while the narrative content has changed somewhat in recent years, the billowing and pointed forms of her objects have not. [3] Like other classically trained silversmiths — Linda Threadgill comes to mind — Amendolara confidently builds clean forms out of sheet metal. A shot of color, often in imitation coral, may be all that enlivens the white, black, and gold leaves that swoop and soar in three dimensions.

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Amendolara’s life and creative choices emerge out of a matrix of influences characteristic of the so-called melting pot of American culture. She was born in Youngstown , Ohio , an industrial city of about 100,000 in the northeastern corner of the state not far from Pittsburgh , in the “steel valley” of manufacturing that forms the gateway to the Midwest . It is said that ” Youngstown clean would be Youngstown out of work.” Yet Amendolara was always surrounded by beautiful objects. Her parents owned an interior design company in which her father was the creative half while her mother ran the business. As a child she loved to watch while the boxes of home accessories were unpacked and often played with the antiques her father obtained for the family and his clients. Amendolara and her two older siblings frequently accompanied her parents on buying trips to New York and throughout Europe , setting the stage for a lifetime love of travel and appreciation for art, history, and multiple traditions. It is perhaps this model that has led her to include students in her travels, to broaden their education, too.

Commitment to education constitutes a significant element in Amendolara’s life; others are her family and her own work. She received her B.F.A. in jewelry design, metalsmithing, and painting at Miami University of Ohio, and her M.F.A. at the fabled Indiana University in Bloomington , whose department has been dominated by the leadership of Alma Eikerman and her students. Like them, Amendolara makes work that is rooted in design, materials, and function. Her own mentor there was Randy Long. Using Indiana as a model, she brings to her own department at Edinboro University a similar energy and expectation of student engagement.

Tucked away on the windy shores of Lake Eric in northwestern Pennsylvania , Edinboro is the “art school” of the state system of higher education. The university’s Bruce Gallery , run by Amendolara’s husband Bill Mackie, mounts several shows a Year, based on curated and competitively juried exhibition proposals. Amendolara works hard to promote craft and metalsmithing, educating fine art faculty colleagues who are unaccustomed to thinking about the materiality of craft or the making of objects. Not having the luxury of big-city entertainments, educators in outlying areas bear a bigger burden for bringing the world to their students, many of whom are local to begin with. With her leadership, Amendolara’s students show up for visiting lectures, workshops, and museum shows, and travel to conferences. The students become part of a learning loop in which she gains energy from them and they get a lot more in return. And although it can be a mixed blessing, teaching is more than a little parental as well.

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Heliconia II (brooch), 1995
sterling silver, 18k gold
5 x 4 x 1/4″
Drawing for Heliconia II

In 1996 Amendolara took a group of students to Morocco on a teaching exchange, traveling with them through Rabat , Casablanca , and Marrakech. At that time, the university enjoyed a special relationship with the government of Morocco , and Amendolara and her students were guests of the king. Although she was understandably dazzled by the color and energy of Marrakech, these elements have not been incorporated directly into her own work, which remains pristine and silvery white. She prefers to interpret in metal the tropical and equatorial plant forms found in the rich biological environments of the primary rain forest of Ecuador and the tropical gardens of Hawaii . In 1993 she traveled the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. Amendolara was inspired by the “visual combination of various plants, their strength, and the support structure they provided each other,” themes that continue to find resonance in her work. “Visually enhancing and unusual greenery grew together and intertwined with other plants and flowers. They w ere dependent on each other for life, and most were strong and healthy.” [4] Three years later, she went to Hawaii , purposefully collecting images to work from during her upcoming sabbatical.

Out of this trip came Amendolara’s fascination with the heliconia, an exotic Hawaiian flower that looks rather like a bird of paradise. The showy blooms she favors derive from species originating in the West Indies , where they are also known as wild plantain. Native Hawaiian species are not as flamboyant, but the imported ones have flourished there in the rich volcanic soil and hot, wet climate. The large sturdy plant has a thick stem with boat-shaped modified leaves called bracts, which curve gracefully outward on opposing sides of the stem. Each plant contains a cluster of many bracts that themselves contain the rather inconspicuous flowers. The strong yet graceful curies create a silhouette and sculptural form that are irresistible for an artist; they can be reproduced as is or altered and abstracted. And the image of the vulnerable flowers nestling in the protective sweep of the leaf is echoed throughout the animal world as Neil. Amendolara adapts this image by creating metal forms, usually in sterling silver, which “surround and shelter small beautiful objects usually made of stone or other contrasting material.” [5]

Releasing Fear, 2000
sterling silver, 18k gold, plexiglass
1 1/2 x 4 x 4″
Photo: David L. Smith
Releasing Tension (meditation balls), 2001
sterling silver
2 x 6 x 6″
Photo: David L. Smith

Amendolara’s way of working from these experiences is to combine on-site sketching with photographs for reference and inspiration. Drawings are gestural rather than detailed renderings, and the photos are a combination of composed shots and intuitive compositions. She does make paper models, but the forms may change as fabrication progresses in the metal. Form emerges through a combination of the hydraulic press and manipulation through traditional metalsmithing techniques. It is here that Amendolara demonstrates her commitment to holloware, as opposed to sculpture: she loves the physicality of fabrication and even the smell of the materials. She has a need for “each file mark to be in the right place.” And she likes looking at a finished piece and remembering it was once a flat sheet of milled metal.

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In her own work, Amendolara makes silver holloware and, secondarily, jewelry. Sometimes the two merge, as in Allerton’s Garden, a bracelet and container based on the formal gardens on the south shore of Kauai , designed by John and Robert Allerton and maintained by the National Tropical Botanical Garden of Hawaii. Function is critical, often in an intimate way. For example, vessels that are perfume bottles might contain graceful floral jewelry to be worn. Although the scent bottles might not actually be used, the idea of the function is significant. Amendolara’s work is conservative in that it is art that begins with and refers to nature. It is postmodern in that the imagery derives from an autobiographical, female impulse. But she approaches form and materials as a traditional metalsmith, allowing the qualities of the metal — its strength and ductility — to carry the ideas. Philosophically, she embraces nurture as well as nature. Her signature form is a botanical reference with a strong flavor of protectiveness. Titles describing maternal nurturing and protection are unsubtle. Amendolara’s imagery seems to come from a combination of sense of place, or place reference ( Hawaii , the rain forest) and personal narrative (maternity). Images of nurturing and protection predominate, in the guise of nature. Cupping, holding, encircling are all represented, not in the way Georgia O’Keeffe emphasizes the sexual aspect of enfolding, but in the encircling arms of a benevolent protectress, Were the forms not so strong, the ideas might be in danger of being dismissed as overly sentimental.

Sanctuary (brooch), 1999
sterling silver
1 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2″
Photo: David L. Smith

In the summer of 2000, a show of new work at the Erie Art Museum titled “Precious Botanicals” featured objects and jewelry on this theme. During the sabbatical that preceded the exhibition, including the trip to Hawaii , Amendolara began working more in 18 karat gold, pouring ingots directly and fabricating elements in gold. Seen together, the most recent work appears the strongest, with the small jewelry looking a little lost in the large wall cases. Some narrative pieces referring directly to Amendolara’s pregnancy are a little cloying, but the newest sculptural vessels are strong, confident, and perfectly resolved. For the most part, Amendolara successfully rises above the solipsism of new mothers by keeping the whole “plantness” as a reference. And by not isolating or abstracting the architecture as Blossfeldt, O’Keeffe, or Mapplethorpe have done, for example, she keeps the focus on the life-giving functions and unity of all living things.

Fortunately, there’s a tough-minded sentiment in the interface between the maudlin titles and the spiky thrust of the curved leaves, as if the illustration accompanying the word “mother” were a cactus. In fact, there is a cactus, Sheltered Blossom, a cup and saucer that was the first real protection piece. The objects are fabricated almost wholly in metal, without narrative text or iconography from popular culture, which contributes to generalizing their meaning beyond Amendolara’s personal experience as a mother of small children. Contemporary viewers who are themselves parents, and especially mothers, will recognize the fierce protectiveness they suggest, but those without children are not excluded from identifying the principles of biological procreation. Nest (1999) is a good example. An 18 karat gold ring rises up out of the protective cup of overlapping leaves, themselves framed by soaring blades of a tropical frond. Though the ends of the ring are shaped as trifolate buds, they strain upward like beaks of hungry fledglings. A group of recent flower rings continues this exploration. Because then are not too representational, they avoid seeming emotionally manipulative and instead evoke an exquisite tenderness and the urge to protect the vulnerable.

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Likewise, Releasing Fear (worry stone) (2000), a small footed dish, wraps its overlapping leaves around a central plexiglass “stone.” The stone is a section of two-inch diameter plexiglass rod, carved and finished with a brushed matte surface, indented with water “drops.” The oxidized interior of the dish, rimmed with gold, makes the cloudy acrylic “water” turn as gray as a graphite drawing. With its shimmering translucency, the stone might be a large drop of water trapped in tropical leaves.

Amendolara’s concern with family is also reflected in her participation in making Judaica, Jewish ritual objects used in the home. All religions have sacred objects that provide tangible, visible symbols of faith and community. Although Christianity and Judaism share many of the same accoutrements, such as chalices for wine, candelabra, and containers for scent, Christians generally use them in a public context. Worship is conducted in a communal Fathering in a church, where the ritual objects are shared by many. By contrast, many Jewish rituals also take place privately, in the home, and the many objects used are duplicated in individual households. The observant family .v ill have its own wine cups, candelabra, spice box, and mezuzahs, small sacred scrolls placed on each doorway. Mane of these objects have traditionally been made of silver, thus providing work for even non-Jewish artisans.

There remains among silversmiths an active tradition of making Judaica, and even now it is not unusual for non-Jews to create Judaica. John Cogswell, the self-described “only goy in the collection of the Jewish Museum,” has connected the tradition of metalsmithing, often passed down through families, to a group of people with a long history and tradition. Amendolara first became involved in making Judaica simply because she was a member of the Society of American Silversmiths and was known to make holloware. This same interest resulted in the Clintons acquiring her work for the White House collection. As opportunities arose, she continued to participate in Judaic exhibitions, concentrating on the spice boxes, which are passed from person to person at the home ceremony that closes out the Sabbath and separates it from the rest of the week. Amendolara particularly liked “the idea of expressing gratitude for the blessings in life and doing so during a spiritual celebration with family.” The ritual came to matter more than the supporting belief system.

Ganoksin is sponsored by
Allerton’s Garden (bracelet), 1999
sterling silver, 18k gold
3 x 7 1/2 x 1″
Photo: David L. Smith

Discussions of women making art often reflect an uncomfortable tension befit pen acknowledging a female connectedness to “nature” and defending against equating female with nature and male with culture. Amendolara’s images are resolutely female; moreover, they’re maternal. They lack the frank sexuality of generative forms built by Sharon Church or Louise Bourgeois. One might even say the) have become de-eroticized, in the way that mothers do, stripped of the procreative sexuality that made them mothers in the first place. And Amendolara seems to resist updating her look, quietly, continuing to express private experience and emotion in hollow forms, which she maintains are vessels or containers, that is, functional objects, and not small sculpture. [6] The function and connection to the human body are essential components of her intent and aesthetic. In creating vessels, scent bottles, and spice boxes, she intends that the objects be used for marking very special occasions. The personal impetus of their design and its implied connectedness to the whole bio-community insures that they will be.

Marjorie Simon is a metalsmith, a writer, and chairperson of the Editorial Advisory Committee of Metalsmith.

  1. Jewis F. Day, Nature and Ornament. vol 2, Ornament: Its Finished Product (London: B.T. Batsford, 1909), p. 70.
  2. Kent Bloomer, The Nature of Ornament ( New York : W.W. Norton, 2000).
  3. See Bernard Bernstein, “The Contemporary Silversmith.” Metalsmith 15 (winter 1995), pp. 42-3, and “A Sterling Exhibition.” Metalsmith 13 (winter 1993), p. 49.
  4. Artist’s statement, in Ornament 18 (summer 1994), p. 28.
  5. This and all other unascribed quotes taken from communication with the artist.
  6. An exchange with Matthew hollern makes this clear. See “Sue Amendolara: A Study of Nature, Ornamental Metalwork and Jewelry,” Metalsmith 14 (spring 1994), p. 48. See also letter of response in winter 1995 issue.

By Marjorie Simon - © Metalsmith Magazine - Fall 2001
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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