Laurie Hall: A Primitive Contemporary

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignBehind the DesignLaurie Hall: A Primitive Contemporary
By LaMar HarringtonMore from this author

It takes a powerful psyche to cope with and build on the kind of support and inspiration that has surrounded Laurie Hall all of her life. The inspiration coming from all sides has been nurtured in the fertile soil of her imagination in an artistic life full of restless searching.

She goes in many directions. She says her goal is to free her art and her life of any usual expectation. Whatever the goal, she is probably the most contemporary figure I know. She is a true contemporary as well as a primitive in terms of original thinking.

Imagery, Storytelling and Movement

She is most satisfied with her working process when she has an idea and starts working with the materials and "spontaneously the work takes over into a continuous organic discovery. The sketch is in my head. It is not a studied event. The trip is more important than reaching the destination. I'm interested in the esthetic aspect, but when I'm in my studio, wide awake sometimes at two A.M., I feel like a kid building a fort—my studio is a game room—I'm possessed!"

Laurie Hall - Wild Appaloosa
Wild Appaloosa, carved, polychromed pine, silver, hairpin, bone beads, horsehair, 1983.

Laurie Hall, artist, is also a high school art teacher, teaching five classes a day in jewelry, textiles and graphic design. The classroom houses performance episodes with all kinds of characters, some stars, some supporting actors.

Laurie Hall hopes to involve the spectators and wearers of her jewelry in the art process too. As she wrote in the "Portfolio" section of American Craft magazine (April/May 1984), she hopes the bold size and nature of her work "will compel the wearer and spectator to participate in the spectacle of adventure." Ramona Solberg sums up the dynamic relationship of the artist and her art this way: "Dealing with Laurie and her art is like sticking your finger in an electric socket." Hall says she has a kinship with those contemporary artists working in areas traditionally not accepted as jewelry.

She is interested in ideas and materials, in exploration—she is not interested in making pretty jewelry.

Chief Bone, Gone Fish'in, Bone Fish, bone, carved, polychromed wood, brass, silver, Indian mound beads, 1981. Photo: Rod Siemmons

Although she started working in the late 1960s, the roots of her present work lie in a piece entitled Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (1979). This is one of the earliest works to incorporate figure parts, one of the last "two-dimensional" works and the first of many with articulated and moving parts. The hands are a powerful primitive image and the face/mask the beginning of her use of disguise and her interest in performance and theater. Hall usually doesn't use "found objects," as her close colleagues in Seattle do, but creates her own icons. This piece has a strikingly primitive feeling, but its message is totally contemporary—about her friend, Charlie.

In Chief Bone, Gone Fish'in, Bone Fish (1981), she introduces a carved wood fish and canoe to create needed forms. Here, with the American Indian as icon, Hall begins a long investigation into her American roots. Her work becomes more three-dimensional and narrative. Although the title here is nonsensical, and certainly poetic, and the piece looks almost ritualistic, the work carries a practical and universal message: The most valuable part, a sterling silver fish, hidden behind the paddle, is unattainable, as valuable things always seem to be.

Help, Help, House on Fire, (front and back views) carved bone with resin inlay, rubber, wood, and enamel, 1984. Photo: Roger Scheiber

Wild Appaloosa (1983) was inspired by the original eight-foot-long antique Sioux Indian "Horse Effigy" at the Tate Gallery, which she wanted to show in a new way in her jewelry. Worn correctly on the diagonal, the horse is a memento of the warring, moving spirit of the American Plains Indians, and probably of Hall's own restless energy.

L.H. Bean Pole (1983) is a throwback to her earliest rudimentary efforts in 1970 to make jewelry as important in the back as in the front of the wearer. Formally, the use of the body-as-nature—the body as part of a dramatic adventure—is a major element of the work, as is the delicacy of line. Flirtatiously, Hall invites the spectator to approach what appears to be a contemporary pin and then offers an absorbing Mark Twain-like story.

L. H. Bean Pole, sterling silver tubing, ivory, 1983. Photo: Roger Schreiber

Special Delivery (1983) incorporates more Americana. It speaks to the formality and order of American life and is influenced by the bicycle rider whirligigs of late 19th-century New England. Hall avoids a "cute" image by keeping the form sculptural.

With Help, Help, House on Fire (1984) the subject matter is more situational. The body is truly the armature for this narrative, which is spread out over back and front and shaped in an arch form to go over the shoulder. It was executed with a mannequin. Hall has been fascinated with the American fire house since childhood. This piece shows her ability to draw from diverse materials to fill her need and to not let technique overpower her statement. Even when working with silver her concept has never been restricted by the metal's preciousness.

K. O. antique folk figures, brass, copper, leather, boxing glove charm, 1985. Photo: Rod Siemmons

Rah, Rah, Sisboombah (1985) has both front and back views formed like an advertising sandwich board with leather strapping over the shoulders. Hall is here starting to deal with contemporary American people. The subject matter comes from her parents' lives in the 30s: the era of the Model T and football games. Complicated subject matter with a football being kicked over the goal post to a waving and fragmented crowd dominates the front panel, the other team with pennants and megaphone on the back.

K.O. (1985) continues American sports subject matter involving the idea of participation and movement, either with line or with moving parts. The two "found" figures imply interaction but don't look very mad at each other, which creates an ambiguity with the angry "conversation" seeming to take place between them. Are they shaking hands? What can two boxers do with one glove between them? Hall's work is infused with such mysteries. She says a piece of art without some mystery becomes craft and recognizes any such shortcomings in her own work immediately.

The Conversation pins, sterling silver, 1985. Photo: Rod Siemmons

A punning piece, The Measure of a Man (1985), is filled with symbols addressing the question of how the male must act to live up to American societal conventions of "manhood"—a social statement that most men can't be what they really are. Although much of her work is playful and whimsical, many pieces come from her profound understanding of the serious side of life.

Puzzled Solution (1985), the most narratively complex of Hall's work to date, was commissioned by an interior designer. The work describes, symbolically and surrealistically, the trials of solving professional design problems. Hall creates magical theater pieces from her intellect, imagination and her own or others' experiences. She is moved by large scale, color and diverse materials.

Rah, Rah, Sisboombah (front and back views), oxidized copper, brass, plastic, feather found painted-tin football, 1985. Photos: Roger Schreiber

The Conversation (1985), in the form of a chatelaine, as with many of Hall's works, addresses a practical, everyday situation—this a psychologically laden and spirited argument between two Matisse—like male and female heads with symbols involving the question mark, a card game, a kiss, the heart, the number sign and the love birds for satisfaction. Her messages in the "theater" pieces seem at the time literal and symbolic, as well as poetic and practical. The use of charms on chains creates a kind of staged movement. Here Hall makes the usual understood by presenting it in a new and sometimes shocking way. Much of her work has an edge, is usually bold, but never crude. These simple head forms in The Conversation are the basis for a line of pins produced in a limited series.

In Context

Assessed within today's jewelry mainstream, Hall's work, along with that of a handful of other Americans, stands close to the English innovators Caroline Broadhead, Susanna Heron, David Watkins, Sorrel Corke and the Spaniard Marta Breis in concept and motivation. That is, their work shares a boldness, a drive toward exploration and a diversity of materials. However, most of the innovative British and European work is still abstract and high tech, while Hall's work is responding to today's post-Modern wearer and spectator, who demand more than minimalism.


The form of the circlet and "squarelet", popular with the Dutch Herman Hermsen, the German Therese Hilbert and the Englishman David Watkins—all in abstract geometric designs—is shared by Laurie Hall, who incorporates her figurative imagery into "circles [that] lend themselves to narrative—bears chasing fish—black birds flying-rolls of barbed wire." Hall's work also employs considerable line, as does that of Watkins, Hermsen, Hilbert, the German George Dobler and the Dutch Lam de Wolf.

As early as the late 1960s, Hall executed a number of rudimentary front/back works, a form explored by such artists as Watkins and Heron. Again, the British rely on abstract constructions, while Hall's works are imagist. Also, although Heron's wearable art is often hardly wearable, tending toward the purely sculptural, Hall's is eminently wearable, even as it increasingly expands over the body-as-armature.

The Measure of Man, antique ruler and folk figure, blackboard, copper, brass, chalk, rubber tubing. Photo: Roger Schreiber

Further, a number of artists are dealing with forms that fit over the shoulder—enveloping and, sometimes, overpowering the wearer: the Swiss Pierre Degen, the Dutch Gijs Bakker, the British Julia Manheim and the American Marjorie Schick. Hall shares this form in a more wearable version.

Hall's interest in movement is shared by Friedrich Becker of West Germany, Gunilla Treen of Britain and Esther Knobel of Israel. Yet, although Hall's strong imagery, along with movement and color, are shared with Knobel, there the similarity ends, with Knobel's more conventional, lyrical and flat symmetry and Hall's unexpected turns of three-dimensional form and of mystery.

Although Hall has been heavily inspired and nourished by the imaginations of European painters of the first quarter of this century and by the contemporary British and Dutch innovators, and although her work shares many similar elements with other mainstream jewelers, she makes unique contributions to today's art world. Her greatest distinction at this moment comes from her long-term concentration on figurative work, at its height of quality today. Her rich promise lies in a new interest in the area of performance, a natural outgrowth from the present concentration on imagery, storytelling and movement and, possibly, down the road, into life-sized subject matter. The quality that has before and will in the future assure a substantial artistic edge in her art is her powerfully disciplined drive to experiment with life and with art.

Scenario for the Developemnt of a Primitive Contemporary Jeweler


"After a childhood of thinking of jewelry as insignificant mass-produced curios, I saw for the first time, at the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Portland, the original, one-of-a-kind objects in silver designed and made by Polly Stehman—jewelry that was art, it seemed to me. That was when I saw the creative potential in jewelry for the artist." - Laurie Hall


"Ramona Solberg's presentation at the Washington Education Association conference of her ethnic collection and her own jewelry with found objects impressed me. I could see that a readymade object, carefully selected, gives the artist a place to start from and allows the upgrading of scale. It can serve as an icon to work around. I can't stress enough the terrific impact this material had on me for years. Later, Ramona, as my teacher, gave me total freedom to express myself. Ramona loves jewelry and she loves living because of the people involved. She inspires you to do more with your work and with your life." - Laurie Hall
"At home with my parents and later during the fifth year art education courses, I got interested in the humor, movement, color, images, energy, realism, and surrealism as well as the recalcitrance of artists like Calder, Matisse, Picasso, and Magritte. And, especially in the sophistication of child art and the way primitive peoples control their lives by investing in their art works." - Laurie Hall


"Quit fooling around with this macramé and get going with silver—if you can't find ivory, just cut up a soup bone on a band saw. The scale will be limited only by the size of the bone. Don't fret about the material—be yourself." - Ramona Solberg


"During my first trip to London I saw the mostly abstract work of Wendy Ramshaw, Susanna Heron and Gunilla Treen and visisted Caroline Broadhead in preparation for a talk on new British jewelry. I learned that these innovators whom I admired so much were troubled with the same problems as I: How to make a living as an artist? Where to show? etc." - Laurie Hall
Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, bone dominos, carved bone face with resin inlay, string, 1979. Photos: Rod Siemmons


"Although I hadn't yet tried images in my work, for some time I had been interested in the figure—remember, my formative years were heavily textured with Pop Art and then the Funk icons of the 70s." - Laurie Hall

Late 1970s

"Ideas came into clearer focus now as I began to deal with my own American context—the imagery of the Eskimo, American Indian, Southwest pottery, folk art and work that featured such American icons as the alligator, bear, horse and the postman-as-hero." - Laurie Hall


"Don't just make designs, make stories—the work can be art, not just decoration or fashion—and you can build on these narratives. Invent a vocabulary of symbols to speak your own language." - Friend and artist, Charles Luce, N.Y.C.


Hall saw the British and European collection of contemporary jewelry at Malcolm, Sue and Abigale Knapp's home in New York City. Described in the Knapps' catalog by the curators, David Ward and Susanna Heron, as "work which showed a movement away from the discreet, decorative roles of conventional jewelry in favor of a conscious identification with broader issues concerning the body in art in society," the collection was a further inspiration to Hall in her determination to escape the usual formulae of life and art.
Special Delivery, carved polychromed articulated figure, copper, sterling silver, 1983. Photo: Roger Schreiber


"Robert Lee Morris reinforced what Solberg had already instilled: 'Jewelry is important and should be created only the way you want it.' He also counseled, 'Know yourself, edit your work and put forward symbols to alter the consciousness of society—raise the spirit—soothe the soul . . .'" Hall's creative energies were fueled by this short summer experience with Morris at a Parsons workshop at Lake Placid, NY.


Hall began to explore the surrealist world of Oskar Schlemmer and his views about costume and disguise and their relationship to the body-as-armature, integrating these ideals with her most advanced thoughts about jewelry-as-performance.


Hall leaves her home in Seattle this early summer ot work in the studios of a mentor, Robert Lee Morris, in New York, the city that annually infuses her spirit with new vitality after each year of teaching.

LaMar Harrington is Director and Chief Curator of the Bellevue Art Museum in Bellevue, Washington.

By LaMar Harrington
Metalsmith Magazine – 1986 Fall
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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LaMar Harrington

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