A Legacy in American Metalworking

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By Richard HelzerMore from this author

A Legacy in American Metalworking

It was 9:00 in the morning in Lawrence, Kansas and Carlye Smith was heading for his jewelry studio, as he has done nearly every day since he retired from teaching at the University of Kansas in 1977. It was a pleasure to recently visit him there and to view his new work. The new pieces of jewelry are mostly commissions and these elegant objects are as steady and as directed to design and craftsmanship as is all of his previous work that I remember. I see in this accomplished artist's jewelry an interwoven mixture of his life as a jeweler/silversmith, dedicated teacher, friend and supporter, and devotee to the field of metalsmithing.

american metalworking
Brooch, 1952 sterling

My original introduction to Carlyle Smith was in the summer of 1967 at the University of Kansas, where I intended to pursue a Master's of Education program. I had recently completed an undergraduate degree in Art Education, and thought of myself primarily as a painter. Curiosity caused me to enroll in a jewelry class taught by Smith that summer. His impact was so profound that I immediately applied for the M.F.A. program in Jewelry and Metalsmithing. The stimulation and support that I received that summer was to benefit my life as an artist and teacher forever. At a time when I needed direction and confidence in my work, Smith provided encouragement and enthusiasm, which have always been the keys to his teachings philosophy.

Pin, 1959, cast sterling, gemstones

Smith's involvement in metals began when he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1927. He began working with Antonio Cirino, head of the silversmithing program and distinguished author of Jewelry Making and Design (now in its fourth edition). After Smith had been enrolled for one semester, Mr. Cirino asked him to teach an art metal class at the Providence Boys' Club, which he accepted and he continued to teach classes there throughout his graduate career. After graduating from R.I.S.D. in 1931 and eager to continue to teaching, Smith found himself in the midst of the Great Depression, and faced with the necessity of a five-year apprenticeship in the field before his application for a teaching position would be considered. "That left me out in the cold," Carlyle said, "so I apprenticed with the Augustus F. Rose Metal Craft Shop. At the end of that five years time, Mr. Rose wrote a letter signifying the fact that I had been employed there under a Master Craftsman, and I then received my teacher's certificate." The next year Smith went to teach in the Providence Public Schools. Because Providence was then the jewelry manufacturing center of the United States, and metal working was very much a part of the public school curriculum, Smith was able to find a teaching position.

Pin, 1976, sterling, pearl

Throughout this period Smith continued working with Augustus Rose, who was also involved with the Providence Public Schools. Those early years teaching coupled with a strong relationship with Cirino and Rose, gave Smith the strong foundation in metalsmithing education which would develop into a lifelong commitment to teaching.

Brooch, 1968, sterling, 14k gold

During World War II the teaching of metalwork became particularly challenging because the supplies of metal were shut off to everyone except the military industry. Smith and his students used large tin cans for metal working material. They would open them up and use the flat stock for fabrication. One project designed by Smith during this period was a metal tray that was eventually developed into an ashtray, and was sent to U.S.O. centers all over the United States. During the later war years, Smith was employed by the Navy to supervise the training program for the American Optical Company, which was doing naval contract work for eye glasses. Using his skills as a teacher, Smith set up training programs for new employees at all of the company plants.

Pendant, 1932, silver, amethyst quartz

In 1947 Carlyle Smith was lured to Lawrence, Kansas at the invitation of Majorie Whitney, who was chair of the Department of Design at the University of Kansas. Miss Whitenety asked Smith to set up a program in jewelry and silversmithing and it was there that he would spend the next thirty years working, teaching, and influencing generations of metalsmiths through his creative example.

Brooch, 1954, reticulated sterling, carnelians

Smith's first semester of teaching included design, lettering, color theory, and one course in jewelry making. With this meager beginning, the program in jewelry and silversmithing was established. During the summer of that busy first year at the University of Kansas, he was selected to study with the renowned silversmith, William Bennett, of the Sheffield England College of Art. The workshop was set up by Margaret Craver and sponsored by the Handy and Harmon Gold and Silver Refiners in New York. There were nine teachers of silversmithing selected to participate in the workshop which promoted technical and philosophical concepts in silversmithing education. The Handy and Harmon workshops set the stage for the emergence of jewelry and silversmithing as an important component in Art School Curriculum. Carlyle Smith is credited with starting the first curriculum in silversmithing leading to bachelor's and master's degrees at a state university.

Brooch, 1956, sterling, enamel

Smith has had a tremendous impact upon students, most of whom regard him as the principal influence on their creative and professional development. He believes in the ultimate importance of a private space needed for personal creativity for each student. He is known not just for teaching technical skill and craftsmanship, but for nurturing the individual as well. Smith also instilled a strong sense of community in the jewelry and silversmithing studios.

Brooch, 1957, sterling. Collection: Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Recently many of his former students have made the pilgrimage back to Lawrence to see their professor; respect runs deep for the professor and mentor, not only what he has given to the field of metalsmithing, but for the friendship he offered and the affect he has had on students' lives. In a letter, occasioned by Smith's retirement from teaching in 1977, three former students wrote: "More than the skills you taught us, we remember the morning coffee and doughnuts and the many times we just chatted about life." Another student stated: "Without your constant help and encouragement, I would not have this wonderful life working in my craft and teaching the students I love so much, I thank you for the opportunity you have given me."

Pendant, 1992, 14k, sterling, green amethyst

The mark that Smith has left on the field of metalsmithing stretches far beyond the confines of Lawrence, Kansas. Graduates of the Jewelry and Silversmithing program at K.U. extend to several generations and included Lois Betteridge, Lee Carrell, James Connely, Robert Ebendorf, Julie Fluker, Lee Hageman, Marilyn Herrmann, Ron Hickman, Ron Hinton, Klaus Kallenberger, Brent Kington, Jerry Krebs, Condon Kuhl, Curtis Lafollet, Gary Linde, Sue Mahlstadt, Glenice Matthews, Richard Mawdsley, Robert Montgomery, Mike Oliver, Bob Pringle, John Queen, John Satterfield, Ron Wyanco, and many, many others.

Smith sums up his thirty years at the University of Kansas by stating that he stayed at the university for so long because of the climate,

"…and I don't mean the weather. I mean the academic climate of the university. I could have made more money at other schools, a lot of us could have, but that did not concern me. I liked the working conditions, I never asked the university or Dean for anything that wasn't approved. Of course I didn't ask for much anyway, but when I did it was always okayed. This makes for nice relationships and nice working conditions. I love the University of Kansas, and I am glad I stayed here for thirty years."

Pendant, 1992, bronze, 24k gold plate

And because of his commitment and his successful teaching career at K.U., the new metalsmithing studio is named the Carlyle H. Smith Metalsmithing and Jewelry Studio.

As if the task of building and maintaining the program at K.U. was not enough, Smith was also instrumental in developing other silversmithing curriculums and spreading his artistic sensibilities through workshops and courses around the world. In 1964 he traveled to Costa Rica as part of a K.U. Carnegie summer grant. The next year Smith and his wife, Isabelle were named directors of the K.U. Junior Year Abroad Program. That year was spend in Costa Rica where Smith became involved in the School of Fine Arts the University of Costa Rica. While there, he introduced the first course in jewelry and silversmithing in a Central American University. Smith says that his goal was to get the Costa Rican art students not to imitate the kind of objects they saw produced in the U.S.; but, to respond to their own environment. In other travels, Smith assisted in developing a silversmithing program in Guadalajara, and a summer jewelry course for New Mexico State University, where he taught for seven summers.

Brooch, 1993, silver, turquoise

In combination with a compliment to a successful teaching career, there have been important commissions, these include: a chalice for the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kansas; an Abbots ring and pectoral cross for St. Benedicts Abbey, Atchison, Kansas; and the Chancellor's collar and mace for the University of Kansas. In addition, the Renwick Gallery has purchased a brooch that was made in 1957, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has recently acquired several pieces of his jewelry and hollowware.

Pendant, 1993, silver, turquoise

It is Smith's positive encouragement that everyone he worked with remembers most. Lee Hageman, now the chair of the Art Department at Northwest Missouri State University, talks about Carlyle Smith as his mentor. "He is a genuinely concerned person who I think had a great influence on my studies. Without him I would probably still be a Kansas farm boy. He has a positive attitude toward everything, and he always tried to eliminate the negative."

These days Carlyle Smith works in his studio in Lawrence, Kansas. He does not foresee slowing down. He says: "I think the secret to keeping active is I don't just sit. I work in my studio and each afternoon my wife and I go out rain or shine. I don't think I'll retire."

The contributions that Carlyle Smith has made to jewelry and silversmithing education are profound. For forty years, students have had the opportunity to share in this renowned educators talents and abilities. Smith brought to the studio a zest for life and an enthusiasm for making jewelry. These attributes have influenced the lives and careers of the scores of students he has trained, and they will surely continue the process of education which he started for them and many others.

Richard Helzer's longtime association with Carlyle Smith began in 1967 while attending graduate school at K.U.. Helzer is now a Professor of Art at Montana State University, in Bozeman, Montana, where he has been teaching metalsmithing since 1970.
By Richard Helzer
Metalsmith Magazine – 1994 Winter
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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Richard Helzer

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