A year before the first appearance of the Memphis collection at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981, Leslie Leupp was collecting materials from hardware stores and welding shops for a series of bracelets.
Of this period he says, “I wanted to use patterns and color; I was intrigued with angles and planes. It was a time when things were popping in the fields of metal and jewelry design: roller printing, photoetching, the use of titanium and aluminum, the marriage of metals, the anodizing process. Attitudes and philosophies were also changing. It was no longer necessary to consider the size of a diamond or how much gold was required for a piece of jewelry, so why not use plastics?”
Leslie Leupp, like the emerging Memphis group, had already transcended the barrier between so-called “high” and “low” materials and had chosen to make the “antihierarchical gesture” of appreciating the ignored or unrealized elegance of the commonplace. He had begun a continuing romance with bits of patterned linoleum, formica, vinyl, plastic stones, knitting needles, coils and tubes of colored plastics. This pointed the way to textural combinations as unpredictable in their impact as a Zen koan.
The choice of nontraditional materials for jewelrymaking was linked by Leupp to an interest in the possibilities of suspension. During the early 80s, this resulted in a bracelet series held on the wrist by elastic threaded through plastic. Putting on a Leupp bracelet became a problem of subtle adjustments. “The thing that interested me in these pieces,” he says, “is that arranging the bracelet on the arm of the wearer is a two-person procedure, which I think is nice. You can put it on by yourself, but it’s easier if someone helps you.”
Unlike earrings or a brooch, a bracelet presents the challenge of containment in wearing, as well as of entry and exit—putting on and taking off. A brooch may reach out into space, but, as in the false door of an Egyptian tomb chamber, it does not penetrate inward, nor does it enclose. A bracelet provides what Leupp refers to as “a space in which to work.” There is an involvement with both void and solid. Differing from a ring, which shares the bracelet’s negative and positive aspects but is lodged firmly on a finger, a design encircling the wrist may shift and move. Taking advantage of this kinetic factor, Leupp has constructed a large, round, almost flat bracelet with a square opening at the center; it is reminiscent of the Chinese coins sewn on a lady’s “work basket” at the turn of the century. The black patinated metal is bordered by a fretwork of delicately riveted bars like the patterns on Chinese balustrades. Depending on light and Motion, the bracelet casts changing shadows over the skin and clothing, thus modifying the severity and restraint of the design while adding a new spatial dimension.
Geometric figures are dominant in Leupp’s work. A bracelet might be a circle that lies flat on top of the wrist, held in a square frame by a rectangular bar of richly textured linoleum. A circle of plastic, flattened slightly on top, might invite the hand to be drawn through a round opening, where the arm will be clasped by elastic attached to small knobs that exert the proper tension. Nine Bracelets in a Series—Suspended employs tension and suspension in a different manner. The bracelets, made of gold-plated brass brazing rods, each displaying a variation upon a rectangle, are intended to be worn together or separately. When removed, they may be attached by small springs to an architectonic frame. Recalling a child’s jungle gym or a vertical maze, the design is handsome as a whole and enhances the pleasure enjoyed by the parts. “This kind of presentation,” Leupp explains, “gives the viewer another approach to jewelry, that of object.” The intimate scale pleases the artist; he intends that his work should be assembled, disassembled, touched, picked up and enjoyed in all of its varied aspects.
From time to time, Leupp turns his attention to pieces that are not intended to be worn. The whimsical Broken Umbrella Series, in three pieces, brings together wooden ribs covered with paper, like a Japanese fan, and cast concrete parts. The contrast of natural materials with industrial products produces a parallel between Leupp’s sensitivity to contrasts and Robert Venturi’s observation that “a feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth.”
Birds of a Feather Revised, an Alice-in- Wonderland collection of feathered creatures dangling head down, like croquet mallets, also introduces striking contradictions. Geometric niobium forms are at the upper ends of the slender steel rods to which the cut-out birds are fastened. Leupp describes the effect as the play of rigid geometry against the amorphism of the birds, the extinct dodo, the elegant flamingo, even the ubiquitous Woody Woodpecker, that suggests metaphors for qualities of life.
Underlying the playful sophistication of Leupp’s birds, there is a hint of folk traditions. It is not surprising to discover that the artist’s home is a sanctuary for American folk art: an American eagle standing on a gilded ball baskets, doorstops, wooden matchboxes painted with feline characters by the hand of fanciers untutored in academic techniques. Quilts that are a part of childhood memories are favorite items in the collection.
One of eight children born to Mennonite parents, Leupp grew up in a farming community in northwestern Ohio. Of the early influences affecting his work, he observes:
I was born on a farm. You worked all of the time from the moment the sun came up until it went down. I’m still a workaholic. You lived off the land, always shucking corn, picking and peeling some fruit or vegetable to can or preserve; you just didn’t go to the store and get something off the shelf. The kitchen was the family meeting place. I found what happened there very interesting. I was intrigued by mixing and stirring, that is, with process, and then it would come out a chocolate cake. I was always drawing. I’d see something in a magazine and then I’d draw it. Brought up in the religion, jewelry was not worn. But I had an aunt who was more liberal. She loved costume jewelry. Once a year, she would clean out her drawers and bring a paper bag of jewelry to the four youngest children in our family. We’d divide this hoard up and each of us would have a little stash. I’d bury it like pirate’s gold. I think every child must have this idea of hidden treasure and sparkling things.
Leupp believes the lack of preconceived ideas about jewelry and jewelry’s traditional values is one of the strengths of his work. “Without any notions of what jewelry should be,” he says, “I was free to invent it, and I still do.”
Although handcrafts were not generally practice in the Ohio community, Leupp knew a Mennonite family who made furniture. The only activity carried on in his own household was quilting. “A quilt was put in a frame,” he remembers, “and for a week the women would come to our house to work on it. Children would come with them; this was a time to play hide-the-thimble and other games and then refreshments were passed around.” In the circles and squares of Leupp’s jewelry, in the patterns and colors, in the precision of fitting pieces together, there is a bond with the art of the quilt. Edward Lucie-Smith calls the calico spreads “the supreme expression of the folk spirit.” It seems odd, perhaps, to compare quilts and the jewelry of Leupp with its vigorous avant-garde approach to the 21st century, but, if you believe that where you’ve come from determines who you are, the filtering light of Leupp’s childhood experience shines through. In this case, the quality, simplicity and integrity of a pioneer craft are inherent in his art.
Recently, Leupp has turned his attention to brooches, which are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the high-tech manipulation of industrial materials present in the tension/suspension pieces. Internal Bleeding #1 and #2 make use of found branches and twigs combined with unexpected parts. In the case of Internal Bleeding #1, a forked stick holds a cone covered with silver leaf. The gnarled wood is attached at an angle to a straight-edged, rulerlike bar with a surface of linoleum, which looks deceptively like marble. #2 joins straight metal prongs with a branch separating two cones overlaid with gold leaf. Now that the Midas touch is no longer greatly valued by makers of contemporary jewelry, it is a neat visual comment to discover the glimmer of gold in a bare bough. Playfulness in the dissimilarity of materials relieves the grim titles given the brooches. Whatever the interpretation, it is inevitable to wonder if the wearer at the stroke of midnight will metamorphose into a Daphne or a perverse Dryad.
Leupp holds strong ideas on wearing his work. He points out:
People still want to put jewelry on and be very comfortable. They don’t want anything to be disturbing; but that’s not my work. If you put a piece of mine on, I want you to be disturbed. I want you to hold your hand in a special way for the whole evening. I want some mental and physical comfort, a mental awareness, a commitment. I like to think that a whole occasion is built around a particular design. Here it is. It’s not that you put on your clothes and try to find something to match. You select the event; you start nude; you get to pick the garment, the shoes, everything to go with the piece of jewelry. Everything’s build around it; besides, when you get the bracelet or brooch on, your body can’t be held in the same way it was. You are this thing now, since it changes your mental attitude as well as your physical posture.
Leupp continues, “You don’t have to own the jewelry to enjoy it. I want people to see and experience my work when it is being worn.” This is very close to the Navajo meaning of hózhó, that state of beauty transmitted by the Indian craftsman to his silver design that will, in some measure, bring both wearer and viewer into a state of harmony and balance.
At present, Leupp is involved with earrings and bracelets; the color and pattern are the result of a process brought about by applying a lacquer resist to aluminum. The pieces are intense in color and exude a carnival atmosphere. “In this series,” Leupp comments, “I’m leaving saw marks and cuts on some of the edges. I’m trying to loosen up and play with the human quality and even with human error in contrast to treating the metal in a slick, industrial way. I’m also continuing to explore the contrasts found in nature and in products of industry. I’ve been seeing things along the road that interest me and torn out walls of buildings with advertising signs projecting through the rubble.” In a similar context, Venturi has noted, “The seemingly chaotic juxtaposition of honky-tonk elements expresses an intriguing kind of vitality and validity, and they produce an unexpected approach to unity as well.”
The basis of Leupp’s philosophy is centered upon unity as a part of life and his art. He says:
My work is a part of a totality. I put the same intensity into washing dishes as I do when I’m in the studio. (The creative process) is no longer a separate anxiety that takes precedence over other activities. Rather, this process has been integrated into the total scheme of things and has become a part of my daily living . . . My work is no longer about “how?”: How much does it shine and glitter? How much does it cost? How much does it weigh? The new attitude provides larger and broader issues. All materials and processes have become valid considerations to search through for solutions . . . the images presented in my work deal with more that a concern for formal design considerations, but also include a part of my psyche and daydreams. My work is about observation and contemplation. The form of the large image is used to expand and extend both the physical and mental awareness of the wearer and the viewer. As my life has become an accumulation of possibilities to investigate, my work is a response to these possibilities.
Elizabeth Skidmore Sasser is a professor of architecture at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX and a contributing editor to Metalsmith.