State of the Art

31 Minute Read

By Mary DouglasMore from this author

State of the Art

In 1968, a group of jewelers met "to organize professional designer craftsmen in metal arts." Attending this first gathering of what was to be the Society of North American Goldsmiths were Bob Ebendorf, Phil Fike, Hero Kielman, Brent Kington, Stanley Lechtzin, Kurt Matzdorf, Philip Morton, Ron Pearson, and Olaf Skoogfors - all but Pearson were in college level faculty positions. The minutes of that meeting refer to this collective as "a unique group" and that they "should stay as a group of special craftsmen."' This new organization's objectives, as stated in the Constitution, addressed "educational, scientific, and aesthetic purposes concerned with fostering, encouraging and teaching the subject of goldsmithing." These initial efforts to provide a forum for studio jewelers have resulted in the Society and its membership, conferences, exhibitions, and publications - in short, activities which have established a group identity for the art practice known as metalsmithing.

This essay will concern issues of identity and self-definition as a response to the accompanying catalogue of metalwork, which is itself a defining act. The implied purpose of such an exhibition in print is to make an assessment of the field, to acknowledge trends, and to chart the discipline's latest developments. Likewise, this essay affords the opportunity to provide a critique of the field - to examine basic assumptions, esthetic models, and forums that delineate the group. A key issue is the placement of metals within a larger art practice. What is the relevance of metalwork as a discipline? And what is the cultural significance of that art today?

Comments on the Jury

Let's begin with the parameters of the Exhibition in Print. It is a survey that canvases a specific group, practitioners who identify themselves with Metalsmith magazine. This survey method is also directed by the jury's bias. Who is the jury? All are artists producing exhibition quality work-a group more alike than dissimilar, all but one are highly active in education as faculty, lecturers, and workshop instructors, and thus they might be expected to reinforce their own position.

To profile the selected entrants, how many matriculated through college art programs? How many hold faculty positions? How many were the jury's students? How many were known to be students of the jury's colleagues? (This leads to the fraternal nature of SNAG academia: during the jury process, personal information was presented about certain entrants; those nobody knew were unrepresented, so to speak.) So the notion of a survey as a general view is belied by its results, in this case a selection favoring metalwork as unique jewelry, sculpture, and vessel - forms that have been given status in contemporary craft as concept-oriented.

What was the jury's criteria? From my observations, they seemed to take for granted a shared standard that included issues of quality, artistic excellence, and originality. Are these terms considered absolutes, rather than as having subjective meaning? Based on the type of work edited out (the almost wholesale rejection of traditional jewelry), the jury was ascribing to a Modernist view. One jurist was looking for "work that takes a risk," otherwise called cutting edge. This notion of the avant-garde is a belief in the progressive development of art. In this exhibition, newness is a criterion, thus, the focus on emerging artists.

Upholding another principle of Modernism, the jury sought to assign "authorship", attributing a particular style or image to one artist. For example, there was a debate over Allison MacGeorge because her work was seen as derivative of Jamie Bennett's. Yet, this very objection failed to acknowledge Bennett's own participation in a stylistic trend - biomorphic shapes and forms with a colorful impasto surface - used by many artists, such as painter Elizabeth Murray and ceramist Virginia Scotchie. While it's true that their (Bennett and MacGeorge) works are similar (both use an enameled brooch format), limiting a style to one artist is more revealing of the nature of the metalsmithing field: it's small and insular, which could create the tendency to stake out artistic turf. Perhaps the primacy given to originality is a reaction to art metal's undesirable cousin, the commercial jewelry business and the practice of copying competitors' designs.

Esthetic Models

Does the jury's selection imply an esthetic model for the field? Certainly their emphasis on "conceptual" work eliminates a more design-oriented approach usually associated with functional work. Out of the 42 featured works, a little over half are utilitarian which includes 17 works of jewelry (the largest category) and 7 miscellaneous objects - table, knife, picture frames, candle snuffers, teapot, vase, and perfume bottle. Excepting the traditional Japanese sword and sheath, the latter group is notable for its idiosyncratic appearance, wherein personal expression has replaced function as a mandate for form. And, for the most part, the jewelry too, is of that ilk.

This group contains the false distinction between "production" and "one-of-a-kind" works. I cannot tell the difference, based on what forms look easier to reproduce or would be more commercially viable. (I do have personal knowledge of who teaches vs. who does craft fairs, however). While the bracelets and neckpieces are unique enough, the brooch continues to be the most popular format for artistic expression, lending its autonomy from the body to a creative freedom that can deny the object's status as jewelry. Thus, in the brooch (with the chest as presentation vehicle), we can see mini canvases and sculptures derivative of fine art as well as references to traditional jewelry.

Of the non-functional work represented, I discern two main categories, sculpture (the next largest group with 12 examples) and vessels, both of which partake of established discourses in art. The former is part of a post-modern critique in object making and utilizes a type of thinking associated with contemporary sculpture. This work also looks for inherent meaning attached to the forms, processes, and materials of metalsmithing. This component of the exhibition is probably the most provocative and problematic, as it raises questions about the discipline itself. I will address this sculptural work at greater length later in the essay.

The latter is a recognized (and somewhat conservative) signifier for art in craft media. In ceramics, "the vessel" is the estheticized version of the functional pot, having achieved status with the abstract expressionist work of Peter Voulkos, and going on to become a paradigm for the medium in the art of Wayne Higby, Andrea Gill, and others. Following this Modernist example are the metal vessels in this portfolio of Helen Shirk, Billie Jean Theide, Chris Ramsay, Claire Sanford, Lynn Whitford and Louis Graveline. However, these works are not estheticized versions of their functional counterparts, in that these objects aren't derivative of hollowware (other than sharing some technical processes).

I believe they are more aligned with ceramics, whether pot or vessel, as a field characterized by an individualist and bohemian production. This art form of American culture contrasts with the social meaning of hollowware as European derived and class-based: the silversmithing product is a status symbol of aristocracy and the process reflects the Old World training of an apprenticeship system. Unlike the gleaming surfaces of Scandinavian Modern, these metal vessels have a rich surface coloration, a patina that emulates a ceramic glaze in texture and depth. This is understandable given these works' placement as art, for ceramics has the most fine art standing among the crafts.

But to return to the question of a supposed esthetic model for the field: what would a viewer presume from this selection of work? Would she take this Exhibition in Print as a guide for what forms metalsmithing should take and what metalsmithing should look like? I think curatorial decisions have been made in this juried contest, theoretically designed to give representation to the diversity of metalsmithing practices. And this has resulted in the promotion of certain types of work (described above) at the exclusion of others, such as building arts, hollowware, liturgical objects, and gemstone jewelry. This is not based on a set of standards, but on preference - and on what direction the jury thinks the field should take.

There is additional impact given that this exhibition appears under the auspices of Metalsmith, whose forum has had singular influence in picturing what metalsmithing is. The winning entries could be following the example of works previously showcased in the magazine, which is partly responsible for the proliferation of certain styles and images in the first place. Is the field reproducing itself through the magazine? While acknowledging possibly more compelling influences, such as craft fairs, on the look of the field, Metalsmith's impact has a special meaning. It represents a constituency (and like a Congressman, is supposed to be all things to all people). The readership forms an occupational club, of sorts, based in studio production and academia. And through the career advancement of direct sales, exhibit opportunities, or student enrollment, members have a vested interest in what is seen in their magazine.

Sculpture Within the Discipline

This type of fellowship leads to my next question. In this jury, was any kind of work considered as long as the entrant studied metalsmithing or called herself a metalsmith? If so, is the inclusion of installation and other sculpture meant to expand the metals envelope or to simply document what's our there? Doesn't this beg a definition for the discipline? Inherently diverse, metalsmithing has been identified with categories based on tradition, process, and material: silversmithing, blacksmithing, goldsmithing, enameling, and categories based on function, such as the ones used for this survey: jewelry, hollowware, architectural works, etc. But in this era of mixed-media, interdisciplinary study, and pluralism in art, boundaries become blurred; the most notable for us is that between metalsmithing and sculpture.

Two exhibitions of note have addressed this issue: "Form Beyond Function" in 1986 and last year's "sculptural Concerns" which is still on tour. In the former, the curatorial premise of "metalsmiths making sculpture" remains quite broad, as distinctions are not made regarding style, imagery, or content - essentially, it's just another metal show. Yet, this effort, being the first of its kind, aimed to establish a critical and theoretical discourse for this kind of work, here, a small sampling of what is obviously a major trend in contemporary metalsmithing.

In the exhibition catalogue, the essayists addressed issues of definition and identity specific to metalsmithing, positing the field on a separate but non-hierarchical footing from the discipline of sculpture. Gary Griffin argued that the decorative arts provide a grounding for nonfunctional metalwork which contextualizes the use of scale and detail inherent to gold and silversmithing. While seemingly obvious, his stance is also radical given the hegemony of the fine arts wherein the crafts are considered derivative rather than as having discipline, specific language.

Bruce Metcalf also challenged the canon with his analysis of craft in relation to Modernism: the former's sensibilities toward making, material, and scale and the latter's intellectual program describe incompatible agendas. This has led to a segregated development, leaving craft "outside the mainstream" of modern art and as a result denied the status of art. Metcalf's position is political in that he seeks empowerment for craft by legitimizing its inherent qualities in the lace of a dominant Modernist discourse. His insights offer an interpretive tool for a historical evaluation of the crafts.

Indeed, both essays provoke a re-examination of what we know about craftspeople that have been positioned within art narratives (although exclusion is more the norm). Craft, when it is recognized by the art establishment, is re-interpreted on their terms. Such inclusion means giving up the right of self-definition, which is central to Griffin's and Metcalf's theories of craft. This political interpretation of craft as a marginalized activity is compatible with current Post-Modern thinking, such as feminist theory and multi-culturalism.

I believe that this climate has opened up art practice for contemporary craftspeople, which has allowed a blending of art and craft concerns. For example, with Modernism, craft had to submit to concept; in the Post-modernism age, craft can be concept. Through historical appropriation, metalsmiths can examine tradition without adhering to it, mining the discipline For social meaning. This strategy also frees the maker from inventing form, another Modernist paradigm. Likewise, sculpture is not about form, but about a certain type of thinking. It is this methodology that serves the metalsmith as he uses his discipline for conceptual grounding.

"Sculptural Concerns", the second exhibition noted, implies by its title the use of sculpture methodology, so stated in the catalogue preface: "the works are significant . . . most importantly for their implicit and explicit conceptual issues." This show "surveys the current state of the art of metalsmithing" and is on view concurrently with the Exhibition in Print. These factors of focus, intent and timeliness invite an obvious comparison to Metalsmith's endeavor, 25% of whose artists are also in "Sculptural Concerns."

"Sculptural Concerns" incorporates functional work (unlike "Form Beyond Function") with non-functional in a definition of metalsmithing as sculptural. Here, it seems the adjective is to mean "like sculpture," as the choice of jewelry and other decorative art forms do not, in fact, represent sculpture. Similarly, the majority of non-functional works deviate from contemporary sculpture in that they represent ideas which are dated or are particular to metalsmithing. Therefore, works that are Modernist, narrative, or are remakes of traditional forms seem to characterize a "metalsmithing" version of sculpture documented in "Sculptural Concerns."

Does this mean that we are behind the times - a hold-out for vessel themes and negated function with things that don't work - or barking up the wrong tree with gilded plaza ploppers and inflated jewelry forms? Why does "narrative" have such a hold on our field (unless it relates to the predominant use of "personal expression") with the wealth of metals tradition, there is much work that stems from it - but with varying intents? In some cases, the traditional form serves as a blank canvas, in others, meaning is derived from it. All these differing aspects indicate that the curatorial premise has once again focused on a survey - you might as well call the exhibition "Three-dimensional Art." Like the bally-hoo surrounding the catalogue, this is content gone awry, one too many layers of meaning attached thus the picture is unclear.

Regarding sculptural concerns for the Exhibition in Print, I think the jury has identified what the significance of that might be. The work in this catalogue that I'm calling sculpture is, in my mind, more cohesive than the work of the preceding shows. Of course it's a smaller collection and probably represents a younger generation of artists who reflect more current trends in art as a whole. To that end, this group is characterized by post-modern strategies of art-making.

Harriete Estel Berman and Lisa Norton utilize technique and material for class and gender based meaning. In her bathroom scale construction inspired by diet drink cans, Berman's tinsmithing calls to mind Mexican retablos, homemade icons fashioned from tin cans of the 19th century southwest trade. Also referencing quilting and sewing with its patterning and pinked edges, the object's fabrication becomes a conceptual device that links women's culture and ethnic traditions in a commentary of and on domestic labor. Norton's similar use of preprinted steel and sheet metal construction gives an institutional pallor to her reductive forms of a tissue dispenser and trash receptacle. These functional opposites of consumer culture image a K-mart counterpart in mauve or teal plastic, a choice which belies the notion of personalized meaning. Standardized decorator colors and other oxymora of middle class taste (such as wood grained plastic) speak to older, aristocratic values that have been mutated by the desire for modern convenience. Apropos, the bathroom is the site of both works where a similar subversion takes place regarding female self-image: the commercialized body is critiqued in Berman's tribute to weight loss, and Norton's cross-dressed objects refer to "gendered" roles, with her combination of a male HVAC language and female decorative subject.

Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Jonathan Wahl, Erika Stefanutti, and Julia Jiannacopoulos incorporate decorative art forms and other domestic objects as an appropriation of craft tradition to recontextualize its social meaning. Thus, objects of complacency are revealed to have ideological underpinnings: for example, Wahl's American tinware reflects colonial heritage as the national myth of liberation, and Stefanutti's hand-sawed doily references the exploitation of female labor. Certainly, objects can stand for beliefs; in the preceding works, sculptural notions of craft incorporate a similar identification with material and process as being value-specific.

Other strategies include the semiotic treatment of the craft object in the works of Julia Barello and Susan Koons, where the object is an extrapolation of its accompanying image in a literal pairing of referent and sign; and the installation work of Carolynn Desch, Kim Cridler, Heather White and Todd Noe. Not obvious by the illustrations, White's "hat" is part of an array that hang head high under which one can assume different personas. Likewise, Noe's work is contextualized by its display: a collection of enigmatic objects each with its own shelf, as in a curio shop or museum of esoterica. This group of installations, while seemingly less connected to issues of metalsmithing, does show a rather involved fabrication process (values of craftsmanship?) and a reminiscence of function.

Metalsmiths are making the crossover into sculpture to the extent that our discourse is found lacking. As "lower life forms," our evolutionary needs are informed by other fields of study, such as history, cultural studies, and feminist theory - areas already incorporated by sculpture discourse. But as recent editorialists have put it, we need a "pro-metalsmithing" stance: formulating work that is conceptually based on the discipline's inherent properties and located within its heritage. Our placement is not reliant on a lineage of painting or sculpture. The question has ceased to be "is it art or craft," but rather "is it relevant?"

Problems of Identify

Of course, relevance is determined by the systems and structures in which one must operate, and this has contributed to my own dilemma with identity. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate education in visual art, I had misgivings about calling myself a metalsmith, as I didn't feel particularly committed to the discipline. Although I have continued to do metalwork, these feelings have persisted. My particular case results from my need to do inter-disciplinary work. But the broader issue concerns the social nature of the field, where a certain amount of comfort and a great deal of investment has determined my connection. Due to the smallness of the community, I have come to know a good many players, establishing friendships and professional acquaintances. This is a valuable resource not easily abandoned. And equally valuable is the technical skill I have acquired over the years. (Initially, the reason I continued to work with metal was out of stubbornness as I didn't want to quit until I had gained proficiency).

While not everyone is as ambiguous towards metalwork as I am, I do think the resources of the collective remain a draw for many people. Hence, all these metalsmiths making sculpture stay in metalsmithing. This can be a confusing situation, as in the example of my own artwork which may or may not look like metalsmithing. Yet, I use metal techniques and specialized tools, like silversmithing stakes and planishing hammers. What am I? That depends on the situation at hand. I call myself a metalsmith when applying for a studio teaching position or a NEA grant. Artist is the preferred label when I'm presenting myself to a gallery owner or curator. This distinction is necessary due to how work is classified: jewelry, furniture, sculpture, etceteras. And working in the latter category, a metalsmith might need to subsume that identity to be acceptable (or at least be prepared to field questions like "did you make this?").

The dilemma continues with the institution of metalsmithing as represented by SNAG, whose most vocal role is an educational one, with the magazine catering to faculty as a teaching tool for students. It seems that this emphasis has taken away from the development of a base for the studio professional - a working environment of commercial galleries, collectors, and scholarship. Upon graduating, where do all these well-muscled metal students go (besides oblivion)? From a naive viewpoint, I assumed that one studied metalsmithing only to become a teacher of it (like I thought of algebra in high school), as there seemed to be no practical application for it.

For example, consider the recently discussed sculpture: where is such work exhibited? There is little commercial support with only a handful of galleries showing metalwork other than jewelry (and this would include knives, decorative vessels, andirons, and fire tools in addition to sculpture). So it seems that there is no demand for the very work showcased here. Is this disparity a result of academic dominance and insularity? Or is it simply a case of the product being ahead of the market? To answer my own question, I think the latter. Craft might be part of the art world, but it is the notoriously conservative element of it. Therefore, work that sells (and is featured in American Craft seems to be pretty, colorful, and non-threatening.

If this is the dominant image of craft, then where does this sculpture fit in? Placement is the key issue here. "Craft" can be substituted for the words design, decorative art, handicraft, and art. I think it is important to understand which arena one is aiming for, as they are different options in terms of methodology, players, collections, and scholarship. My main criticism of the metalsmithing field concerns an indifference to these distinctions, as though all this work can be produced under the rubric "metal" and thrown out in the world - in other words, an undefined public is just supposed to be there to consume this mishmash of work, divergent beyond levels of functionality. Perhaps this is how the community fails in its continued locus on the commonality of training and process, as though this uniqueness alone is a sufficient marketing strategy.

Challenging Assumptions

Metalsmithing is a field identified by material.

Metalsmithing is more a state of mind, or a fraternal order whose members gain legitimacy through teaching, than an art or media-based practice. Just envision the metal work that's excluded from this survey - traditional types of gold, silver, and blacksmithing; forms of popular culture and industrial labor. What's left is an institutionally-supported standard of artmetal, its preferred forms being jewelry and sculpture. This is a restricted art practice, because if you make sculpture in this system, it's the metalsmith version of sculpture. And if you make jewelry, it has to be art-like, typically based in a clichéd concept such as the "theory of opposites" (my term for a proliferation of artists' statements about negative and positive, black and white, yin and yang, inner and outer etceteras.).

Shallow thinking could result from the field's technical focus that has acted to repel criticism. I can think of several examples offhand from the pages of Metalsmith: one educator decrying a writer's use of "art jargon" and more than one indignant artist responding to a review of their work wherein criticism has been interpreted as a personal assault. Such a reply assumes no distinction between the artist and the work, a symbiosis that is reflected in the use of "personal expression."

Art is about personal-expression.

This conception of art making, particularly evident in metalsmithing, has been delineated by Bruce Metcalf as a product of '70s education. As craft was placed within an art context, teachers who had primarily concerned themselves with technical knowledge found it necessary to incorporate an art language. Their efforts, being somewhat unsophisticated, resulted in a discussion about "personal expression," what Metcalf has termed "a default ideology". He explains, "Generally…it meant …you could use the object that you were making as a vehicle for whatever personal meaning would come to mind and therefore that was expression…." The use of this essentially autobiographic theme might explain why some artists are less than receptive to criticism as their artwork is, to them, symbolic of "a personal journey".

A case in point concerns the work of Helen Shirk, where there have been conflicting public and private views. In terms of the latter, she describes her art as a process of self-awareness:

The vessel provides an intimate format for me, in part because of the role it has played in man\history but also because it allows a private conversation between me and the object. Patterns of growth and images I observe in nature become metaphors for what concerns me on a personal level…The symmetrical format provides an element of stability for me, an instinctively understood point from which to start my journey.

This statement applies to work from the "Sustaining Spirit" series in this exhibition, an undulating copper bowl form depicting plant life. But it also could speak for earlier work along this line from the mid-'80s, which was a marked departure from her signature work - constructivist, sterling silver hollowware that was the epitome of formal analysis. By contrast, the new work was more organic and full of color, employing a nature motif that the artist has invested in for symbolic content.

A 1985 review described this work as a continuation of "formal, compositional inquiries," where the change existed in format - noting the semantic difference between "hollowware" and "vessel". While questioning this change in the artist's direction, the review did not acknowledge the personal content (how could it?) and thus drew a strong reply from Shirk. The reviewer's rhetorical questions were responded to literally as the artist gave a detailed account of her motivations surrounding the creation of this body of work, which included life in England, the southwest, and having a baby. Thus, travelogue and maternal status become the real informants for this work's meaning, not what it looks like, and not the context of other metalsmithing, art or design.

In this instance, the artist has invested her work with private meaning that is not necessarily decipherable or becomes subordinate to the formal properties of the artwork. Another example concerns Billie Jean Theide, who described the series included in this exhibition with a language of personal expression:

"Conceptually, the work is a conscious response to spiritual and physical journeys and explorations, records of personal thoughts and recollections, autobiographical in nature. The pieces refer to the nature of specific personal relationships….

Regardless of such intent, her Butte Teapot is accessible through formalism. This piece reads as a maquette of western plains morphology, with its "handle" poised like a boulder at cliff's edge. Or, the metal vessel stands for a ship with its form suggesting broadsides and prow. Theide has managed to capture these essences of monumentality with a simplicity of form, so that this work is immediately recognizable - at least in photographs.

Seeing the actual object, I was totally unprepared for its scale - at 3 inches in height, the diminutive size is a perversity of the implied forms. What is the rationale for such miniaturization? Which tradition is this work coming from - sculpture which is public or goldsmithing (locket, reliquary) which is private? As a "container" of the artist's experience, this work equates smallness with the intimate in a representation of the personal. My concern is that the audience gets shut out in the process of this "private conversation between [the maker] and the object."

Many other artists use a similar language, referring to their art as a "personal ritual", or an "iconography all my own". Such phraseology supports my contention that "personal expression" encourages a self-absorbed art practice that further insulates metalsmithing from an audience other than itself. The craft of goldsmithing is historically secretive and inclusive; couple that with private subject matter or craft as catharsis and you have a winning combination to insure inaccessibility. It's a little schizophrenic, as one artist says of her pieces: And contrary to the fact that they were made for exhibition, portions of their tale are very private." My question is, who is supposed to care or even be aware of this hidden narrative? More obvious to a viewing public would be the craftsmanship (in itself a weird enough thing as most people are not knowledgeable of hand skills and materials), frequently exploited through media conceit to give importance or artistic relevance to self-indulgent works with personal meaning.

The pitfalls of personal expression can be compared to critic Jeff Kelley's ideological assessment of craft, specifically "the ceramics wing of the very late modernist camp":

"Here, one sings only the praises of Protestant ethics, of the hand-made, of skill as an end in itself and of craftsmanship as a form of social obedience. As we approach the new millennium, what is generally meant by 'craft' is not unlike what was meant by American Arts and Crafts ideologues a century ago, i.e., an attitude about creative work…that represents an uncritical withdrawal from the modern world into the domain of what critic Christopher Knight has called 'the merely personal.'"

As previously stated, metalwork in the "vessel" format partakes of a ceramics lineage as artworks reflecting a Modernist sensibility. There, the autonomous art object sits without context; it is meant to be viewed as having its own language, that of formalism. In the case of craft objects, the material and technique have an additional cultural presence, which Kelley interprets correctly as a function of labor. And since this labor is referencing a pre-industrial past, the craftsman is subject to a nostalgic view, what Kelley has termed "an ideology of withdrawal".

In this century, craft practice has taken on a therapeutic role, what Jackson Lears's analysis of the Arts and Crafts Movement details as "psychic self-renewal", whereby craft was used as a "panacea for modern ills". However, Jackson writes, "American craft leaders quickly lost sight of religious or communal frameworks of meaning outside the self…they allowed their quest for wholeness to center on the self alone." Kelley sees this focus, continued today, as detrimental. He states:

"Likewise, today's craftsperson…tends to withdraw into a highly specialized, late-modernist version of the romantic self which is now a reactionary social construction of the "merely personalized consumer-self " the function of which is the denial of the harsh social and political realities of late-capitalist culture in the guise of therapeutic self-renewal."

Here, he could be speaking for metalsmiths, certainly a specialized enough identity, where "the romantic self" is a function of a craft culture that is positioned outside of mainstream society, both as an occupation and a lifestyle. Thus, the concept of personal expression as an exploration of one's inner self functions in the vacation-like settings of rural craft schools. Or it can function at one's bench, where ideas are mined in solitude. As a metalsmith recently proclaimed:

"I live very privately, confess to being a recluse, and enjoy working long hours in my remote studio, seeing very few people, the UPS driver and postman serving as major conduits between my environment and the wider cultural sphere."

Given the isolation in this romantic identity, what is the cultural significance of today's metalsmithing (arguments about art's relevance aside)? Certainly, Kelley's critique points to an art that is more engaged.

Metalsmiths are a unique group.

As an art practice, metalsmithing needs to be more viable. It needs to function outside its closed system. If all metal shows take place in the university art gallery circuit, and the only metalwork that sells is jewelry, and the term "metalsmithing" is a construct of the group, then the work in this issue has a very limited audience - basically the practitioners themselves. This is my personal dilemma with calling myself a metalsmith and joining a club that has specialized itself into irrelevance. And doesn't the work herein deserve a larger audience, some critical acclaim for artistic accomplishment, a wider sphere of influence as an art form uniquely capable of meaning? The responsibility for such change lies within. I could say that this group called metalsmiths is its own worst enemy.

American metalsmithing has no historical burden.

As an example, take the controversy over the cover of Metalsmith's Spring issue which featured the work of Janet Payne Bowles. There were objections to the focus on historical work because "only living artists should get that type of press". This is a short-sighted attitude which goes a long way towards explaining the narrow confines of the field. Other objections were made that questioned the technical competence of the work, as though it set a bad example for students. In my mind, this situation borders on the absurd.

Firstly, that particular cover can only help this field by bringing in a larger audience that includes decorative art historians, curators, and collectors. Secondly, practitioners can benefit from knowing the discipline's history so that they do not go about reinventing the wheel or making philistine comments about Payne Bowle's technique. In the context of Women's Studies and the Arts and Crafts Movement, this artist has been the subject of several recent studies. It is entirely appropriate that the magazine devoted to artmetal should be on that bandwagon. Who else should take an activist role in presenting research concerning the neglected history of craft practitioners and women artists?

If pressed for an interpretation, I believe the response to Payne Bowles has to do with our culture's love of invention, particularly as told in the metals foundation myth, whereby a few pioneering individuals recreated American metalsmithing in the 20th century. This was accomplished in the face of adversity as there were no schools or teachers left in this country by the 1920s (or so the story goes). As an oral history, this is a narrative of academic development, which does not account for craft practice in ethnic traditions or guilds - areas utilized by Payne Bowles as she produced metalwork during the very time when silversmithing was supposedly dead in this country.

Her work disturbs the myth of invention in another way as it prefigured metalsmithing of the 1970s, a time of experimentation following the dominant model of Scandinavian Modern metalwork. Payne Bowles' featured chalice, produced in the 1920s, is a precedent for the opening up of the practice to years later. As revealed in one account: "More abstract forms served her growing interest in exploring self-expression unrestricted by conventionalization and the constraints of traditional metalsmithing practices." Janet Payne Bowles was clearly ahead of her time, both as an artist and woman. I find it interesting that anyone would find fault with her process or technique now.

In this essay, I have sought to act as a respondent to issues circulating in the metalsmithing field - part of its discourse which includes the various efforts cited here at defining and theorizing about our discipline, as well as the ongoing debate in Metalsmith over conflicting agendas within the community. This juried exhibition affords the opportunity to acknowledge the particulars of self-identity and how that is construed. The resulting group dynamic has created esthetic models which are specific rather than general representations of the field. One of the predominant models is sculpture within the discipline, which indicates a movement toward defining artistic significance - the sphere where cultural relevance lies for contemporary metalsmithing. As such, our system needs to expand, to be less insular in developing artistic identity. We need to scrutinize assumptions and be aware of ideological positions that define our practice, all for the sake of timeliness. As craftspeople, we can avoid nostalgia and still preserve the metalsmith's specialized identity within the larger art community finding new ways to utilize the values of our specific training and activity.

Mary Douglas works as an artist, writer, and researcher and is teaching this fall at the University of North Texas in Denton. She is also a recent recipient of an NEA Artist's Grant in metalsmithing.
  1. Minutes from the Meeting of the Planning Committee for the Contemporary Jewelers Conference, November 16, 1968. SNAG Archives, Phoenix AZ. See also Society of North American Goldsmiths, The Founding Masters (Saratoga Springs, NY: Skidmore College, 1988) foreword.
  2. SNAG Constitution, Goldsmiths Journal 3.4 (1977): insert.
  3. In June of this year, I was invited to Malwaukee to observe the complete jurying process for this "Exhibition in Print."
  4. For an cultural analysis of post-war American ceramics, see Jeff Kelley, "Upward Mobility," American Ceramics 9.2 (1991): 35-39.
  5. David Prince, et al., Form Beyond Function, Recent Sculpture by North American Metalsmiths (Mt. Vernon, IL: Mitchell Foundation, 1986) 6-7.
  6. Prince 4-5.
  7. Sculpture Concerns, Contemporary American Metalworking (Cincinnati: Contemporary Arts Center, 1993) 4-5.
  8. Moniker attributed to Michael Hall, former sculpture department head at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
  9. See letters by Erika Stefanutti and Kim Cridler, Metalsmith 14.2 (1994): 6+.
  10. "Letters," Metalsmith 14.2 (1994): 44-45.
    "Letters," Metalsmith 11.4 (1991): 8.
    "Letters," Metalsmith 6.1 (1986): 6+.
    See also a rebuke of a Janet Koplos review, Metalsmith 11.3 (1991): 6.
  11. Bruce Metcalf, "Three Decades of American Metal Work," American Craft Museum Lecture Series, New York, 21 July 1994.
  12. Sculptural Concerns 122.
  13. Gary Griffin, "Helen Shirk," Metalsmith 5.4 (1985): 46.
  14. Sculptural Concerns 126.
  15. For additional examples of personal expression, see Sculptural Concerns, statements by Lucinda Brogden, Eun-Mee Chung, Vicki Sedman, Munya Avigail Upin, Dale Wedig.
  16. Kelley 37.
  17. Kelley 37, citing from T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981).
  18. Kelley 37.
  19. See W. Scott Braznell, "Forging Modernist: The Metalwork and Jewelry of Janet Payne Bowled," Metalsmith 14.2 (1994): 16-25. Barry Shifman, The Arts and Crafts Metalwork of Janet Payne Bowles (Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1993). Frances Killam and JoEllen Stevens, "Wynn, Copeland, Bowles: Models in Studio Practice," SNAG Conference, San Francisco, 8 April 1990.
  20. For a detailed history, see Jeannine Falino's essay, "Metalsmithing at Midcentury," in Sculptural Concerns.
  21. Braznell 21.
By Mary Douglas
Metalsmith Magazine – 1994 Exhibition
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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Mary Douglas

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