Tacoma Art Museum

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Torch Songs: Fifty Years of Northwest Jewelry: Messengers of Modemism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960


Two exhibitions of American studio jewelry, spanning over fifty years, are featured at the Tacoma Art Museum this summer, Torch Songs: Fifty Years of Northwest Jewelry and Messengers of Modemism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960. The exhibitions run July 1 through September 7, 1998 in the Museum's first floor gallery. They celebrate this most personal of art forms - as adornment for the body. The exhibitions also mark the beginning of the Tacoma Art Museum's initiative to collect studio jewelry and metalwork of the Northwest.

Torch Songs, curated by Cece Noll, TAM's Curator of Collections, features the work of some of the region's leading jewelry artists: Candaoe Beardslee, Flora Book, Andy Cooperman, Ken Cory, Karen Gilbert, Laurie Hall, Ron Ho, Mary Lee Hu, Keith Lewis, Ruth Penington, Kiff Slemmons, Ramona Solberg, Dixie Stanton, Lori Talcott, Don Tomkins, Merrily Tomkins, and Nancy Worden.

Messengers of Modernism was organized by the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts and curated by Toni Greenbaum. The exhibition includes works by major studio jewelers of the period: Greenwich Village pioneers Sam Kramer, Paul Lobel, and Art Smith; Tacoma-born Margaret De Patte, a leading proponent of Modernism, and her fellow California jewelers; sculptors Alexander Calder and Jose de Rivers and sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia; and various other creators, such as Else Freund, Peter Macchiarini, and Earl Pardon.

Studio jewelry, now usually referred to as art jewelry, is generally defined as one-of-a-kind, made in the studio by the artist from their original designs and expressing a strong idea or concept. It is in contrast to production work, which is made in far greater numbers and for a larger, more commercial market. Art jewelry is usually available through fine art galleries and as commissions from the artist.

One of the contributing factors in the flowering of a postwar jewelry movement was the proliferation of metal-working programs designed to rehabilitate veterans through manual manipulation of materials. Following the war, workshops teaching metal techniques and jewelry-making were established throughout the United States.

In the Northwest, strong jewelry and metalworking programs established at the college and university level have helped to earn the area a reputation as one of the leading scenes of art jewelry today. The University of Washington has had jewelry-making in its art department since 1916. Torch Songs: Fifty years of Northwest Jewelry begins with the work of Ruth Penington and Russell Day, both founders of Northwest Designer Craftsman.

Penington, who taught jewelry making at the University of Washington for over forty years, was an innovative teacher and artist who often worked on a large scale. Ramona Solberg was Penington's most important student. She pioneered the use of found objects like antique dominoes and buttons, as well as aspects of ethnic jewelry. Solberg taught at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and the University of Washington, where she influenced a number of Northwest jewelers working today, including Laurie Hall and Ron Ho. Along with Kiff Slemmons, these artists have responded most sympathetically to Solberg's aesthetic, while creating their own highly individualized art.

Another early figure in Northwest jewelry was artist Don Tompkins, who also taught at Central Washington. He was followed there by Ken Cory, whose work was featured in an exhibition at TAM in Fall 1997. Among Cory's students were Merrily Tompkins, Don's younger sister, and Nancy Worden, whose work, like Cory's, is characterized by impeccable technique, intellectual content, and an often wicked sense of humor. Cory's successor is the artist Keith Lewis, who creates deliberately provocative works that explore gay sexuality and the tragedy of AIDS.

Mary Lee Hu, the current head of the UW jewelry program, has adapted techniques from weaving and basket-making. The fluid constructions of Flora Book are made solely of sterling silver tubing and nylon wire. Candace Beardslee reveals the rich interconnectedness of nature in much of her work. Seattle jeweler Andy Cooperman is intrigued by geological and psychological forces threatening to erupt.

Messengers of Modemism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1980 focuses on a unique collection of mid-twentieth-century jewelry assembled in the early 1980s by the Fifty/50 Gallery of New York City. The collection was acquired in 1993 by the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts through purchase and through the generous gift of Paul Leblanc of Montreal.

American Modernist studio jewelers responded to many of the concepts found in modernist art movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, Constructivism, Primitivism, and Biomorphism. These arose in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century and were brought to America by European avant-garde emigres at the time of World War II. In general, Modernist jewelers reacted against traditional jewelry techniques and eschewed precious stones and metals such as gold, diamonds, and platinum. More often they emphasized the value of beauty, hand-craftsmanship, and non-precious metals, frequently incorporating organic and inorganic materials such as wood, pebbles, glass, and ceramic shards into their work.

Top to bottom: Mary Lee Hu, Choke #70, "Aida" 1985, 18 and 22k gold; Nancy Worden, Casting Pearls before Swine, 1997, silver, brass, pearls, and mother of pearl buttons, 23 1/2 x 3 x 1 inches, collestion of Susan C. Beech; Harry Bertoia, Brooch, 1942, Brass, 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches; Art Smith, Necklace, ring, earrings, c. 1960, Silver, necklace, 9 5/8 x 7 1/2 x 2/3/8 inches

rev. 11/26/10

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