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Forging an Arts Tradition: Metalsmithing in MSP

Jewelry metalsmither Susan Elnora

Jewelry making at Quench

Jewelry by Susan Elnora

Jewelry by Heinz Brummel

Jewelry designer Emily C. Johnson

Jewelry designer George Sawyer

One of Kinghorn's iconic brooches

A vibrant cultural milieu in which diverse art forms (visual art, music, dance, theater, public art), as well as iconic architecture and design take root and flourish has made MSP a destination for visitors nationally and globally. Public and private support for the arts—whether for multi-million dollar arts organizations, small nonprofits or individual artists—and a growing population of sophisticated, art-savvy consumers, have created a supportive economy for established and emerging artists.
Metalsmithing, while more under-the-radar than other fine arts in the Twin Cities, is an integral part of the culture. “The concentration, variety and depth of art here have created fertile ground for metalsmithing and the fine-art jewelry community,” says Ann Pifer, owner of the Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul. The gallery is one of the top venues for discovering metal-worked sculpture and jewelry in the Twin Cities.
“The community of art-jewelry designers covers broad territory in terms category, style and experience,” adds George Sawyer, master of the patterned metalwork technique known as mokum gane (“wood-grained metal”), and who has long enjoyed a fruitful career as an art jeweler. “Art and design are important here, which people are aware of. Therefore, young people feel safe embarking on a metalworking career and doing something artful, because art making is part of the local culture.”
Mentoring individualism
The Twin Cities doesn’t have a jewelry or metalsmith school that, by producing graduates with a discernible approach or style, would give the art form a higher profile. Nor does the area have a heritage of metalwork enjoyed by cities such as New York, Chicago or Charleston. But the area’s jewelry and metals community has distinguishing characteristics, nonetheless. One is the individualism of the artists, as they’ve forged their own paths into metalworking and jewelry making.
They may have studied with sculptor Wayne Potratz, a professor of sculpture and foundry in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art, and a master of metal-casting techniques; or with metalsmith Tim Lloyd at Carleton College in Northfield just south of the Twin Cities. Welding and metal fabrication classes are available through Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and the college offers a Watchmaking and Jewelrymaking program. The Guild of Metalsmiths, created in 1976, offers educational programs in blacksmithing, tinsmithing, coppersmithing and architectural wrought iron.
In recent years, the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center has offered classes in fire-art forms of jewelry fabrication, including traditional metalsmithing, casting and piercing. Artists such as Kirk Sklar of Metal Heart Jewelry, and Sarah Michaela Sitarz of Quench Jewelry Arts, offer classes in metalsmithing, cold connections and riveting, and base metal and precious metal etching.
Most likely, however, today’s emerging fine-art metalworkers were mentored by a generation of internationally renowned jewelry smiths, including George Sawyer, Heinz Brummel, Steven Vincent and Judith Kinghorn. They’ve nurtured subsequent generations of fine artists by sharing studio space, providing instruction and apprenticeships, and hosting joint shows. In doing so, these masters have “created a critical mass,” says Pifer, “a great community in which well-established, working artists mentor younger emerging artists and help them with their careers.”
As a result, the Twin Cities metalsmith community includes “people across the spectrum, from rank beginners passionate about pursuing the art to people whose work is collected by the Smithsonian Institution,” says Sawyer, “and each artist has their own distinctive style.”
Wearable art by “metalsmith mavens”
In addition to the Grand Hand Gallery, the work of such artists can be found at the Walker Art Center, where jewelry is considered part of contemporary design.
The Walker’s annual spring Jewelry Artists Mart brings together more than 20 local jewelry artists. Gallery 360 in Minneapolis carries more than 20 artists of fine-art jewelry, including such up-and-comers as Emily C. Johnson and Britta Lynn Kauppila. Many jewelry collectors and consumers, however, buy directly from artists during open-studio events—of which there are many in Northeast Minneapolis.
In the former industrial areas of Northeast, large manufacturing and warehouse buildings have been converted into artist studios and galleries. The Northeast Minneapolis Arts District organizes several annual events, during which these buildings and their artists participate with open studios and sales. During the First Thursday event each month, Art-a-Whirl in May, and Art Attack in November, hundreds of artists working in hand-crafted and custom jewelry, metal, as well as custom furniture, fiber arts, ceramics, glass, mosaics and textiles welcome visitors and buyers.
Emily C. Johnson has a studio in the Northrop King Building, as do fellow “metalsmith mavens” and jewelry designers Susan Elnora Frerichs (silver and gold skulls, insects and skeletons), Betty Jäger (a goldsmith, 3 Jäg Design) and Kauppila (who formerly worked with Steve Vincent at Studio Vincent). Judith Kinghorn also has a studio in Northrop King.
“Many designers like myself specialize in wedding rings,” Johnson says. “They’re a big part of our business.” But, she adds, jewelry buyers in the Twin Cities “want to wear art on an everyday basis. They like jewelry that’s artful, wearable and handmade.”
Jewelry makers including Sitarz, Sklar and Sawyer have their studios in a former casket factory now called Casket Arts, also in Northeast. “The studio scene is so important here because there aren’t a lot of galleries carrying metalwork and fine-art jewelry,” Sawyer says. “Open studio events bring people right to the artists, and those people come with intelligent questions and inquiries about our work.”
Large-scale, functional works
Northeast Minneapolis is also home to the studio of metalworker Lisa Elias, who came out of the University of Minnesota’s art department. Elias creates functional sculptures inspired by traditional blacksmithing techniques and has fabricated public artworks throughout the Twin Cities. Her work includes 30 tree corrals and 30 bike racks with “the appearance of 1920s art nouveaux metalwork,” she says. She’s also created artful railings for stormwater gardens along the new Central Corridor Light Rail line; a 400-foot fence along Interstate 94 and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis supporting and enhancing the Loring Bikeway Commuter Corridor; and “A Canopy of Grass,” an arbor over Minnehaha Creek in the Minnetonka Mills Burwell Park.
Marjorie Pitz is a nationally renowned public artist who works in metal. Her sculpture “Blossoms of Hope” at the 5 Point Plaza in Northeast Minneapolis is a bus stop festooned with huge metal flowers. Marcia McEachron’s wire and steel sculptures, and metal leaf benches, are also found at bus stops around the cities. A bridge that carries Third Avenue South over Interstate 94 in Minneapolis was designed with elements by Frank Lloyd Wright and includes a sculpture by Janet Lofquist constructed with a metal “warp and weft” matrix; the steel surface is illuminated from the inside, creating a mosaic of changing light, pattern and color.
A community of consumers
“Our diverse, thriving arts scene has created a community of consumers who really want to support local artists and business,” Johnson says. “Metal worked jewelry is a growing part of that.” When Sklar opened Metal Heart Jewelry seven years ago, he expected his clientele for classes would be retired baby boomers. Instead, he says, “I see a lot of young people getting involved, from ages 20 to 40, who have a lot of drive and excitement.”
Part of the reason, he adds, is the growing “maker culture” of the Twin Cities, in which people learn such traditional, do-it-yourself skills as sewing, leather working, and metalsmithing, and apply those skills to artful pursuits. “We’re going to see an explosion of creativity moving forward,” Sklar continues. “People often ask the question: ‘Can art save the world?’ I think it already is. Metalsmithing is something people have discovered in the Twin Cities that gives them a lot of joy, whether they’re working the metal themselves or wearing someone else’s artwork.”
A version of this article originally appeared in an edition of Metalsmith.
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