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Commentary: Metalsmithing is more than jewelry making

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I had always thought of our friends Laurie and Kevin Van Mondfrans as jewelers who worked with semi-precious stones and metal. They invited us to come and see their latest creations at the Midwest Metalsmiths Art Show. Oh, what a treat it was to start thinking and learning about metalsmiths and who they are and what they make. And what beautiful work we saw.

I went to our wonderful Craft Alliance, a not-for-profit art center in St. Louis working to reveal the power of craft through bold programming that uncovers craft's unique qualities, its evolving role and its full potential for innovation. Craft (the making of objects in woods, metals, fibers, glass and clay) is both an ancient tradition and a site for innovation, adjusting to new materials and responding to the ever changing human experience. I talked to Stefanie Kirkland, Deputy Director of the organization, and she said that St. Louis has a robust community of metalsmiths.

Kirkland said, "The term metalsmith often refers to artisans and craft persons who practice their craft in many different metals. Jewelers often refer to their craft as metalsmithing, and many universities offer degrees in metalsmithing, jewelry, enameling and blacksmithing under the auspices of a fine arts program.’

Wikipedia says a metalsmith is one who works with or has the knowledge and capacity of working with all metals. There are blacksmiths, brownsmiths, coppersmiths, goldsmiths, gunsmiths, etc. There are metalsmith organizations all over the country, and there are metalsmith magazines and metalsmith guilds galore.

When I asked some of the folks displaying their work at the Midwest Metalsmith show about their work, I found that they all used the words artist and creativity.

Laurie Van Mondfrans said, "In the heart of metalsmithing is art, it's creating. It's taking an idea and turning it into something tangible and beautiful, always pushing the work to be better than the last, learning to make something better than the last. It's about learning and mastering techniques. A flat sheet of metal is transformed. Texture, design and movement are all a part of the art form. These are all part of a thinking process before starting a piece."

Texturing the surface of the metal is often a part of the process of metalsmiths. This texturing is often used to embellish the work. Texturing can be achieved by hammering with special texturing hammers, hammering against a textured surface, engraving, etching and rolling metal sheets through rolling mills.

Patricia McCoy-Feldmanis featured her beautiful work of cuttlebone cast jewelry. Cuttlebone casting is an ancient technique that has been used for many years to create jewelry designs. This type of casting uses the bones of a cuttlefish to produce a mold in which one can pour in liquified material in the casting process.

Both McCoy-Feldmanis and Van Mondfrans were greatly influenced by teachers at Craft Alliance. Peggy Jacobsmeyer whose work caught my eye said, "I worked as an artist creating large-format framed wall pieces using glass and metal for decades before I started to make jewelry. Gradually, working on a smaller scale began to appeal to me. Creating jewelry is exactly the same as making art/sculpture as far as I'm concerned. It's just smaller. I often use found objects and non-precious materials. It keeps the work intuitive and constantly changing.”

Of course this could lead to the usual question--what is fine art and what is craft? Don't worry. I won't go there today. I know that what I saw at the metalsmith show knocked my eyes out and a thing of beauty is a thing of beauty no matter what you call it.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.

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