Master fine art jeweler Bruce Metcalf refuses to use traditional metals and gems in his work, finding them all a little too…precious.
Bruce Metcalf is an admired jeweler whose work has been featured in over 400 international jewelry exhibitions and is held in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and other major institutions.
Born in 1949 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Metcalf earned a BFA in metalsmithing at Syracuse University and an MFA at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. He employs a variety of materials and techniques in his work, including carving, injection moldings, metalsmithing, plating, wood turning, stone setting, welding, and soldering, to create large and eclectic pins, necklaces, and other jewelry and art objects.
He has also written extensively on modern craft, including the book Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010) with critic Janet Koplos, and the influential article, “Replacing the Myth of Modernism” (1993).
The scale of Bruce Metcalf’s dedication to his craft is inversely related to that in which he works. He makes decisions on a microscopic level that culminate in unique works of art. With a book on the history of American studio craft, countless academic articles, and a new project dedicated to promoting young fine art jewelry makers, Metcalf has become something of a thought leader in his industry.
Bruce Metcalf: If I were to say “What are you?” I’m a jeweler, and then everybody thinks “Oh do you make wedding rings?” No, no I make this weird stuff.
And though it operates outside jewelry’s conventional signaling systems, Metcalf’s work has been featured in numerous world class museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Scotland, and the American Craft Museum.
Metcalf: Most people when they put jewelry on, they use the signs that are already out there, like the diamond engagement ring, and people are very blinker as to what jewelry is and should be, and I try to work outside of those envelopes.
AJC: Your pieces are still sending out signals, are you deciding what those signals are?
Metcalf: Absolutely. That’s what I do.
AJC: And so let’s say the piece you’re wearing now, what’s that saying?
Metcalf: The first thing it registers as is that I’m not ordinary. That my taste and my sensibility isn’t the ordinary male, or female for that matter, way of looking at the world. So it registers as a kind of, I wouldn’t say avant garde, but unusual. I mean that’s the first thing you would read, and then from there you can start looking at the brooch and you can decode it any way you like. I mean there’s specific set of intentions in there, but you can look at it and the forms are evocative enough that people can come to their own interpretation.
Metcalf is not precious about how his work is interpreted, except in one regard, he only works in non-precious materials.
Metcalf: The problem of gold in jewelry, it’s very difficult because it calls up all these associations of wealth and value. And that’s the first thing people see, and in many cases that’s the only thing people see. “How much did that cost?” Which is not what I want people to think about my work, “How much did it cost?” No, that’s not the point. And that’s also why I don’t use diamonds typically. I don’t want that association with preciousness and value to be the first thing that shows up on the map. And instead what you’re looking at is a different sort of value system. There is no, when you look at this, it’s just carved wood and epoxy resin and epoxy putty and micarta. None of these materials have any association with value. So if you’ve taken that away you have to look at something else. You have to look at the image.
But simply evoking admiration is not enough. Jewelry, even at this level, is still an applied art.
Metcalf: It’s really important for me that these things actually do get handled and touched and put on and then circulated in social space, because that’s how they act. That’s when they actually do what they can do best which is to surprise people and interest people. These are great conversation starters. And people will walk across the room to talk to you, people are curious. I also make necklaces that are big, they’re really big. And they’re head turners, I can put those on a woman and she’ll walk down the street and people will stare at her as she goes by. They’re really really good at attracting attention. And what’s interesting then, is that the person who’s wearing the things kind of has to rise to the occasion, so you can’t be a wallflower anymore. So you have to in some ways assert yourself and engage, which a lot of people are timid about. So the jewelry actually has the power to change people’s attitude about themselves.
But key to Metcalf’s understanding of his own place in the world came, not from art, but life. More specifically, his father’s premature death.
Metcalf: He died in the summer of 1970 in an office doing his job. Had a massive stroke and died later the same day. And it occurred to me, he did not do what he loved. He did what he had to to make a living, which is what men in his generation did. He came up in the depression. And I resolved, looking at my father’s death, doing something he didn’t love, that that would not be my fate. I would not die that way, and I would not exist that way. And it was just my good luck within a few months of my father’s death, that I walked into a jewelry department at Syracuse University and found where I belonged. Up until that moment I was a lost boy, I had no idea what I was gonna do. But jewelry was the perfect venue for me, and the right material, the right scale, everything. It was perfect.
AJC: And the multiplicity of crafts and skills needed.
Metcalf: Yeah I didn’t know—
AJC: That was attractive to you right?
Metcalf: Yeah, I didn’t know going in that I would enjoy the craft so much, that was new to me and it was unexpected, but I took to it like a duck to water. And in some cases I would do this technique and I had actually felt like I had done it before, which is very peculiar, to touch a tool and a piece of metal and work it and think “I’ve done this, I know what this is.” It was very very strange.
AJC: And, “I’ve done this before and I’m good at it?”
Metcalf: Well I wasn’t good at it yet, but I knew how to do it. Without having it being explained to me. And out of that kind of sense of both intuitive rightness and a sense of having sort of done that before, I have become a real craftsman. I mean I’m a real craftsman, I don’t screw around.
Crafts that include carving, injection moldings, silversmithing, plating, wood turning, stone setting, welding, and soldering. And of course drawing. And while some artists outsource their more mundane tasks, Bruce Metcalf does it all himself.
Metcalf: There’s a word to come from painting called “touch,” that is about something that only the artist can do, the judgements that only the artists can pull off and it can’t possibly be offloaded. And this thing, it may not look like it, but it was full of touch. Because I have to make very very fine decisions about what these forms are, and how they’re placed and then how they’re colored, and then the mechanics of the things besides. I couldn’t hand this over to a munchkin and tell them to do that. They wouldn’t have the skills or the knowledge or the judgment to do this.
AJC: Do you think that there is a piece of you that is common to all of, do you see yourself in all of it?
Metcalf: Yes I can.
AJC: What is it, what’s the thing?
Metcalf: It’s a sensibility that comes from cartooning. And it comes from drawing. So all of these forms, they’re drawn first, and the way I draw them, it’s an outline, it’s very much like a comic from the 50’s, that’s the way they drew outlines. And they are distilled in the way that a cartoon is, and in many cases they have this kind of plump cartoon-like quality in everything that I’ve done from the beginning, really.
Metcalf’s joy in his creativity has also endured since the beginning.
Metcalf: Isn’t that great, a life of the imagination where everything you are doing is kind of trying to engage in the world in an imaginative way rather than a reflexive way? And I believe that, that’s from my hippie days, that what we are about, what we are at best about is using our imaginations and always trying to figure out some kind of reinvention. “How do you do this differently?” And you can’t do that in every aspect of your life. And so I live a very sort of plain ordinary life in a plain ordinary house, and I drive a plain ordinary car, but I go into my studio, and I can do that. I can look at these things and I think, “How can I do that differently, how can I make this change up, how can I get my imagination into these things in a way that’s really clean and really pure?” And to me that’s the sum and substance of the thing, it’s not how much they’re worth, or how many they sell or who’s wearing them or any of that, it’s really about, “Are they…Do they work as a kind of piece of my own imagination?”