I recently attended a symposium run by Jessica Turrell a Research Fellow at UWE.Bristol, to view and discuss new research into ideas and techniques for making vitreous enamel more readily available for jewellers. At the end of the day the delegates were invited to view work by Robert Ebendorf, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor for the School or Art at East Carolina University, hereafter known as Bob. He had been conducting an applied arts workshop at the Enamel Research department which culminated in the symposium.
Working as a teacher, metal smith and jeweller Bob Ebendorf has been a major influence on the American craft movement since the 1960’s and is notable for his use of found objects – it was a radical departure from the traditions of jewellry making in the 1970’s when he pioneered the use of non – precious materials (think road-kill and rubbish) with conventional jewellry making techniques and materials. His work is rich and expressive and covers jewellry, assemblages, drawings and objects.
The work he displayed was as amusing and disturbing as it was desirable. Sparkling jewels adorn and glowing metals encase bones, stones, broken glass and plastics with fresh water pearls, enamel badges and bijou jewellry. When I first saw them I thought ” well these are glamorous – but what am I looking at? On close inspection the sparkling jewels are old paste brooches in leery colours and the metals are squashed and rusted tins, but all are put together with purposeful, elegant and traditional jewellers’ techniques. The effect is reminiscent of tiny collages or appliques of glistening fabrics. Rich patterns collide and overlap on charred and rusting metal, his balance is precarious but it never falters.
I think many textile makers have flirted with the idea of making jewellry, I certainly have, embroidery and jewellry can share the same small-scale, precious, decorative qualities – but what is always a swine to deal with and often the weakness that lets the whole effect down – is the finish.The backings in particular are so hard to organise and make stable, also the back of a brooch can be more personal than the front, only the wearer sees it, or the person who gives it. So turning these curious designs over it was reassuring and an added pleasure to see the consideration to the finish of each piece.
The quality of his making also alerts us to look again at his findings:- the exquisite printed tin bird, so carefully cut and released from its bower…..
the trapped bone and pink baroque pearl encased together forever in a finely wrought metal cage……
the artless flower brooch wrapped up in sea glass, everything is transformed…
and these re-assembled objects speak to different people of different things; time is spent considering possible hidden meanings in the juxtapositions of the small objects and all the while we are delighted by the inventiveness of the maker.
Speaking to Bob about the pieces I said that I thought in some way he had mended all these discarded, disregarded and disparate things by recycling them into other ways of being. The dictionary definitions of mending include ‘to improve’ and ‘to restore to a sound condition’ and restoration includes the idea of resurrection, replacement and rehabilitation – certainly these wonderful wonky brooches demonstrate the transforming powers of invention, playfulness and intuitive skilled making.
I feel that the way in which he assembles the parts has much to do with how a textile practitioner works, colour is one of the elements that visually binds his work together; so with that thought and the mending I feel there is reason enough for including his work in a textile blog – also Bob has influenced my thinking about my own practice when I have attended his past workshops for ETC
Part of the pleasure of going to such events, even when they are not directly related your own work, is the chance to catch up with other makers and meet new people you feel might have similar interests. The audience consisted of jewelers, educationists and makers in several different disciplines and as most people wear something they have made it is usually rewarding to start a conversation……
however the most stunning brooch for me was not made by the wearer but purchased some time ago, it looked as if it was a second cousin to Bob’s work and it belonged to a print-maker, Sue Brown who is currently conducting a love affair with vitreous enamel….check out the enamel butterfly collection on her blog.