Bruce Metcalf has dedicated almost forty years of his life to the creation and historiography of American Studio Craft. He makes his exquisite jewelry with the utmost care and precision. On average most of the pieces take two months to create, whereas some take years before he perfects the final nuances.
After stints as sociology and architecture majors, Metcalf found himself transferring to the jewelry department during college in 1970. It was a bold move because the crafts weren’t highly regarded within the fine art establishment at that time. However, the move felt right, and studio craft is where Metcalf has stayed ever since.
Because “fine artists” wrote about craft only as functional and not for display, Metcalf decided to set the story straight and represent himself. He began writing about craft history and theory. Currently, Metcalf is in the process of finishing up a text book on the history of American Studio Craft, the first of its kind.
Over the course of the last decade, the number of craft departments across the country has continued to dwindle. Although newer generations of artists embrace studio craft, academia still does not embrace its importance within the fine art establishment. Metcalf spends much of his time — when not producing work — talking to heads of art schools, academics and art critics about the importance of studio craft as part of formal fine art training. Although Metcalf acknowledges that many talented and successful artists are self taught (he himself is self trained in woodworking), he maintains that the best training still lies within a formal setting with a teacher as a mentor.
Metcalf has become an outspoken figure at the intersection of craft and fine art worlds, but recently at the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference, his comments led to another controversial role in the eyes of a new crowd. He sparked a dialogue between generations of crafters — his peers in the older, more established Studio Crafts/Craft as Fine Art generation, and the younger, technology-infused, DIYers of “Alt craft.”
After the conference, crafter imogeneANDannie posted “Confessions” on her blog that, in a very personal way, focused in on Metcalf’s remarks, and in doing so, unveiled the perceptions of the two disparate sides. Folks chimed in with their opinions, and in some cases the conversations were heated: the generations clashed over technology and the role of formal education, as well as the differences between spontaneous, punk rock craft for the masses vs. the carefully crafted, luxury pieces sold through dealers or galleries.
At the Connect/(Dis)connect talk at the American Craft Council, Metcalf discussed these matters with Chanel Kennebrew (you can get to the podcast through our Storque post). During the talk, Metcalf was in part amused, recalling his rebellious student days — and another part of him was willfully steadfast in his views on the social and economic differences in practices. History seemed to be repeating itself, as a younger generation with new tools and a shifted horizon line bucked “the way things are done.”
In addition to this Handmade Video Portrait, we’ve produced an audio podcast with out-takes from the interview with Bruce Metcalf. His theories on the relevance and importance of craft have helped bring clarity to the discussion of studio craft’s place within the art world. And because we just couldn’t get enough of discussing the Alt vs. Studio craft debate, we invite you to listen in.
Please share your thoughts in the comments!