Part 2 | Artist Andy Cooperman Brings the Truth With Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience from Bill May, Executive Director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts
The second edition in this series begins after a recent exchange with Bill May, Executive Director of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, when I asked for some of his thoughts about craft. I launched with the big question to see where it would land, I asked, “What is craft?” May responded with “Craft is creativity made tangible, usually something that can be seen, sometimes something that can be used – and at its best, something that reflects respect and thoughtfulness in conception and construction. When successful, craft communicates in ways that engage the viewer or user on multiple levels, leading toward a respect for materials and for the individual maker’s skill and vision; and an appreciation of the courage and effort required to create an object and a meaningful life.” This passionate response evolved into further questions – the inevitable and enjoyable succession of such a complex and contemplated topic – that May raised which are incredibly relevant to the field of craft at large right now: “Who will lead the conversations and define the vocabulary, and what are their motives and perspectives? What impacts can the well designed and well-crafted object have, and perhaps more importantly, what impacts do the process of creating have on the individual artists and the communities in which they live? How can craft relate and contribute to other fields, being both informed by and contributing to other disciplines without being subsumed? And is that important? Does craft practice, or the act of an individual artist making or an individual student learning, have intrinsic value that needs to be protected, nurtured, and even defended?”
The answers to these, and more as I am finding, are found in conversation with those who can offer two unique perspectives: those who cultivate and foster an environment that goes beyond a classroom or studio and becomes a community of social practice for artists and the artists themselves. May emphasizes the importance of the historical legacy of the type of immersive, workshop-style, learning setting Arrowmont is, but also it’s power in cultivating a belief that creativity is important in everyone’s life. There is no judgment here; instead, encouragement, experimentation, and life-changing encounters are the tasks at hand.
So it is no surprise that he recommended that I speak with renowned artist Andy Cooperman about his work and his experiences at Arrowmont for more understanding. A sophisticated and accomplished jeweler and metalsmith (who is rumored to be quite funny), I knew I was in for a particularly interesting conversation. What I didn’t know, was that what I was really in store for was some real-deal, no-nonsense, truth-telling – not only about his work and his process, but his ideas about the future of the field and the importance of teaching at one of the nation’s leading craft schools. Our conversation follows, so read on to see why Cooperman, just as is evident in his work, left me wanting more.
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: From. The. Belly.
I recently heard Ruudt peters, the Dutch jeweler; use that phrase to describe the process of making that leaves room for intuition that trusts the subconscious. My term for the belly (or gut) is “The Rudder”. Even if what I’m making is built around a pun (the “Chicken Choker” or “Weber Ringtisserie”) or a thematic subtext, like my chess pieces (“St. Patrick’s Bishop and “Rosemary’s Bishop), I’m always listening to the rudder. Others have characterized my work as being poetic, intuitive, elegant, and as “jazz”.
Q: Conceptually speaking, what do you identify as your primary concerns? If these have changed over the course of your career, can you speak about where you began to where you are now?
A: It depends and varies from piece to piece. Some things are driven by something that I read, maybe a little factoid, or something that has gotten caught in my craw; some are driven by a new material that I want to understand and court. In the case of the latter, I suppose that the reasons that I am drawn to the material in the first place is conceptual (What isn’t, if you really stop and think?) There’s a reason that I continue to use long porcupine quills or ping pong balls; some quality of the material-sharp, shell-like, translucent, mutable. Those reasons are very different, materially, than the little plastic chickens, which I use for their improbability and their associative and conceptual content.
Early on, I made decisions that simply seemed “right”. After teaching for a couple of years in an academic program, I began to think differently about these decisions. It seemed that I should somehow be smarter in my approach. After a couple of years torturing myself, I came to understand that my decisions were not random or accidental at all. They were, in fact, informed by my belly, by that rudder. I had to trust that process and have faith in how smart the rudder is. At the end of the day I do think that, while I understand that I am by and large an intuitive maker, there is value in probing deeper and asking why the rudder tilts in one direction or another. What, in the gestalt of my experience on the planet, is informing the rudder?
Q: Who do you draw inspiration from: artistically speaking (artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc…)?
A: Not often artists. Writers, maybe.
Q: How did you come to be a contemporary jeweler and metalsmith? What is it about these materials that drew you in and continue to provoke your interest? Do you have a favorite metal to work with?
A: No real favorite metal, although I am learning more about steel. I have always been engaged by small things, drawn in by the power of something small to hold big ideas; something small to hold layers and layers of complexities. So the scale of jewelry and small object making had an appeal.
Metal has always been a strange fit for me. That may be why I was drawn to metal that didn’t look metallic, like mokume gane or reticulated surfaces. I was not very good when I started and for a long while after. That type of challenge, I suppose, kept me coming back.
What I like about metal is its plasticity and permanence. Forging, especially, is engaging. “Growing” the metal by striking it is magic. It’s a process that, oddly, is guided by nuance and the inflection of a hammer and piece of metal. I like that you can add metal back by welding (gold, silver, bronze) and that I can start over if I screw up: scrape all the bits together, melt and re-pour an ingot. THAT is magic.
Q: You note that makers are by nature inquisitive and adventurous souls, especially contemporary jewelers and metalsmiths. How do you translate this intuitive inquisitiveness into your work?
A: I always want to see the what if’s--what would happen if I did this to that. What’s around the bend? What reaction would I get when people engage with this thing I’ve made (as is the case with the Chicken Chokers)? So I may push a material, like a ping-pong ball or a sheet of gold, to its failure point. Or melt two rods of sterling together to the point where they are almost--but not quite--one.
Q: You are known for using unique combinations of materials in your work, in addition to metals; for example, you’ve utilized wood, glass, plastics, copal (a type of amber), found objects, animal vertebrae, and Ping-Pong balls. Can you talk about your process of selecting materials?
A: As I touched on above, there has to be something in the material that resonates. It could be a physical or conceptual quality. Wood is most often physical as is the bone, but there are times when some bones like, snake vertebrae, are both physical and associative. Same goes with rattlesnake rattles (I’m making a ring with one) or fangs, one of which is in my chess piece St. Patrick’s Bishop. The little plastic chickens are a great challenge. I use them for their improbable context in jewelry and for the shtick they bring to the table and also to illustrate a certain pun. The challenge is using them in a way that is formerly elegant.
Q: Because of your willingness to experiment, there is an interesting dichotomy of materials and techniques present in your works. For example, many of the pieces from the Cortex Series, such as Coeur, In & Out, and Chang & Eng (collateral) display remarkable skill and refinery, but also include a melted and formed Ping-Pong ball. How do you make such combinations work?
A: Thanks. The first step is recognizing which ping pong ball works. That is, selecting from the – sometimes huge – pile of altered and tortured ping pong shells the ones that work for me. It is usually something in the way it’s stretched and moved but it also can’t be too thin or flimsy. There aren’t many that make the grade. The rest of the piece is a response to that salvaged and selected ppb (ping-pong ball). I have an initial-often intuitive – direction in mind and I usually follow that. (Often after trying to outthink my initial impulse--trying to smarten up the ideation. Never works.) The metal elements are built around the ppb. I use it as a jeweler would a stone but it is even more precious sometimes, because if you screw up the ppb (burn it or pierce it or cut it wrong) you have lost a lot of work, since everything is built to that unique ppb. It just happened with a porcupine quill. Lost 3 days.
Q: You note that for you, the hand is still at the center of things and pretty much everything that you do in your Seattle studio: each piece is hand forged, hand fabricated, hand carved, cast and hand designed. Do you think there is room for current technological innovations in your process or do you prefer to work more traditionally?
A: Absolutely, there is room for new innovations in process and technology. There are no sacred cows. I use a high tech TIG welder for lots of things. I wrote the word “hand” often as a way to boost SEO through key words. I think that if I were more fluent in CAD or CAM, I would go for it more.
Q: Because your work is so exceptionally crafted, you open the door conceptually, particularly in your brooches (which are some of my favorite pieces). Tum, for example, illustrates the engaging push / pull I see in much of your work – the idea that there is more than the surface, more to discover, but it is just outside my view; that there is something trapped just beneath the first layer, but there is a means of escape if it would only look. How do you decide how much to reveal and how much to keep hidden?
A: You just know….
Q: Even in a piece like Scylla or Cholla, there are built-in, hardened defenses (both visually and literally) to keep me out, but there is just enough room for me to pass through if I try. Is this deliberate or subconscious? A: I think that it’s both. The impulse to make the piece is deliberate: I wanted to render the fangs wearable but still potentially dangerous or threatening. But gauging the interior spaces and orientation are most likely intuitive.
Q: Another contrast that I find is that your work ranges from serious to humorous. With pieces like Chicken Choker 2: EggStravaganza, you obviously think there is room for humor in contemporary work these days. Why isn’t there more work that’s funny? Are we all just taking ourselves a bit too seriously?
A: Have you read the essay on my website titled “A Chicken Shall Lead Them”? (It’s under writings) It was written for a book called Humor in Craft edited by my friend Brigitte Martin. The book is full of funny Craft, including jewelry. Personally, I wonder why my work doesn’t feature more humor because humor is really central to my world. When I do make funny work, it’s really important to me that there be an elegance or visual/formal engagement that can carry the day when the joke wears thin.
Q: Ok, so, let’s talk bigger picture: how would you answer the question: “What is craft?”
There’s craft and there’s Craft. The former plays a role in any physically manifested piece. It’s the essence of making, from problem solving to fit and finish. The latter is something more. I think that Craft may be more tied to the object and to the making of the object – the engagement and the faith in the process. Engagement in the making and the faith to spend a quantity of time expressing an idea; the faith that sharing a well made thing can make a difference to people. I think that Craft has the power to interact with us more on an informal and daily basis. Every morning I drink from a mug that our friend Doug made. I think of him, his hands and his head and heart every morning. Sometimes I use another hand made mug given to us by a non-maker friend. I still think of Daria when I raise that cup. The object carries associations of making and being made.
Q: Historically, and often critically, there has been a delineation between the disciplines of fine art and craft; and perhaps none more so than jewelry. Do you think there should be separate categories? Or is it all art? What do you think causes this separation? Do you identify with one or the other?
A: I think that the distinction is often caused by desperation and self-loathing. Jewelers and metalsmiths are sometimes desperate to be considered higher up on the hierarchy where jewelry sits below flat-wall art. I think that the perceived (and real) association with function has hobbled us a little because inevitably there are compromises that have to be made to render an idea functional/usable. Art has none – or less – of that. Jewelry is the worst because we are battling a constant barrage of jewelry store and department store ads where the stone and the notion of precious and wearability are at the center. And then there are the phrases arts & crafts or crafty that we may never get past.
But the interesting thing is that Madison Avenue (the advertising gurus) has some years ago recognized that craft is important: The idea of quality making – the hand of the craftsman and the devotion to making – that is embodied in a well made/ crafted object is highly regarded by the public. They know that adding the patina of craft to something like a car or a beer (craft beer) can sell things. People will actually pay for that notion, sometimes.
Q: Name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of craft at large right now.
A: 1: What has been termed by Bruce Metcalf as The New Ugly. Work that is coming out now that is characterized by assemblages and juxtapositions of materials and formal elements. Often inelegant, big and sloppy. Some of it is good. But much of it looks the same to my late middle-aged eyes. 2: Growing impatience with process and the extra effort it takes to make something really well. 3: Our self-sabotaging need to be considered ART and to play with the big boys.
Q: If different, name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the fields of jewelry and metalsmithing at large right now.
A: Most are the same. But someone needs to have the balls to come out and say, “Make what’s important to you and stop worrying about what others are doing and being told is good and important.”
Q: How would you describe a craft school experience? And how do you think it is different from other forms of arts education?
A: I have no BFA or MFA. I am not the product of an Art or Craft school so I can only approach the question from my experience as a teacher at such places.
A craft school education may be more experiential than theoretical; more of an applied art. Although when I teach, my goal is to share and instill my philosophy of making. Half my effort is devoted to breaking down barriers and structures that students have so carefully erected over years; teaching people the crucial importance of play and failure. Being comfortable with the risk of failure cannot be overstated as a key point to making.
Q: How would you describe your personal experience(s) at Arrowmont School of Crafts? How has your time spent there specifically influenced your artistic pursuits?
A:I have always had a positive experience there. Partly from the students who are, by and large, engaged and eager to make changes and grow. My memories also center around the other instructors. We get together casually after teaching and have a drink, talk shop and learn about each others’ experience in making. Or we wander from one classroom and studio to another, watching and asking questions. (For some reason--and I’ve observed this year after year--the Fiber classes seem more insular, less interested in participating with other classes.) That mix of media is stimulating and the crossover manifests itself, I’m sure, in ways that aren’t readily apparent but that are there, nonetheless.
Q: Just for fun: a major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may endanger yourself, what works do you rush in to get?
A: Nothing in an art museum is worth injury.
Q: Last question: what’s next for you?
A: Great question. Who knows? Isn’t that the point?
Andy Cooperman was born October 29, 1958 in New York and currently works and resides in Seattle, WA. For more information about Andy and his work, please visit the following:
Images (from top to bottom): Cortex Series: Chang & Eng (collateral), sterling, gold, copper, bronze, ping-pong ball, 3.75 inches wide; Tum, sterling, bronze, copper, 22k, alder, pearl, carved and fabricated, 3 inches high, photo: Doug Yaple; Sleeper Cell, sterling, 24k gold leaf, 2.75 inches high, photo: Doug Yaple; Bullseye, sterling, 14k and 18k yellow gold, snake vertebra, ruby, 2.5 inches wide, photo: Doug Yaple; Cortex Series: In & Out, bronze, sterling, copper, ping pong ball, gold leaf, forged, fused and fabricated, 2 inches wide; Tum (detail), sterling, bronze, copper, 22k, alder, pearl, carved and fabricated, 3 inches high, photo: Doug Yaple; Chicken Choker 2: EggStravaganza (detail), sterling, pearls, plastic, magnet (clasp), and guitar string; Cortex Series: Sting, sterling silver, brass, 24k gold leaf, ping-pong ball, 2.25 inches high; St. Patrick (detail), Sterling, brass, 18k gold, bronze, rattlesnake fang, 3.25 inches high, photo: Doug Yaple; Image of the artist
This series is sponsored by the National Craft Schools Initiative – five US craft schools who have teamed up to promote the craft school experience on a national scale. For more information about the national initiative, visit www.craftschools.us
To learn more about Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, visit: www.arrowmont.org or via email: email@example.com or telephone: 865-436-5860.