Episode 135: Part 2 – Why Jewelers of the 60s and 70s Were Part of the Counterculture—Even if they Didn’t Realize It with Jewelry Experts Susan Cummins and Cindi Strauss
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- The characteristics that define contemporary American jewelry
- What narrative art jewelry is, and why it was so prevalent in the 1960s and 70s
- What defines American counterculture, and why so many 60s and 70s jewelers were a part of it
- Who the most notable American jewelry artists are and why we need to capture their stories
- How Susan and Cindi developed their book, and why they hope other people will build on their research
About Susan Cummins
Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of both Art Jewelry Forum and California College of the Arts.
About Cindi Strauss
Cindi Strauss is the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design and Assistant Director, Programming at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). She received her BA with honors in art history from Hamilton College and her MA in the history of decorative arts from the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. At the MFAH, Cindi is responsible for the acquisition, research, publication, and exhibition of post-1900 decorative arts, design, and craft. Jewelry is a mainstay of Cindi’s curatorial practice. In addition to regularly curating permanent collection installations that include contemporary jewelry from the museum’s collection, she has organized several exhibitions that are either devoted solely to jewelry or include jewelry in them. These include: Beyond Ornament: Contemporary Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2003–2004); Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2007); Liquid Lines: Exploring the Language of Contemporary Metal (2011); and Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection (2014). Cindi has authored or contributed to catalogs and journals on jewelry, craft, and design topics, and has been a frequent lecturer at museums nationwide. She also serves on the editorial advisory committee for Metalsmith magazine.
Police State Badge
sterling silver, 14k gold
2 7/8 x 2 15/16 x 3 15/16 inches
Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, 2012.20
Diane Kuhn, 2012
PHOTO: John Bigelow Taylor, 2008
Portrait of William Clark in a bubble_2
Necklace for the American Taxpayer
Brass with silver chain
17 ” long (for the chain) and 6.25 x 1.25 ” wide for the hanging brass pendant.
sterling, photograph, fabric, found object
4 ½ x 4 x ¼ inches
Merrily Tompkins Estate, Ellensburg
Photo: Lynn Thompson
Title: “Slow Boat” Pendant (Portrait of Ken Cory) Date: 1976
Medium: Enamel, sterling silver, wood, copper, brass, painted stone, pencil, ballpoint pen spring, waxed lacing, Tiger Balm tin, domino Dimensions: 16 3/4 × 4 1/8 × 1 in. (42.5 × 10.4 × 2.5 cm)
Helen Williams Drutt Family Collection, USA
Copper, Enamel, Leather, Beaver Fur, Ermine Tails, Coin Purse
4 ½ x 4 x 3/8”
Merrily Tompkins Estate, Ellensburg
The Good Guys
Walnut, steel, copper, plastic, sterling silver, found objects
101.6 mm diameter
Museum of Arts and Design, NYC, 1977.2.102′
PHOTO: John Bigelow Taylor, 2008
wood, brass, copper, glass, steel, paper, silver
3 ½ x 3 ½ x 5/8 inches
Detroit Institute of Art, Founders Society Purchase with funds from the Modern Decorative Arts Group, Andrew L. and Gayle Shaw Camden Contemporary and Decorative Arts Fund, Jean Sosin, Dr. and Mrs. Roger S. Robinson, Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Danto, Dorothy and Byron Gerson, and Dr. and Mrs. Robert J. Miller / Bridgeman Images
November 22, 1963 12:30 p.m.
copper, silver, brass, gold leaf, newspaper photo, walnut, velvet, glass
6 ¼ x 5 x 7/8 inches
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Rose Mary Wadman, 1991.57.1
Front and back covers
Pages from the book
What makes American jewelry American? As Susan Cummins and Cindi Strauss discovered while researching their book, In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture, contemporary American jewelry isn’t defined by style or materials, but by an attitude of independence and rebellion. Susan, who founded Art Jewelry Forum, and Cindi, who is Curator of Decorative Arts, Crafts and Design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what it was like to interview some of the most influential American artists; why they hope their book will inspire additional research in this field; and why narrative jewelry artists were part of the counterculture, even if they didn’t consider themselves to be. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Definitely, it’s a history book, but it’s not, because you really do get that flavor for who they are or what they were passionate about or what they were trying to express. I’m just curious; how did you distill all of this into counterculture? Was that something that you decided in a brainstorm? You could have come up with a lot of different things.
Cindi: I’m going to let Susan to take that, because—and I admit this freely—I had a very specific idea of what the counterculture was and how people slotted into that. Through Susan and Damian, my understanding of the counterculture was broadened in such an incredible way. They really pushed me to open up my mindset and think about it in many different, layered ways, and I have benefited from that dramatically. So, Susan led that. Susan, I’ll turn it over to you.
Susan: O.K., and I’ll try and answer. We had decided to focus on the 60s and 70s and limit it to that time period. That was the counterculture time period, and as I said before, there are so many in the craft world, which I was participating in during that time, that reflect the sensibilities of the counterculture. As we were interviewing these people, what was really interesting is that many of them didn’t necessarily think of themselves of part of the counterculture. They thought of themselves as hardworking jewelers that couldn’t be part of the counterculture because that was the dropout, don’t do anything, take drugs part of the world. But that wasn’t really the counterculture.
The counterculture was especially young people who were opposed to the way that people were living their lives. That got really defined in the 50s, which was a very austere, go to work, make money, buy a refrigerator, get a house and even if it was killing you, do this kind of life. They said, “We don’t want that. We want a life that feels meaningful to us, that has real value.” In all kinds of different ways, that was what the counterculture consisted of: thinking in a different way about how life could be for us, something that’s meaningful, something that you love doing, something that has some consideration of ecology and equal rights and all of the counterwar attitudes reflected in it. That was really what people wanted to do. The counterculture is big and broad.
A lot of people who thought, for example, that Fred Woell was a Boy Scout. If you asked Fred or you saw his papers or you asked his wife, “What kind of car did Fred drive?” A VW van. What kind of food did he eat? Natural foods. Did he build himself a house? Yes, he did, with solar panels on it. He was a counterculture guy. He just looked like a Boy Scout. A lot of the things you learn in the Boy Scouts were actually part of the counterculture, too, the survival skills and all of that. It’s a funny thing to say, but I think in the process of writing this book, we convinced a lot of the jewelers we interviewed that they were part of the counterculture even though they hadn’t realized it themselves either.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Did you enter this process thinking that these people were part of the counterculture, or was that something that came to you as put everything together?
Susan: I think it was kind of there from the beginning, but not really. I think we discovered it along the way. In fact, I don’t think we were thinking about having the word counterculture in the title. I think for a long time we thought it would be “American Jewelry in the 60s and 70s.” I think it was a provocative idea to put counterculture in the title. It might be that it was a bad idea because, as Cindi said, a lot of people have a narrow point of view as to what the counterculture is, but I hope that if anybody decides to pick up the book, they can find a much broader definition, which I think is the real definition. To limit it is not fair to the expression.
Sharon: I think the book does broaden the definition. Before reading the book or looking at the book, I entered into it thinking of Sausalito. I grew up on the West Coast, so to me, the counterculture was Sausalito. My family and I drove through there once when I was a young person, so that was the counterculture, or Berkeley was the counterculture. I Googled the word counterculture, and it’s interesting because it goes through all different periods of history that were counterculture. It wasn’t just the 60s and 70s. Who did you feel it was wrenching to leave out of the book when you had make some decisions?
Cindi: Before I would answer that specifically, to give a little more context, there were a number of jewelry artists who were personally active in all the ways we were highlighting in this book, but their jewelry itself didn’t reflect that. We had long debates about how to deal with that. Ultimately, for better or for worse, it came down to the fact that at the end of the day, the book was about the jewelry. It was rooted in the actual works of art. There were artists whose jewelry did not reflect their personal lives. With those artists, we were able to include them in the book in terms of quotes and information that helped set the stage and provide information, whether it was about things from their own lives, if they were professors, what was in their program, but their jewelry wasn’t necessarily featured. I’m thinking of someone like Eleanor Moty, who was incredibly helpful in terms of the interview that Susan did and being a sounding board, but her jewelry didn’t make it into the book pictorially. There were others who were also like that.
I think I wouldn’t necessarily call it gut-wrenching, but it was something we struggled with over a period of time, because these were artists who were very active; they were active in shows; they were teaching; they were going to Summervale; they were going to SNAG, some of them, some of them not. For me, Wayne Coulter is probably the big regret. I did an extensive interview with Wayne and his wife, Jan Brooks, and it was a great interview. He was very involved with Summervale, and a lot of his jewelry would have fit pictorially in the book, but we were never quite able to get the images and the materials we needed to include the jewelry. He’s included, as is Jan, in terms of quotes and things like that. For me, that would be one that I regret.
Sharon: This is not to say anybody’s second tier. I don’t mean that.
Cindi: Oh no, not at all. Sometimes there are practicalities. This is a time when a lot of the artists don’t even know, necessarily, where their jewelry from the late 60s or early 70s resides. Maybe they had slides of it, but those slides may not exist, or they may have been completely discolored. There were practical issues that made certain pieces and/or certain artists—we were unable to go as far as we wanted to. Susan, what do you think?
Susan: Yeah, I completely agree with all that. I would say that we interviewed a lot of people that didn’t get in the book. There was a lot of jewelry that started up right at the very end of the 70s and went into the 80s. We squeaked in a couple of those people, but what you have to think about is that we’re showing you or talking about examples of people in various phases. Some people were very political. Some people weren’t so political in their work necessarily, but they lived a counterculture lifestyle and participated in counterculture activities, and it shows up in their jewelry but not as strongly as in others. We tried to give a mix of examples of the things we were talking about, but as Cindi said, there were lots of people we interviewed that never showed up in the book. We must have interviewed Laurie Hall, for example, about three times. Her work isn’t in the book, but Damian went on to write about her. That book will be coming out in the fall. We acquired an awful lot of information that didn’t ever get in the book and people we interviewed that didn’t get in the book. You just have to go with the most obvious choices at a certain point and think of them as examples of other people that you could have included, but you didn’t. Maybe some people were upset by that, but you do have to make some decisions. As Cindi said, there are certain practical limitations.
Sharon: I think I gave a birthday party when I was 13, and I was so traumatized by having to make decisions about the guest list. I always wonder about it, if you make decisions about who to put in and who to leave out. Do you know the name of the book about Laurie Hall? What’s it called?
Susan: It’s called North by Northwest: The Stories of Laurie Hall. Or maybe The Jewelry of Laurie Hall.
Sharon: That leads into my next question. Is there going to be a part two or an addition to the book you just wrote, In Flux? There’s so much more material.
Susan: Definitely, there’s more material. Somebody needs to look at African-American jewelers. We barely got to include some aspects of that. Native American jewelers, too, have a whole history that we didn’t really cover at all. These things are whole topics unto themselves, really. We hope someone will take up the mantle and find out more about that. There’s a huge amount of continuing research. We don’t have any plans to do that, so anybody listening can definitely take it up. Go for it. It’s up to you.
Sharon: It sounds like a great PhD project.
Cindi: Yeah, it can be a PhD thesis. There could be a series of articles. It doesn’t have to be a big book about something. You could do all whole symposium based on this topic. You started off with a question about our jewelry journey. I think this is and will be, for all of us, an ongoing journey. Susan and Damian have written this book on Laurie Hall. There will be other threads that, either collectively or individually, we’ll want to take up in continuing our own journey off of this book, areas that piqued our interest and we’ll go from there. As Susan said, we’re hoping people will pick up the mantle.
One of the things we learned through this process, and it’s probably a lesson that should have been obvious to us beforehand, but the field of American jewelry is a young field. For most of its history, there have been dominant narratives. I’m part of that group of people who have helped with those dominant narratives. As a field evolves, you lay down the baseline, then you focus on individual artists, then you go back and start to layer in additional histories in a way that you can actually understand the full field. A lot of the artists we included in In Flux worked on the outskirts of what was previously the dominant narrative. I think as we proved, that doesn’t make their work any less significant, influential, etc. from artists who were part of the dominant narrative. It’s a phenomenal way for the field to continue to grow. I hope that as more institutions of all types focus on contemporary jewelry, it will engender additional layers of that story which will continue to propel the field forward.
Sharon: Cindi, I noticed that when you look the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston website, you’ve been involved in a lot of online programming and symposia and things I didn’t realize. I’m wondering when you’re going to have a symposium on this subject.
Cindi: It would be terrific. Up to this point, Susan and I have been invited to give talks. We did one with Craft in America last fall. We did with MAD. We’ve been invited on your jewelry podcast. I’m also going to be speaking for the Seattle Metals Guild Symposium next month. I would love to do a symposium. For me, in order to do a symposium right, it’s not just about getting speakers together, which you can do virtually, but it’s really about them coming together and having that in-person experience where you can have breakout sessions; you have the conversations in the hallways, all of those kinds of things. I would absolutely love to do that when it’s safe to do it, which is not to say that—there are no current plans. I think our virtual talks have been fantastic, but it would be great to gather the tribe, so to speak, to gather people we interviewed for this book, to gather people who are interested and to share a day or two together to dive into this. I hope that can happen. Certainly, the door is open to it. I just think right now we’re still figuring out what we can do in person and what we can’t.
Susan: I know many of those people are quite elderly at this point in time. Even as we were writing the book, people were dying.
Cindi: Yeah, Ed Woell died. Ron Hill died, and now Nancy Gordon has died.
Susan: Mary Tompkins passed away.
Cindi: Mary Tompkins passed away. Several people had already passed away, but this history will not be quite the same unless people go and interview these older makers soon. This is part of the problem: with them dies a huge amount of information. It’s impossible to know anything concrete about a jeweler unless you actually talk to them. Anyway, I hope that if people do want to take up this mantle or if they do a symposium, they do it soon, because they may be all gone by the time we get there.
Sharon: People do it on Cartier and Renee Beauvois, and they’re not around.
Susan: They also kept better records and took better photographs. With those wealthy jewelry companies, it’s very different than being a unique maker on your own in your little studio. Many of these people weren’t even taking photographs of the work at the time necessarily, or if they were, certainly they were not great ones. They just clicked on a photo link on a slide back. This is not the wealthy, recorded advertising world of Cartier. This is a very different world.
Cindi: As someone who has done a Cartier exhibition, I can also tell you that it’s about the firm and about styles. You don’t learn about who the individual designers were of X, Y and Z pieces, but Susan’s right. For artists who are listening to this, it is incumbent upon you to document your work. Today, there are obviously tools that artists from the 60s and 70s could not have availed themselves of, which would have made it much easier. So, document your work, keep track of your work and update the way you document it, so that somebody 30 or 40 years from now who is wanting to do something in depth on you is not having to battle with an old technology that nobody knows how to use anymore, which then can make things invaluable. I’m old school. I’m a big believe in paper. I know that is completely against the way the world works, but I am wary. I have experience with recorded, even digital formats, that we don’t have the equipment to use anymore; nobody knows how to use it. If you have a paper printout, you’re never going to have that problem. I know that this is environmentally incorrect, that everybody’s moving towards digital files. I have them myself, but I still like paper because it’s what’s going to be preserved for history.
Sharon: That’s very good advice about documenting. It benefits the artist now and makes life easier for those who follow as historians and people who want to look at it academically. Susan and Cindi, thank you so much for being with us today. It was so interesting. Susan, we look forward to your next part, 1A I guess we’ll call it. Thank you so much.
Susan: Thanks for having us, Sharon. It’s been wonderful.
Cindi: Thank you, Sharon.
Sharon: Delighted to have you.
Cindi: Please do let your audiences know that the book is widely available. My plug on all these things is that we know you can buy books from Amazon. Please buy your book from a local independent bookseller, or even better, come to the MFAH’s website. You can buy it off of our website, which goes to support our museum’s programs.
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