What you’ll learn in this episode:
- How synesthesia—the ability to hear colors and see music—has impacted William’s work
- Inside William’s creative process, and why he never uses sketches or finishes a piece in one sitting
- Why jewelry artists should never scrap a piece, even if they don’t like it in the moment
- The benefits of being a self-taught artist, and why art teachers should never aim to impart their style onto their students
- How a wearer’s body becomes like a gallery wall for jewelry
About William Harper
Born in Ohio and currently working in New York City, William Harper is considered one of the most significant jewelers of the 20th century. After studying advanced enameling techniques at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Harper began his career as an abstract painter but transitioned to enameling and studio craft jewelry in the 1960s. He is known for creating esoteric works rooted in mythology and art history, often using unexpected objects such as bone, nails, and plastic beads in addition to traditional enamel, pearls, and precious metals and stones.
His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum Craft+ Design, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Philadelphia, the Hermitage Museum, totaling over 35 museums worldwide. A retrospective of his work, William Harper: The Beautiful & the Grotesque, was exhibited at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2019.
Rather than stifle his creativity, the constraints of quarantine lockdown and physical health issues helped artist-jeweler William Harper create a series of intricate jewels and paintings imbued with meaning. After 50+ years as an enamellist, educator and artist in a variety of media, he continues to find new ways to capture and share his ideas. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about his creative process; why he didn’t want his art students to copy his style; and why he never throws a piece in progress away, even if he doesn’t like it. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com. I’d like to welcome back one of today’s foremost jewelers, William Harper. To say he is a jeweler leaves out many parts of him. He’s a sculptor, an educator, an artist, an enamellist, and I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot more. Welcome back.
Yes. Is that how you got to the collection you did during lockdown quarantine?
William: Yes. I live in New York, and New York had almost a complete shutdown. My husband and I were afraid we were going to come down with a disease if we intermingled with too many people. We essentially were in lockdown or quarantine for several months. In that period, I decided I wanted to do something absolutely different from anything I had done before, and I wanted it to be politically motivated. So, just as Goya or Manet or Picasso did important paintings based on criticizing a political body—in Guernica, for instance, Picasso was painting the disruption of the small town of Guernica in Spain. Very powerful. I wanted to see if I could do that in jewelry, which was really strange, I have to say.
I had been playing for at least a year with the idea of trying to do a piece inspired by the expression “the tainted fruit of the poisoned tree.” That’s an obtuse way of approaching a piece of jewelry, but I thought of it in terms of the bottom of the tree, the poisoned tree, was our ex-president. At the top, there were elements that represented his monstrous children. You see my politics right there. It’s a beautiful piece. If you know the substance behind it, it will mean more to you, but you don’t have to. I wanted each piece to be beautiful. Now, my idea of beauty can be unlike a lot of people’s, but I think an artist has to know his guidelines for what he wants to be beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with the term “ugly” if it has an aesthetic purpose. I did this entire series on that idea.
Sharon: Does quarantine mean something besides—
Sharon: Do people ever choose your pieces because of the political message?
William: In this last group, the Quarantine Pieces, there were 10. The first two I sold were to a collector who appreciated very much the political leanings behind it. You don’t have to know. If I had someone come in that I knew was a staunch Republican, I wouldn’t tell them what the motivation was. Well, maybe I would, and then I’d tell them they weren’t special enough to own one of my pieces.
Sharon: I was asking about quarantine, and you said you didn’t mean more. Let me ask you this. You taught for more than 20 or 25 years at Florida, right?
William: I taught for 21 years at Florida. Before that, I taught for three years at Kent State. Before that, I taught for three years in a Cleveland high school.
Sharon: So, it’s 30.
William: Yes. I came to the conclusion not too long after I started teaching in college that a lot of people were there and didn’t really know what they were doing. They were able to get tenure simply by hanging on long enough. But in teaching at a high school, it forced me to be very exact about what I wanted them to do, and yet allow them to have a lot of leeway to do anything original and outside the box. I consider those three years in high school to have been very important to me as a college instructor. I guess it worked, because at the end of my 21 years at Florida State, I was named a distinguished professor. So, I guess my teaching methods paid off.
Sharon: Do you think you can impart your ideas? It sounds like you imparted them to high school students, but can you teach your ideas?
William: No, I don’t want to teach my ideas. I want to teach a subject matter or a format in terms of a specific media. Maybe it’s a drawing problem. I remember early on in my first year of teaching, I came across a group of toadstools in the yard that were starting to shrivel. I picked up enough to give each table triple toadstools. I simply put them on a piece of white paper on the table, and I said, “This is your inspiration. Now, what do you do with it? And it has to be in pencil.” That was how I handled that situation. If a student’s work starts to look like mine, they were not a successful student and I was not a successful instructor.
I have always urged students to find their own voice. A lot of people can’t do that. They have mastered a technique, but if the technique leaves you cold when it’s finished, then it’s not very successful. I want some kind of emotional connection with whatever they feel when they’re creating or painting or making a piece of jewelry. I want to see that they have made a connection to what they are deep, deep down and have it come out in their work.
When I taught at Florida State, I was a very popular teacher. Students who were in engineering or communications or theatre would take my course and then decide they wanted it to be their major. I would tell them their father was paying far too much money for them to go to college to major in something that was going to be totally useless to them when they were out of college. I considered that a very important part of my teaching, because I didn’t want people getting bogged down. I didn’t need high numbers of students. As long as I knew they were taking it as an elective, I was fine with it. If said they wanted to major in it, I had to make sure I foresaw that they would have it in them to do well.
Sharon: When did you decide you could part ways and make a living from this?
William: That was a rather difficult thing to determine. It was a goal, but I didn’t know if I would ever get to it. In 1995, I had been represented for a few years by an outstanding New York gallery, Peter Joseph Gallery. He handled high-end, handmade furniture. It wasn’t anything you would find in a furniture store; it was artist furniture, and he decided he wanted to add me to his group. I was the lone jeweler within the group of artists in his gallery, and it was a gallery that only represented a small number of people. I think when I was in it, there were only 11 or 12 artists he represented. He was able to sell my work very well.
I always wanted to be able to just throw in the towel and see if I could do it on my own. In the spring of 1995, when I found out I was being named distinguished research professor, there were two other gentlemen in meteorology who were also named. I was always upset at how low my salary was in comparison to a lot of other people. In Florida, every library had to have a book of what every professor made and what they taught in terms of their load. The gentlemen in meteorology were making three times what I was making.
I spoke with my then-wife and said, “It’s time to take a chance and see if I could do it by myself.” I prepared myself the next day with a folder that had a resignation letter in it. I went to the vice president who was in charge of everything and said, “There’s a disparity of treatment with the three of us.” They were all making three times as much money as I was, and I at least wanted to be brought up closer to what I should have been paid considering what my title suggested. When I told the vice president that, he said, “Bill, you know you have the weakest team in the college. I can’t depend on your department to bring any enhancement of reputation,” and I said, “Well, in that case, I resign.” He looked at me quizzically, and I pulled out my letter and said, “Here it is,” and I signed it and gave it to him.
It was the only way I could do it. Then I was forced to go home and get a studio and do things I knew could sell enough to keep us at the same level we had been at when I had a university job. I should say the one cog in the wheel I was able to overcome—and people don’t necessarily know this about me, but in 1990, both of my retinas detached. I had to have emergency surgery. After several surgeries, my right eye was fairly stabilized. I don’t have much peripheral vision, but it was stabilized. My left eye, I’m totally blind. I’m halfway towards Beethoven, who wrote his last symphony without being able to hear the music. My one eye serves me well enough, obviously, to continue making rather intricate work.
Sharon: How come your jewelry is so different? It’s certainly not mainstream. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not mainstream. What would you say makes it so different?
William: I’m just special. It’s the format I’ve already described. I don’t want to make jewelry that’s like anybody else’s. I definitely don’t want to fall into categorization.
Sharon: Have you thought about doing production, more than one?
William: I tried it once and it was a total failure. My daughter had a boyfriend who knew someone who was the vice president of one of those TV networks where you could call and buy things. Carl said, “Bill, come up with a group of pieces, and I’ll see that so-and-so is able to see them so you can become part of the team.” I worked and worked and worked, and they weren’t me, and I didn’t think they were vanilla enough for the home shopping network to carry. So, that was the end of that. I knew it wasn’t within my set of talents to do that. You asked how it is—
Sharon: I can’t remember what I asked. Do you see people on the street, let’s say two women, or a man and a woman who wears a brooch and says, “Oh, that’s a William Harper. You must know him,” or “I know who that is”?
William: My funniest story about that is when my ex-wife and I were in Venice. It was a foggy morning, and we sat down in a café to have some cappuccino or hot chocolate or something like that. I had to turn my head because I don’t have any sight in the left eye, but from my left I saw a couple coming. They were chattering away, and then I could tell the gentleman was trying to describe to the woman the piece of very large, spectacular jewelry my wife was wearing. They passed close enough so I would hear it. They thought they were insulting me. The gentleman said, “You see that piece of jewelry? There’s a man in the United States named William Harper, much, much better than that.” I didn’t correct him. I thought it was a story I could hold onto the rest of my life. Actually, it was a compliment.
Sharon: It is. Why do you say your work is fearless? I would say it is fearless, but why would you say that?
William: The word I was trying to think of before was branding. I’m not a brand.
Sharon: Right, you’re not a brand.
William: But anyone who sees one of my works, if they’re remotely familiar with the field, they will know it’s mine. Many ladies tell me that they were wearing a piece of my jewelry and a stranger would come up to them and say, “Excuse me. That’s a beautiful piece of jewelry. Is it a William Harper?” Or maybe they didn’t even know who it was, and the wearer would say, “Yes, it’s Harper. Isn’t it beautiful?” That’s happened a number of times. I love when a lady reports that back to me.
Sharon: Is it fearless?
William: It’s not your everyday piece of jewelry that a lady’s going to wear. It is more potent than that. I also hope—although I can’t force it, obviously—when someone owns a piece of mine that they dress accordingly, where the outfit they have is secondary to the piece of jewelry. I have seen my jewelry on the lapels of a Chanel jacket, and that combination doesn’t help either one of us.
Sharon: I can see why that doesn’t work. When you’re deciding how to do something, are you thinking about how you can be different or fearless, or how the piece can be different?
William: I don’t worry about that. I have enough confidence in my creative ability to know that it will come out strange enough. Even within the art jewelry movement, my work is fairly in the category of not being a decorative pin, let’s say, that has no life to it, that’s put on somebody’s sweater. That kind of work becomes an adornment to the costume the lady is wearing. I want my work, as I said, to be strong enough that the lady is going to have to sublimate what she would like to wear and get clothes that are very plain.
For instance, the red blouse you have on would be a perfect foil for one of my pieces in navy blue or black. In a way, she is becoming like the wall that holds a beautiful painting. It’s the same way. Her body is the presentational element for my piece of jewelry to really perform.
Sharon: What have you been doing in terms of your jewelry since the restrictions lifted?
William: When I finished the tenth piece in the Quarantine Series, which was March 22, 2020, I had worked until 2:00 in the morning. I was very happy with what I had done. I had just finished the piece absolutely and I went to bed. The next morning, I woke and could not move anything in my body. I thought I had had a stroke, but after several days in the hospital, I was diagnosed with a very rare affliction. It’s an auto-immune disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome It’s not fatal, but it’s a menace because you lose almost everything, like walking. I couldn’t sign my own name, for instance. I had to go through a long process of physical therapy. I’m 95% functional, but I don’t feel that I’m ready to take a chance with a torch or deal with anything where I could hurt myself or, god forbid, burn down the apartment. The entire building would shake.
So, I tried to keep away from that, but in the process, I knew I had to do something. My husband and some close friends said, “Bill, you love to paint. You love to draw. You love collages.” So, I have spent the time since then doing very intricate collage drawings that became very, very colorful. They’re all 24×30, I believe, and they’re really very beautiful. About a month ago, I was giving a lecture at Yale, and when I showed these slides and drawing collages to the head of the department, he said, “I can see they’re absolutely you. They look just like something you would have done without looking like your jewelry.” That was the highest compliment he could give me. I really have enjoyed doing it. I think making those saved my mental health because I’ve had something to do.
It’s still hard for me to go to a museum because I can’t stand long enough to walk around, and I refuse to go in a wheelchair. I don’t want to do that. So, I’ve been restricted to what I can do in terms of being ambulatory. For instance, it was just this week that I finally, with the aid of my husband—who’s also a Bill, incidentally—to start using public transportation. Until then I had used car services, which over a month’s time, when you can’t do anything else and you have to go to doctors and physical therapy and stuff like that, becomes disgustingly expensive. I knew I didn’t want to keep doing that. It was eating into my savings. So, I thought, “O.K., Bill, it’s time to start using public transportation.” I’ve used it three times without any problem, but my husband is with me. I have trouble going up and down steps sometimes, so he wants to make sure I don’t trip and fall and get mangled by all the other troops coming out of the train that just want to get wherever they’re going to.
Sharon: But you give lectures still?
William: Oh, yeah, for a long time. Colleges, art schools, universities with art departments. We’re not really in session, so there wasn’t any lecture to give—
Sharon: I keep forgetting, yes.
William: —when all those things are shut down. The lecture at Yale—and that’s a pretty good place to start—was the first time I had done that for years.
Sharon: Wow! I want to say thank you very much because I learned a lot about you today.
William: Thank you, Sharon. It’s been lovely to be here with you.
Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.
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