Over his 50-year career, Bill Harper has developed his own distinct style—and his own distinct creative process. Bill works the old-fashioned way, creating every piece by hand with no commercial goals. He was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where he talked about his work and unusual career path. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to welcome Bill Harper, whose work is difficult to describe. Wikipedia bills him as an American jewelry artist known for studio craft jewelry. The Enamel Arts Foundation describes him as an unrivaled master of the cloisonné technique. Other words used are “alchemist” and “master maker.” His work has been the subject of several solo exhibits, including “William Harper: The Beautiful & The Grotesque,” which just closed at the Cleveland Institute of Arts’s Reinberger Gallery. Today, he’ll tell us about his work, his process and his vision. Bill, so glad to have you here today.
Bill: Thank you, happy to be here.
Sharon: I know you’ve been working for 50-plus years. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey?
Bill: Well, it’s rather strange. When I was in college, I was an art education major. I was required to take one jewelry course and luckily the jewelry teacher I had was my idol, John Paul Miller, who was probably the greatest goldsmith this country has ever produced. The only thing I did was make a pair of wedding rings. I’m now divorced from that spouse, but it came in handy.
I taught in high school for three years and, partly because the textbook was published on step-by-step enameling, I became known as an enameller at an early age. After three years of teaching at Penn State, I was offered a job at Florida State teaching jewelry. I was very adamant with them for the first three phone calls they made to me that I wasn’t a jeweler, that I knew very little about making jewelry. My forte was enameling, which I knew was a very rarified technique. With all three phone calls, the people at Florida State said, “We don’t care whether you are a jeweler or not. You have been recommended by many, many people as a wonderful problem solver, and if you can keep three weeks ahead of the students, we know that you’ll do very well.” So, they gave me the first quarter off to teach myself how to do jewelry from books, and we went from there.
I had never really done any jewelry whatsoever until I started in 1974 to teach jewelry there. It’s a strange way to learn. I’m self-taught in many ways. The fortuitous thing about that is I never went to graduate school to learn jewelry and metals, and I know a lot of people who did that, went that route, and have never been able to overcome their teacher, instructor or mentor’s styles. I didn’t have anything to attach that kind of baggage to, so I just made stuff that I wanted to make. I’m really more of a painter in many ways than I am a jeweler, and I fully recognize that my technique is far from perfect, but I also realize that, as I’ve been told many times, I have a very creative imagination and that, I think, has served me very well.
Sharon: That then begs the question—and we talked a little bit about this—how do you describe yourself? You don’t describe yourself as a jeweler. You describe yourself as an artist, yes?
Bill: If I need some exactitude, I will say that I do art jewelry, but then I will jokingly say I’m a painter gone bad.
Sharon: Art jewelry can mean so many things because it’s not the typical kind of jewelry; it’s your own art and vision. How is it art jewelry?
Bill: In my case, there is no commerciality attached to it whatsoever. I don’t even work for commission. The only commission I have done in my entire 50-year career was to do the collar of office for the president of Yale. The original collar had been made by Tiffany and it had been stolen. After three or four years trying to discover where it was, they decided to have a competition to replace it. There were four of us, and I knew all the other three people. We were chosen by The Metropolitan Museum of Art to submit a rendering of what we wanted to do and what we proposed, and it’s the only time I’ve ever done a rendering for a piece. Lo and behold, I was the one who was selected, which really quite surprised me. It was a great accolade to have the president of Yale wear my neckpiece, a collar of office really, for every kind of official event he has. When it’s not being worn by the president, it’s displayed at the museum that goes along with Yale.
Sharon: Wow! That is quite an accolade. Tell us about your creative process, because you say you don’t do any preliminary sketches or drawings. How do you create?
Bill: A lot of different things can influence me. I’m one of those rare people that seems to have an affliction, I will call it, where one sense can influence another sense. For instance, certain odors, aromas, perfumes, whether good or bad, can trigger ideas in my mind. I can hear a piece of music and as I’m going along in the music, I can see a very abstract beginning of where I would like to start with jewelry or with a series of jewelry.
For instance, one of the latest series I did was inspired by one of my favorite artists, Jean Dubuffet. I’d been looking at his work for years and years, and one of the things that I most admire about him is that he has a great sense of elegance, yet there’s a kind of impromptu creativity to it as well. That combination has always really intrigued me. I think throughout my career, dichotomy has been one of the leading inspirations in my conceptual process. How you take opposites and put them together to make something new and unique has been a guiding light for me through almost my entire professional career. I would look at a lot of Dubuffet paintings and I would start to break them down into little components. I would go into the studio and start fiddling around—adult play I call it—making little gold elements, doing separate little pieces of cloisonné enamel. At some point, I started to move them around in relationship to each other, and I could have as many as 10 or 12 or even more of these little fragments on my worktable. I never used a jeweler’s bench, by the way. I always just work on a table. They would eventually suggest to me some kind of composition that seemed satisfactory to me, and elements that I would make for what I proposed in my mind as being piece number one actually could go through to piece number two, from piece number two to piece number four. It was a growth process. I am never sure where I am going with a completed piece. I think my best results have always been when I reach a kind of dead end. I paint myself into a corner, but because I always want to finish anything I start, then I have to solve the problem. That’s absolutely the opposite of the way any brand in commercial jewelry would work. It’s really rather insane, but it’s the only way that I can process my thoughts.
Sharon: As you’re working, let’s say the catalyst was a Dubuffet. Do you stop in the midst of what you’re doing and think, “Is this reflecting what I wanted?” or is it just the starting point?
Bill: I think it’s both. It’s a starting point, but I become compulsive at a certain point and I want to do more and more little parts. For instance, if I’m fusing various—I only use wire and sheets; nothing is cast— I’ll start experimenting, and sometimes I will have an element that—I use both fusing and soldering—I’ll start cutting apart and attaching other things to it. It’s this rather laborious process that I have to go through, but I know what pieces are right when I have hit this dead end. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. It’s a very unorthodox way of working and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but it’s the only thing that works for me.
If I were to do drawings, I would be bored by them by the time they were finished. There would not be any of the surprise at the finished exploration to me. I get bored very, very easily, which often surprises people because my work comes off as being very exacting, but I also want it to come off as having an impromptu spontaneity about it, which is not always easy to do because it is labor-intensive. I don’t want it to appear to people to be labor-intensive and I don’t want them to ever have to think about the technique, “How did he do that?” If they want to do that, it’s their time to do it. It’s to their pleasure, but I would rather have people look at my work and be amazed at what strange mind produced this.
Sharon: I think that’s when you look at and go, “Oh my god, where did he come up with that?” as opposed to, “How did he put one piece together with the other?” or “What kind of vision did he have?” or “Where did that come from?”
Bill: Yes, that’s the reaction. I should add that the other thing I try to do in virtually all work I do, especially series, is developing a body of work that a serious art critic can actually write about. There’s intellectual content and not just, “This is how he did it procedurally, one, two, three.” I think for work to be art, a critic should be able to analyze and break it down for the public to understand and give it the depth that it deserves. My work has many, many layers of meanings, and some of them refer to various cultures around the world over thousands of years. I readily admit I have borrowed and stolen from every culture that has ever existed and I put these things together in different ways. I jokingly call it Harperizing, but I think all artists do this, whether they want to admit it or not. They’re inspired by the great art of the past. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Sharon: Yeah, we all are influenced by what we’ve seen, whether it’s conscious or not. That’s who we are, what we’ve seen, what we’ve done. You can’t really escape that.
You said something about doing a series. Do you start out knowing it’s going to be a series, or do you put a few pieces together and say, “Oh, this is a series,” when it is finished? How do you know it’s finished?
Bill: When I don’t have any more ideas how to take it any further, and maybe by the 11th or 12th piece, it has departed quite a bit from what the impetus was for the first few pieces and I get bored and quit, and then I spend a lot of time thinking. I spend more time conceptually about where I want to go than I actually spend making finished work, and that’s very important to me.
I don’t consider my work designed at all. I want work that is not capable of being made by anybody else. I do not want assistance. That’s what I think separates me from being a designer, whereas a lot of people in all fields do drawings or sketches or renderings or whatever, and then they have other people make their work for them. That’s not being an art jeweler. It’s like having somebody else do your paintings for you. Jeff Koons gets away with that. He has a hundred different people working for him doing his paintings and sculpture, but that’s just not my way. I’m a hands-on kind of person, which perhaps is a very old-fashioned way to work, but over the years, even the work that I did early on—45, 50 years ago—has held up as very classical, wearable work that people enjoy wearing and looking at. I have work in 33 or 34 international museums. That’s such an honor for me to know that the work has gone from simply being in jewelers to being on display at one point or another along with peers.
Sharon: There are probably not many people in the world who have their work in so many museums. We talked a little about the marketing or the selling of art jewelry, and you’ve described brands as lethal. What do you mean by that?
Bill: I probably used that adjective because I realize I’m definitely not a brand. The first time I ever heard that word used was by Martha Stewart, and somehow to me, that was the kiss of death. I’m not commercial. I’m not doing something that can be applied to all kinds of housewares and other designer objects, nor am I like Tiffany where you say there is a Tiffany style. The only thing it really is would be a single bound diamond mounted beautifully, but a brand can incorporate so many different stylistic changes. A fashion designer has to produce seven or eight different lines a year. Well, the fashion designer doesn’t really do it. He or she throws ideas off to a whole group of people who work for him or her or the brand, and it’s just this constant pressure to do new things to show to the public. I don’t think a serious artist really works that way. Perhaps Andy Warhol did and Jeff Koons definitely does, but I think serious artists want to work on their own time schedule. They do what they want to do without having to meet deadlines, and I think all brands have to meet deadlines in order to sell work.
Sharon: Yeah, in today’s world, definitely.
Sharon: Where do you want to go from here? There’s not much room for an upside because you’ve done so much and received so many honors and accolades, but will you continue working as you do right now? What do you want to do?
Bill: That’s a question that’s sort of up in the air for me. I have a couple of physical problems that will undoubtedly make it more and more difficult for me to do the kind of highly technical work that I do in the future. I have a tremor in my right hand, and although I try not to make a big deal of it, although it’s always obvious in the self-portrait series, I’m actually totally blind in my left eye from retinal detachment, and I had so many surgeries to keep the right eye intact that my peripheral vision is really pretty lousy. I have very good straightforward 20/20 vision, but peripherally, I just seem to be going to hell, so to speak. It’s part of aging. I’m 75 years old. I have to come to grips with it and I’m not sure how I will occupy my mind. I would really like to be working in the studio, but right now, I have to take care of some other physical problems.
The one good thing about this is that I think I went out in a blaze of glory with everything I produced over a two-and-a-half-year period for the exhibition that the Cleveland Institute of Art did for me. We marketed “The Beautiful & The Grotesque,” and if I never make any more work than what is in that show, I will feel that my life has been satisfactorily rich. The only thing is my husband will vouch for the fact that I find it hard to believe that I have attained the level that I have in this strange world of art and jewelry. I realize that I reached a very high level of acclimation, and yet I still find it very hard to believe because I started out wanting to be a high school teacher, perhaps moving to a small college or something. My career has gone so far beyond anything I ever imagined it would be.
Sharon: Wow! Listen, I hope you get to continue despite what you’ve described.
Bill: Well, I do have ideas. One of the things I’ve strangely been obsessed with for a few weeks now—I described a series I’ve done based on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. There’s a Jasper Johns series. There are all of these and certain phrases or smells or words or things I read, musical progressions, whatever suggests things to me, and what I have become obsessed with—probably because of our very sick political situation—is the idea of the tainted fruit from a poisonous tree. I have no idea how I can develop that into jewelry, but that is what I’m thinking about: how to take something that is so specifically one way and yet so completely difficult in another. It’s usually referred to as crimes or testimony that can be given legally, and for some reason, I’ve become obsessed with that phrase. I’m trying very hard conceptually to hear out a journey I could make to realize that. It could be that the series of work I do will actually not reflect that phrase, the tainted fruit of a poisonous tree, whatsoever, but it will be a starting point for me.
Sharon: Wow! Well, that will be interesting to see.
Bill: Yes, it will be. I think it’s the most difficult theme I’ve ever taken on.
Sharon: Wow! Well, you’ve done everything to get there in terms of having done everything else. Bill, thank you so much for being here today. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
Bill: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Sharon: To everybody listening, we’ll have Bill’s contact information in the show notes. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
END OF AUDIO