Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Bill Harper. Bill is not just an artist or a jeweler, but he’s both. His mastery has been acknowledged around the world, with his pieces being included in museum collections everywhere you can name. In 2019, he had a solo exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art called “The Beautiful and the Grotesque,” and that really sums it up. I’ll let Bill take it away. He’ll describe the pieces he’s done during this weird, unusual time we’re going through. Bill, go ahead.
William: I don’t actually know where I’m going when I start a piece. I might know the title before I actually get there, but in November and December of 2018, I started making things. When I say things, I mean some are enamels; some are gold pieces. I start moving them around until I have a feeling there is a composition that makes sense. I think when we did the last podcast, I said to you I had this ridiculous idea of doing a piece called “The Tainted Fruit of the Poisoned Tree.” I did.
Sharon: Oh, wow!
William: Down here is the root system, and there’s a pearl pointing up which says, “Do not eat.” Then the fruit are the two enamels here.
Sharon: They’re beautiful.
William: Want to see how big it is?
Sharon: It’s gorgeous.
William: The next one I worked on was based essentially on the famous Giacometti sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, “The Palace at 4 A.M.” I’ve always loved that piece, so I did “The Palace is Empty.” It’s inspired by the Giacometti, but obviously it’s completely different. In this case, rather than fruit, these are personages that are escaping from the palace, from the authoritarian age.
Sharon: Are those enamel?
William: Yes, let me see if I can get close.
Sharon: Oh, I see.
William: The third piece I did is actually sort of cute, which is not like me, but when you know what it is, it loses its cuteness. It’s called “Don’t Cough in a Thicket,” and the thicket is everything we have to put up with environmentally, politically, socially, and we just get caught up. The other title I was thinking of, but I thought was not quite heavy enough, was “A Sitting Duck.” Carlos, my husband, was the foot of the duck.
Sharon: That’s great.
William: Here’s a close up of the enamel. It’s not showing too well.
Sharon: We could see the enamel. I guess we’re all sitting ducks, right?
William: That’s right. This is the smallest one from the series. It’s called “Parasite,” and this is the main personage trying to escape something the personage does not want around him. This is the parasite.
Sharon: How did you get that idea?
William: Watching television.
Sharon: It comes from everywhere, right?
William: My politics are going to be very obvious from this. I feel the whole system has become parasitical on one side and I’m afraid of where it’s going. That’s how most of these developed, in reaction to my very liberal political views. Here’s the funny one.
Sharon: That’s cute. That is great.
William: The title of this is “The Pompous Charlatan.” Guess who it’s supposed to be. It started being orange, but I did the enamel based on the color of the little bottle, which is, strangely enough—I found it on Etsy. They were little sample bottles from Evening in Paris perfume from the 50s. It is three-dimensional and this one actually moves, but it’s the only one—well, I was going to say it’s the only one that’s rather anthropomorphic, but that’s not true.
Sharon: Do you want to show us how large that is? As you can see, it’s large. That is just spectacular.
William: I think I mentioned when we talked before how I feel that, if a woman is going to invest in one of my pieces, she needs to build her wardrobe by piece and not buy the piece simply like it’s a branded piece of jewelry that accentuates the shoulder or whatever. My ego considers myself an artist, not just a branded jeweler, and I have ideas behind everything. I think to be properly shown off, it has to be worn with something like what you’re wearing now. It probably would fit on your shoulder, but I usually prefer red or black, maybe blue, something like that.
Sharon: That is gorgeous.
William: As I said, this one is kinetic. The next one I did is called “The Exiles.” I think I’ve been watching too much YouTube political stuff, including the rise of Nazism, and that gave me the idea to do something where one element is exiled from the group. That was the idea behind it.
Sharon: That’s a striped enamel, and a sort of abstract on the side?
Sharon: Is that supposed to be a computer keyboard on top?
William: I hadn’t thought about that. What it’s supposed to be is a piece of reflective glass and rhinestones by the yard, but I think your idea about a keyboard is interesting.
Sharon: That’s my first thought looking at it.
William: I’ve always felt that people can bring their own ideas. My pieces are so complex that you can build your own ideas into what they are. Sometimes after I’ve completed one, I have additional insight into what I was trying to do. The next is a really beautiful one, and it’s not so political. This is “The Annunciation,” which is when the archangel spoke to Mary and she was inseminated by some magical feat. This is the angel, and then if you look close to the enamel—
Sharon: Just beautiful.
William: It’s got anatomical details, and that’s not something you would usually find in a standard annunciation from the Middle Ages. Maybe Salvador Dali would have done it, but I’ve always loved annunciation paintings and I decided to take it a little further with this one. Then there’s this one.
Sharon: That’s great.
William: Years and years ago, I did a series of pieces called “Les Fleurs du Mal.” They were based on the Baudelaire poem about when something reaches its peak and then it starts to go downhill. I thought of them as flowers, obviously. There’s a point at which a flower opens up and it’s absolutely gorgeous and at its height, and it’s just like us; it’s all downhill from there. This is “Les Fleurs du Mal.”
Sharon: Bill, let me ask you this: I don’t know if you mentioned it or if somebody mentioned it to you, but they mentioned they thought some of the pieces were dark. I may even send out an email with photos of some of your pieces.
William: Oh, it was me. You’re familiar with my earlier work, which usually has a joie de vivre about it. I don’t think these do. Maybe they’re darker in my mind than they come off being to other people. That I can’t say, but conceptually they’re much, much darker than my usual work. Then, we have this very tall one, which is called “Golem.”
William: You probably know what a golem is.
Sharon: Oh, golem, O.K.
William: Yeah, in Jewish folklore, a golem was constructed out of mud and other materials in a human form and then would come alive. It was very dangerous. Essentially it would destroy anything he came close to. This is a Lincoln-like chain with a pearl down below. Here’s a close-up of its face. He probably resides in the White House.
Sharon: Oh my gosh, wow!
William: It’s fairly large.
Sharon: Is that a rope or beads? What is it that’s hanging?
William: This is a handmade chain, a loop-and-loop chain. I have had it around for years. I made it probably 25 or 30 years ago for another purpose. I had a length of it, but it wasn’t long enough to hold a pendant. There just wasn’t that much. So, I cut it in two, and this is what was left.
Sharon: That’s great.
William: And finally, this is “A Gatherer of Souls.” This is the soul that’s been gathered by whatever good personage tries to save the essence of the person. This one doesn’t have any pearls on it, but it does have this, which is a possum’s penis bone. If you’ve read the catalogue essay that Glenn Adamson wrote for the Cleveland Institute of Art, the first sentence is “I don’t know what I’m going to do because my cache of penis bones is running out.” Well, I did not kill the animal; it kind of went down. These were readily available in a store here in New York that sells butterflies and bones.
Sharon: Interesting. Can we see the back of that one?
William: This one is very elaborate in gold.
Sharon: Which is bigger, the golem or that one in terms of height?
William: Let me see. The golem’s longer, but the body—if it is indeed a body. I thought of it more as a ladder, and it has an immense amount of gold in it to get this roughness. I start out with either very pristine tubing or wire, and then I do my ridiculous, obscene things with the material to make them look very rough. The concept of roughness in gold jewelry is not all that prevalent, but my ideas initially came from seeing two death masks from Macedonia or Greece or South America. I loved the way the gold looked because it had had sediment on top of it, so parts of it were very crushed, very rough looking. I think that’s the group of 10. I have a couple more started, but I had to stop at the end of August because I had shoulder surgery on my right shoulder.
Sharon: How is your shoulder now?
William: It’s still sore. My handwriting is still illegible, so it’s going to be a long time before I get back into the studio. Besides the 10 of these, I have an inventory backlog of about 75 pieces. It’s not as though I have to rush out to do stuff. My retirement annuity is all the gold.
Sharon: I don’t know where it stands right now. I think you mentioned that you are doing something during New York Jewelry Week. Do you know if you are?
William: I don’t know what it is. I know what I wanted to do, which I probably shouldn’t say, but New York Jewelry Week is in a state of flux right now.
Sharon: It’ll be virtual.
William: Yeah. The original idea in doing these was to have a one-person show in a prestigious place with 10 or 12 pieces on a theme. I told you about the theme being “These are my quarantine pieces,” but if you remember, no two were remotely alike stylistically, for the most part. That was one of the ideas I wanted to do, a great variety of things, but there isn’t any place to do it. I don’t think showing work virtually is all that successful for someone who might be interested in work as complex as mine is.
Sharon: Bill, do you name your pieces before you start or after you look at them?
William: Both. For instance, because I had been mulling around so much, branding a crazy phrase like “The Tainted Fruit of Poisoned Tree”—I mean, that’s probably the most far-out title I’ve given anything, and I usually name them for some other kind of aspect. For instance, “The Exiled One,” the title came as it developed because I had all these individual things I had done. Do you remember when I told you in December that I had all these things I was making, and I didn’t know exactly where they were going to go? I don’t do any drawings, as I said, and some people might wonder about that, but I think if I did drawings, I would be stuck with what I drew. This way, I actually use the materials, because I’m not doing a rendering that somebody else makes. I do everything from start to finish, so I can do pretty much whatever I want. I think with this whole set, I was trying to push boundaries, to some extent, with the jewelry. I get a little dismayed about how—I don’t want to use the word “clean”—but a lot of jewelry today, artist-made jewelry, is still stuck in constructivism or minimalism, and that definitely is not me. I’m a maximalist. I think once people are familiar with my work, whenever they see it, they will immediately know it’s mine.
Sharon:Oh, absolutely, yes.
William: It’s the hallmark of an artist who’s had, I think, successful growth over his career. I’ve had a 50-year career. Usually, I hear that if you can get 30 years out of a career, you’ve done really well. Now I’m past the 50th year, and I’m hoping the tremor I have in my right hand and the problem in my right shoulder won’t keep me from doing more work, but I don’t know. The main reason I want to do work is that it’s what kept my sanity during the quarantine. We still have the quarantine, and yet I’m not able to go into the studio and do anything. I can barely write my signature on checks and send them out because the coordination is just not there yet. I had surgery the 28th of August, so it’s been a while healing.
Sharon: That sounds very frustrating.
Sharon: Well, Bill, thank you so much for showing us. Just out of curiosity, did you do any kind of beads?
William: Well, my bead career is over. I figured out how many, roughly, I had done in my career, and I was amazed that it was about 45, 46 different strings. They were always very, very laborious to do. It required a lot of dexterity, with my right hand being able to hold the beads while the finishing was being done to make it smooth. I can’t do it anymore, but that’s all right. There’s plenty out there. It was to the point that I wasn’t enjoying doing them much.
Sharon: That’s the time to stop, if it becomes work, then.
William: That’s right.
Sharon: Bill, thank you so much for being with us today, for taking the time to explain everything and to show us your beautiful work. It’s gorgeous. I know the themes where you’re coming from are dark, but looking at the work itself, I can’t say there’s anything dark about it.
William: I think that’s probably for the best. The darkness was what inspired me to go this far in size, complexity and construction. These are more complex, for the most part, than anything I had done the past. That was one of the things I wanted to try to do, build in the ultimate complexity of inspection.
Sharon: And that’s what’s kept your career going, that you keep pushing your boundaries.
William: Yes, absolutely. I think the phrase that best describes my work is something I read about Persian rugs a long time ago, and that is the more you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you want to look.
Sharon: That’s certainly true with the work you showed. Once again, thank you so much for everything, and good luck with your shoulder. I hope it continues to heal quickly and you get back in the studio as soon as possible. To everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey. Thank you so much for being with us. Please join us next time, when we’ll have another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience and expertise that can help move your career forward. Thanks so much for listening.
William: Thank you, Sharon.