Expressive Design in Iron

1995 Iron Symposium @ Penland School of Crafts

Compiled by Enrique Vega & Paul Lundquist

Pictured above (left to right) Ken May, Christina Shmigel, Peter Parkinson, Jim Wallace, Albert Paley, Richard Wattenmaker

Symposium Panelist

  • Moderator: Kenneth May of the South Carolina Arts Commission
  • Christina Schimgel: Sculptor & Assistant Professor at Webster Univ. St. Louis
  • Peter Parkinson: British Designer / Blacksmith & Educator
  • James Wallace: Designer / Blacksmith & Director of National Ornamental Metal Museum
  • Albert Paley: Designer & Sculptor & Professor at Rochestor Institute of Tech.
  • Richard Wattenberg: Director of Smithsonian Institution's National Archive of American Art

This paper is a compilation of my tape recordings and Paul Lundquist's personal notes taken during the symposium. Unless actually quoted, the text is not a transcription. It is an approximation of what was said. Paul keyed the remarks on his laptop during the symposium and I quoted from the tapes.

I have also added two sound clips which document the comments made by Albert Paley and Richard Wattenberg. Albert speaks on the individual artists educational development and talks about his own personal experience in developing his "vocabulary". Richard comments on artists personal endowment and why they have to be obsessed to be good artists.

The two sound files are in three different formats. The different formats are so that they can be heard on a variety of systems. You will see appended to the end of the sound clip name either a .aif - Macintosh compressed 11kHz 8 bit, .au - Unix / Macintosh 8kHz 8 bit, and .wav - Microsoft PC 11kHz 8 bit. The Paley sound clip (paley) is 6:09 minutes long and the Wattenberg sound clip (Watenmak) is 5:22 minutes long. These files are relatively large so you may want to go ahead and start downloading one while you read the rest of the discussions. Mac users note that the .aif file is much smaller than the .au file but you will loose a little bit of the sound quality with the .aif file.

Albert Paley - Developing Personal Vocabulary (6:09 min.)

paley.aif 1338k 2889k paley.wav 4012k

Richard Wattenberg - Artists Personal Endowment (5:22 min.)

Watenmak.aif 842k 2523k Watenmak.wav 3504k

The main questions are listed below and linked to the discussions of those questions within this paper.


vocabulary n vocabularies 1 : list or collection of words 2 : terminology of a person or subject

David Mudge, who attended the symposium, recently wrote to the ArtMetal mail list expressing his interest in this subject;

"VOCABULARY" being one of the key words that I learned ( re-learned) there. You have the vocabulary of asthetic, of technique, of design, of the craft, and apparently of one's position as it relates to the other "professionals."

Below is the panelists' descriptions of how they developed their personal vocabularies, or what "vocabulary" means to them.

Christina Shmigel:

"Art needs to come out of human need. That there is some need I have to express something, and so, that is why I want to make the work. It is like you see this thing, and everything else recesses. It's like the rest of the world just drops off. I start out with an idea that is a suggested response to the world. The idea involves content and narrative issues, rather than material."

"What I now have found is, rather, what the material can do for me to be expressive of an idea. The idea is put into the material and not the material being the idea."

"What we all have is a passion for the material (iron). Listening to Hoss Haley talking about the material in an almost mystical way. The plasticity of the material. The life that it has. And then as it rusts and corrodes and goes back to the earth. It almost has a certain death closure.

While watching Christopher Freidrick demonstrate one of his neck pieces in the smithy. The class was absolutely breathless. We just stood there and watched him work with this complete harmony between him and the metal as he was working it. It was this pure choreography watching him work, it was like the metal was telling him, 'Do what you will, I am like putty in your hands'. And in my studio the metal tells me, 'Fuck you bitch, I ain't doing anything you tell me to do'."

Albert Paley

"Finding a way of understanding. Emotional vs. rational dimensions. Many times you get an idea about crazy wild things. You have to evaluate them. You have to come to grips with them, so you engage your intelect. So it's back and forth, back and forth. You want a system to evaluate these things".

"Formal training in art school is to understand what you see. What's color? What does yellow do? What does blue do? What is space? What is the physical nature of things? You must learn the vocabulary!"

"You're the teacher and the student at the same time. What you are trying to do is to educate yourself. To find a vocabulary that will communicate your perceptions of life to others - personalize that experience."

"You can think one thing, but then you experience something else. Many times they are quite different. I understood the tapering, the fullering, the metallurgy, but when I started doing it, all of the sudden, a revelation came. Not that the tapering was happening, or the fullering, but that the iron was plastic. It was this incredibly fluid material compared to gold and silver. So that plasticity to me was incredibly intriguing. That became my vehicle for exploration. Take it to the extremes to find out what the parameters are. To understand the vocabulary you have to do it!"

Richard Wattenmaker

"I don't think there is one single method or one single answer. It has a lot to do with individuality. The amount of energy and focus you have the capacity to bring to the given object or situation. I don't see that the experience is something that happens to you. Your personal sum total of your life experience, how much you open yourself up, and how much you make the effort, the energy you put into responding. It has a lot to do with your personal endowment, what capacity you have for both receiving and realizing something concrete."

"Obsessive behavior is a very constructive and even, necessary thing for the artist. You cannot live without pursuing them further and further, and questioning your experience. You have an obligation to master the technical features. That is also a lifetime process, but after you have gotten to a certain level, many people think that, god, I can rest now. But that's the point that you have just begun. That is the basic foundation that you are going to launch yourself forward. A lot of people stop at this point and they become imitators. They become mere technicians doing something that someone else had done well for hundreds of years, and they let it go at that."

"That's not enough! You need some kind of energy, obsessive response to things that are going to give you that boost of rocket. To go beyond what has been done before."

Ken May, moderator:

How do you personally get started trying to create a design?

Peter Parkinson:
One can try flow charts, but it's better to go react to place, to fool around, play what if? What can I do with this place or brief or whatever. What exactly is the problem to be addressed here?

Jim Wallace:
Drive around. Visit the site to see how people use this place. Use our tools to make the use of space and the vision realized. Tools are first design tools which are fairly standard such as negative space, etc.

Christina Shmigel:
I'm not capable of measuring so I couldn't do that. I don't do architectural stuff. I drive around a lot too and see what reverberates. I respond. Like making soup. I start with the idea while others start with material.

Richard Wattenmaker:
Enter into a dialog with the world. Try to be open to experiences which make concrete what you think & feel. Experience doesn't happen to you but rather you enter into the exchange with everything else to make experience. Artists are people who are obsessed. That's constructive, necessary. When you have mastered the technique you've just begun the work which is to make new work as an individual.

Albert Paley:
Seems complex but is simple. Individual solution to use your various abilities to get ideas & evaluate them. Art school (or anywhere) learn the basic vocabulary such as what a line is & then how you understand that line. There is no formula. Everyone is creative in a different way.

Ken May:

How do you recognize the idea when it comes? What does it feel like?

Peter Parkinson:
Love/hate. This is work. I both do & don't want more work to do. We smiths think so much more about these problems than other people do.

Richard Wattenmaker:
Hard. roundabout, complex. To do with your values, experience. It varies over your lifetime. There is a need for people who work in iron to actually do the work not just think about it.

>Brad Silberberg:
Tom Joyce knows he is on the right track when he is made uncomfortable.

Christina Shmigel:
I don't have that many ideas so I use each for a long time. But that gives me a chance to get more out of it.

Albert Paley:
Every idea is a good one. Knowing what you don't like is just as important. All this is invisible. What we do is to try to make our ideas visible, to humanize or bring to life the ideas. To communicate to another individual. The iron, print, paint whatever doesn't count. It is the communication with and to others.

Paul Lundquist:
Is this in the end all about how it makes one feel? Human feelings are really all that is left when all is said & done.

John Medwedef:

Over history each advance in technique has had its effect. What's coming up and to what effect?

Jim Wallace:
Yes it has had its effect. Perhaps hand held lasers are next. The 4" grinder has had a great effect as has electric welding.

Albert Paley:
Edgar Brandt's work was criticized as being a bastardization of his craft. New techniques always hit this aesthetic complaint.

Peter Parkinson:
Technique is not leap of concept but of speed.

Audience member:

How does our culture affect our work?

Michael Saari:
Industry has given us tools but we bring iron to life.

Paul Lundquist:
Look at the effect of our national and global transportation system and increasingly our telecommunications changes to see major effects on what we do and how we do it.

Brad Silverberg:
Downsized industry is not carrying as many sizes of our material. This influences our design work.

Albert Paley:
This is always the same thing in all times. We develop from what culture we are in . The real question is what forms are right to arise from our present culture? You express your sense of time and place.

Audience member:
Time is a major part of our culture and so should figure in.

Bill von Bergen:
Time. Too labor intensive to do the old way?

Peter Parkinson:
Where you live partly dictates what there is a market for. Do we live in apartments or large houses? There are matters of scale & habit. Gates sell well in England because there is a lot of public space but furniture does not sell because houses are so small.

Bob Baldwin:

Does any panelist do serial work, continuing one idea to the next? Variations on a theme?

Albert Paley:
Yes, because you are in an educational process of yourself. Someone else could copy a piece cheap. What they could not do is make the next one because they didn't have the idea behind it.

Christina Shmigel:
I spend a lot of time in the work so it costs a lot but that is what brings the life and soul to the pieces. So technique has to work with the notion of the piece not be the reason for making it.

Jim Wallace:
We all do it. We have an idea, build it. We solve technical problems. Next we can be free to explore the ideas having solved the technical problems.

Enrique Vega:

Personal expression is necessary, but what are our responsibilities to pleasing our clients? How do you address this?

Albert Paley:
That's away from the theme of the conference. You can be a supplier. I do make a gate that is a gate. Why should I make his design? He uses me to make a gate and I use him to make my design. You should be skillful enough to communicate your design sense to others. I realize their ends but I do it my way.

Doug Hendrickson:
It's our job to design, not to accomplish other's design.

Albert Paley:
Make this a win-win situation. The client is intimidated about making iron so you can give them what you have learned.

Richard Wattenmaker:
The gate is sold & installed but it is still yours since you are the artist.

David Mudge:

What is real in terms of price in market?

Richard Wattenmaker:
That's your problem. That's in the real world but not in the world of art. Art doesn't care whether you do well financially or not. This is what separates the men from the boys. Sales have nothing to do with it. Period.

Paige Davis:
You know inside what you are doing. Get money doing whatever kind of work you must, in or out of your discipline, and go on with your art.

Paul Lundquist:
Tom Bredlow showed me that you can design within a budget and do good art employing real simple designs to cut down on time/cost and achieve the elegant solution. It doesn't have to be either/or. If you are really good, you can get to a higher level and do good art within a budget.

John Med:
Two kinds of work you do to support your art work: mercenary just to pay bills or also to learn.

Susan Hutchinson:

Where did different design style periods come from?

Richard Wattenmaker:
Too complex for this discussion but each began with an individual needing to go beyond. Blacksmiths are not just suppliers but rather should work beyond the mere functionality of pleasing client . Be what you want to be. No one is keeping score of your problems.

So is there cultural relativism?

Peter Parkinson shows slides of "Fe," a touring show in England used as a possible beginning point for talking about the influence of culture on design. The brief was to create a work which speaks to the senses in addition to the visual. So is there cultural relativism? Yes, no, maybe. Well, not always.

Christina Shmigel:
Is this built into the educational system Peter?

Peter Parkinson:
Perhaps, in some details. For example Brits draw a lot, Germans don't but are great craftsmen of the actual object.

Paige Davis:
Western culture is rather all the same. So what's the definition? Greek, Celtic is different but are American and English different? Not really.

Albert Paley:
If you are immersed in a culture can you see it? I saw national trends in 1982 at Hereford & was surprised. These are stereotypes, but they exist. American ones include excessiveness, cult of individualism, exhibitionism. What do you draw from that?

Christina Shmigel:
You really can see clear & striking differences in French, German and US water towers.

Joe Anderson:
Do the Eastern cultures look within themselves and Westerners look elsewhere? Various disagreement on that.

Paul Lundquist:
These differences are real, you observe them readily.We need to know them and bring our broad education to the job of understanding them with reference to our work in design.

Lance Crowe:
I went to school in the US and Europe. Here all work was required to be different for each individual and there all the same. So what can you say about a US style?

Richard Wattenmaker:
We do consciously borrow from other countries.

Albert Paley:
For instance, a knife to a European is a weapon and to an American it's a tool.

Review of symposium & individual confirmations

Ken May starts with overview for three themes from previous day:

  • You are alone in the creative moment.
  • You can change the frame, just as we have now moved to the front porch.
  • Time to do your own thinking.

Ken gives assignment for the next few minutes: Two or three confirmations or insights you have gained from this symposium. Unresolved issues or unresolved questions.

Participants share their confirmations:

Bob Baldwin:
Impressed that smiths spoke aloud about matters of the soul.

Mike Saari:
The spark is still there! Enthusiasm.

Steve Jusko:
Nice that people are here & will probably have to chew on it at home later.

John Med:
Individuals will all be different about expressive design. I hope that we get new influences, new input so our work will get better for it.

Doug Hendrickson:
I wanted to hang out with ideas and iron in that order. I'm satisfied. But a bit disappointed that nothing shook me up.

Paul Lundquist:
Something unresolved is the statement that being a true artist is not to do with being commercially successful. That's nonsense. It is all too facile from the sinecure of the arts administrator, curator or critic to say that, and then declare an end to the discussion. In reality we wouldn't get the good stuff in today's society without those who can make a decent living making good art. You have to know how to ship on time at a profit.

As an arts administrator I have to reply to Paul. It's up to the artist to market to museums, to contact them. If you don't you will never amount to anything.

Paul Lundquist:
You can be successful without dealing with museums at all. They are not the only or final arbiter of what is art.

John Olsen:
There is a difference between criticism which opens up to understanding and judgment which finalizes & shuts down further inquiry. I still want to know more about Albert. We got off on a business sidetrack. I want to know more about Elizabeth Brim and her work and thoughts. I learned the most from Christina about the why she does her work. Richard was very straightforward, but wrong that it didn't matter that Cezanne was bought out of the draft by his father. If he had been killed in the war, we wouldn't have his work. So I expect that there have been very many artists who couldn't do the business side and quit. Now we don't have their work.

Elizabeth Brim:
I did this symposium to explore why we all do it. The panelists. Not all are willing to share that and that is all right.

John Med:
We come here to experience community and to gather. It's infrequent. There really aren't that many conferences and they are valuable.

Richard Lapedes:
Some tensions expressed here are like those of dancers who go from physical dance and then push into choreography and then to the business so that the dancing can go on.

Ken May:
This symposium is not the last one because all of us are now different. As you progress you pass the high of acquiring the skills and do the adult stuff such as marketing and other business. We're maturing!