In the past there have been tall, spindly-legged clocks driven by plumb-bob pendulums and magnets, keeping, time with a single hand or with numbers inlaid on graceful, spoked, wooden wheels; tiny, rainbow-colored women accented with rubies at their breasts and diamonds for eyes, set in cloisonne jewelry.
A wooden, sculpted night stand with drawer and mirror, set on a tall, brittle-looking, manzanita branch, like the strange, boxed fruit of some otherworldly, leafless tree; grazed, glittering,, improbable ceramic bowls, cups, plates, and pots that would make a meal a laughing,, impossible event; fiber and leather wall sculptures, seemingly alive and distinctively sexual, that appear as if they have just arrived under their own power from another planet and hung, themselves up for a rest.
Graceful furniture, released from conventional rectilinear confinements and allowed to grow freely into unlikely but functional specimens of organic stability — these all from past exhibitions by the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego.
In their latest annual spring, show which will open at the Celebrations Gallery in San Diego on September 7 (obviously, a little behind schedule), the Craftsmen will exhibit more of the same unusual, highly skilled art and craft, including a blooming enamel piece that might be a representation of a gentle mushroom cloud of nuclear-plant (as in green plant) fission; a maple coffee table with one edge curled up into a likeness of an ocean wave; and ceramic sculptures of people wearing brightly colored masks, sitting on wildly colored sofa chairs, tending in one strange way or another to insane, toothy, furiously spotted and colored pets.
The exhibition will be the work of one of the oldest, most diverse and talented groups of artists in San Diego. For more than thirty years they have been the mainstay and most visible producers and advocates of sophisticated crafts in the city and county. Their membership has been collected under the strictest standards for competence, and a goodly percentage of their seventy-one active and inactive members maintain national and international reputations in their fields. Their basic business is the production of crafts-work. but. as we will see. that term has broadened since the group’s inception to include many things other than the “honest pot." the woven rug, or the leather belt, such that now, one would be hard pressed to separate the fine art from the craftwork.
On a recent summer day at the library of the Museum of Art. Margaret Price, the first president of the Allied Craftsmen, the group's self-appointed historian and the curator of the official scrapbook, related some of the details of the group’s beginning.
"After the war. a number of artists in this city decided to join together to form a coherent and wide-ranging movement to promote the arts, and the result was a group called the Allied Artists Council, created in 1946. Under the blanket of the AAC there were several groups of artists organized according to what they did — painters, theater people, dancers, and so on. And there was a group called, simply, the craft group, and that was our beginning.
Ilse Ruocco was the chairman of the craft group and she was a prime mover in this. She was the wife of Lloyd Ruocco. one of the architects for the civic center and an early president of the Allied Artists Council, hut more importantly, she was a teacher of crafts at SDSU, one of my teachers, in fact, and she was a real advocate of crafts as a legitimate art form.
She was the person who gave us the big push we needed at the beginning. We had our first spring show at SDSU in May of 1947, still as the craft group under the auspices of the AAC. But by later that year we had tired of the cumbersome organizational weight of the group and we broke away, formed an official group with officers and rules, and called ourselves the Allied Craftsmen. In November, 1947. we held what was actually the first of our annual Christmas shows, but at the time it was billed as a ‘Fall Tea' and held at Lloyd’s Custom Interior Shop
“In May of 1948 we held our second Spring Show at the Fine Arts Gallery’s Sunset Building on Sunset Boulevard. That had been the wartime location for the Fine Arts Gallery while the military used the buildings in Balboa Park. I was the president those first two years and that’s how. I suppose. I’ve gotten to be listed as the first member, but actually there were about ten of us who were the first members. I think it was about ten. yes.”
It is not easy to discern exactly how many original members there were. An article about the November, 1947 show indicated eleven members, more than one of whom are different from the list published in an article about the May, 1948 show that listed ten. It is not until the official Allied Craftsmen announcement of their 1949 July show at the Fine Arts Gallery that the group lists its members, which then numbered eleven and included people not mentioned in the previous publicity and omitted others, including Margaret Price herself.
One of the more interesting notes about this early newspaper publicity is a photograph accompanying the story of the spring show of 1948. It is a picture of a sculpture by Marg Loring (presently an inactive member) showing a small ceramic figure of a standing man His head and body arc very rounded and uncomplicated by detail, and the work is reminiscent of Eskimo sculpture, but more importantly, it is a graphic example of how far removed from simplified representational work in basic mediums the work of-the Craftsmen now is.
In viewing other photographs of the early work of members, the pattern of producing what we now view as elementary craftwork is consistent. In the light of these early works, it is remarkable how great a formal evolution we now see has occurred in the work of these artists and their students. As a footnote, it should be noted, for what it’s worth, that Marg Loring’s ceramic figure bears an astounding resemblance to “Kingpin,” the arch-villain in Stan Lee’s Spiderman comic strip. (Could it be that the Kingpin is part Eskimo? Maybe Stan Lee is the Eskimo? Maybe he was an Allied Craftsmen? Maybe Marg Loring is Stan Lee? “I am not Stan Lee,” Marg Loring replied courteously when asked.)
So popular and successful were the Allied Craftsmen’s first shows that Regnald Poland, the director of the Fine Arts Gallery (San Diego Museum of Art), invited the group to install an exhibition of their work in the gallery in July of 1949.
Of the eleven exhibitors, five presented ceramics, two showed enamels (the internationally known husband and wife team, Jackson and Elle Marie Woolley), and one each showed in stoneware, weaving, wood, and jewelry (Harry Bertoia, an internationally recognized jeweler).
This first major show established for the group several traditions: the first was an annual place in the exhibition schedule of the Fine Arts Gallery, an event that has continued with fanfare and success for thirty years with few interruptions, though now that continuation may be in doubt; second, the designing and installation of the show by the artists themselves, a practice which persisted until the early Seventies, when gallery curator Ron Hickman began to assume more of the responsibility; and, third, a tendency intact through today for the majority of the Craftsmen to present work in the medium of clay. (Though the number of different media being worked by members has increased, and the artistic directions of that work have expanded un-predictably outward, there are still, by a comfortable percentage, more artists who would be called ceramicists than there are artists working any other medium.)
The popularity of the Allied Craftsmen’s shows at the Fine Arts Gallery has, by all accounts, been strong and steady through the years. A testament to that, and also, perhaps, to the more intimate community spirit in a smaller San Diego, is that in 1951 San Diego Magazine published an article proceeding the Craftsmen’s spring show of that year that was actually the exhibition catalogue for the show, including the numbered list of pieces, and their titles, media, and artists. One hard fact in support of the group’s success at the museum is that, until the recent Muppets exhibition, the Allied Craftsmen held the records for largest opening-night attendances for any museum shows.
"Our success is no accident,” explains Joe Nyiri, a member since 1963. “Admission to the organization has always been a difficult thing to attain. In the early days, a prospective member would be nominated in a meeting arid then would be admitted only if the group voted unanimously for him. And though the method of admitting new members has changed periodically, the criteria for consideration have never varied: the individual’s work must be innovative and absolutely first-rate. We always have a long list of people banging at our door to get in. But we only manage to admit a few every year.”
Fennell Wallen, a veteran member, adds, "In the beginning, when the group was smaller and more homogeneous, it was possible to have a unanimous vote on a new member, but now, with the active membership numbering in the fifties, and with the diversity in taste and direction among the members, we probably couldn’t get a unanimous vote on what day it is, and certainly not on admitting a new member. The procedure we have now seems a good one. Twice a year a group of artists is invited to show its work, usually at the home of one of the members. Then the members come in, view the work, and cast secret ballots for those whom they think should be admitted. If a two-thirds majority votes for an exhibitor, then he or she is admitted. Any less than two-thirds is a no vote. You have to be good to get in, let me tell you that.”
The group is organized as tightly as is possible ("These are artists," says Wallen. "They are not easy to keep organized”). They meet once a month in private homes and in galleries, and they have a complement of officers, including ceramic sculptor and newly installed president Tom Hatton.
"Yes, I’m the president all right, and I’ve been a member for hardly a year. But Sterling King (a member and Hatton’s classmate at SDSU] warned me. He said, ‘Tom, watch out. If you keep coming to the meetings, before you know it they ’ll make you an officer. ’ Well, I did and I am.” Well known in local circles for his brightly colored humorous sculptures, which include religious leaders, polo players, and other improbable characters riding on the backs of huge pink pigs, Hatton is not, by nature, a joiner, but the allure of the Allied Craftsmen overcame his reluctance.
"This is quite a prestigious group of artists,” he says, "and I figured if they felt my work was up to their standards, I had an obligation to join. They are good for the crafts in San Diego; they have the means for bringing advanced work to the public view.”
Among those means and within the structure of their annual shows, two have been especially important over the years. One is the group’s commitment to bringing the work of qualified guest artists, usually from outside San Diego, to be shown at the major exhibitions, with the group’s treasury assuming the burden of paying for the shipping and insurance costs of the guest work.
A second idea was the brainchild of Jackson Woolley, who suggested that, for a major show, each craftsman would be permitted at least two pieces and that at least one of them should be experimental in some way, even if the theory behind the experiment might yet be incomplete. In both cases, the hope has been to keep new ideas in the minds of both the artists and the public, though given the seemingly self-propelled innovation in the work of the craftsmen in recent years, Woolley’s idea has become less an external policy and more a way of life.
Though the Allied Craftsmen comprise artists of far-ranging reputations, space permits detailed discussion of only a few: Sterling King, Phyllis Wallen, and Joe Nyiri. And don’t be deceived by the selection of two men and a single woman here; that is merely the consequence of convenience. In fact, of the fifty-eight active and thirteen associate (inactive) members, the women outnumber the men by a solid three-to-two ratio.
For an artist who is his own boss and whose meal money depends on the amount and quality of the work he produces, self-discipline in maintaining a steady work schedule is of critical importance. And of the many distractions which need to be overcome in the conscientious maintenance of such a schedule, few are as uncommon, persistent, and alluring as that which Sterling King has had to deal with throughout his ten-year career as a serious woodworker and furniture maker. His distraction, his beloved vice, his oldest and most powerful inspiration is the ocean, and, more specifically, riding its waves on a fiberglass surfboard. “I’m thirty-three years old and I’ve been surfing for seventeen years. And if you ask me which I would rather do — work wood or surf — I’d have to say that there’s no competition there. I’ll take surfing.”
That unswerving pronouncement may not come as good news to fans of King’s work, who have come to regard the distinctive furniture of this artist as some of the finest and most innovative of any being made today. For the most part, his work is large, but even when it is smaller there is in it a presence and a boldness that demands attention.
In that respect, the work resembles the man, whose strength of body and, in an unspoken way, of purpose are unmistakable. In the work there is also an obvious organic quality that is the combined result of King’s manner of finishing the wood in oil or other clear finishes, his occasional touches of brown leather upholstery, and his manner of shaping the pieces in sculptural curves and flows that avoid straight lines or planes and that lend the impression that the piece has grown naturally and of its own will from the spot on which it stands.
King explained that the organic element in his work is no accident. “I am very conscious, in my work and in my life, of the natural environment. Most of it comes from surfing and loving the ocean the way I do. It’s no secret that the most beautiful designs and forms are those found in nature. It’s impossible to estimate how much time I’ve spent in the water observing and feeling the endless variety of wave forms and patterns, clouds, wind, and what happens when the water meets the land. The sense of these things is in me and it comes out in my work.”
Some of the first furniture exhibited by King in the Allied Craftsmen shows (he has been a member since 1974) was as natural-looking as it could possibly be. “Not long after I was out of SDSU, Larry Hunter, Bob Dice, and I went up to a farm in Valley Center, where the farmer was trying to get rid of his walnut trees and stumps to make room for new peach and apple orchards that he was going to plant.
"Well, when we got there, we found a huge burn pile of discarded walnut that he had cut or pulled up. He had soaked the stuff with gasoline and tried to burn it that way, but it was so wet that it wouldn’t stay lit. We made a deal with him for it and we hauled it away. Later, we went up and cleared two and a half acres of other walnut that he just didn’t want and didn’t have a use for. Some of it was very beautiful wood and I went to work on my share. In school, the longest I’d ever spent on a project was probably two weeks, but the walnut was all so green and wet that I had to work it in stages and let it dry in between. In no time I went from two-week projects to ones that required a year and a half. The most I could do at first was just rough the pieces into a general shape, thereby reducing the amount of wood that had to dry. Even at that, some of the pieces I was left with were huge. I got a real lesson in patience.”
Among the results were several large chairs that were undisguised, nearly whole root bases. “One of the toughest things about those pieces was having to turn them over and around and over until I could figure out what they should be and how they should stand. They were not exactly easy to move around.” Of course, the pieces were sanded and oiled until their finished surfaces, if not their overall shape and appearance, resembled that of fine furniture.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about these massive root chairs were small leather accents that were not easily noticed from a distance, tiny rolls of leather wedged into the slender, worm-eaten grooves in the surface; and other padded patches of leather inserted into larger cavities. On his “throne root chair” that sits in his Leucadia home, the area that is taken up by leather is but a fraction of a percent of the total surface area of wood, but it is Sterling's unique version of upholstery for the piece. Since the root* pieces, his furniture has featured more prominent and conventional elements of leather upholstery, all of which he installs himself. It was as a part-time worker in an upholstery shop that he learned that skill and one other valuable lesson.
“During college, I worked part-time at the shop, and after college, I tried working three days there and the rest at my wood. But I learned that, to do my woodwork properly, I had to be committed to it full-time. I think commitment shows through a person’s work, and there’s probably no part-time craftsman whose work would not improve if he could do it full-time. I've gotten tremendous support from my wife in this. She teaches and takes up the slack where my income falls short. I like to say that I married my patron. Phyllis Wallen said that if my wife didn’t work I’d be living with my parents. She was only joking, of course, but she's not far from the mark. It's impossible for most artists, even if they are first-rate, to support themselves on their art alone. Despite the great talent that so many of the Allied Craftsmen have, there are very few who can do it full time; most have to teach. A very few who teach do it because they like to. I think Larry Hunter at SDSU might be one of those, and I'm glad he is. I was his student out there and he was certainly a great help to me. They ’re fortunate to have him there; I think he does the college a great favor by staying there.
“Things have improved somewhat for artists, with the new laws that require that artists receive percentages from future resale of their work. Still, it’s very tough. Galleries take a forty percent commission, some take fifty. They have to do it to survive, but you can see what a bite that is for the artist and how it slows the market. But artists need galleries. Selling is a fulltime job if you’re going to do it well. An artist can help himself a lot by being his own good promoter, but you can only do so much before the time away from your work damages your work. I try to do a lot of my own selling, but I know I’ve suffered for it. I haven't sold anything for two months, partly because I’ve been reluctant to follow up contacts with agents who want to expand my market and sell my work in it.”
King has made some concessions to the realities of the business of art and craft. Much of his recent work is being done on a limited-production basis, by which he reproduces his pieces in limited editions through the use of templates for cutting and a well-organized system for assembly and finishing. In viewing some of his recent furniture pieces, one might easily find it difficult to believe that the seeming free-hand sculptural designs could be reproduced to even a close resemblance of the original.
But King claims that a micrometer would be needed to measure the differences between pieces of the same edition, providing he had not made, as he reserves the right to do, willful changes in shape, materials, or finish. Even his newest table, which will be in the show at Celebrations Gallery, is one of a numbered, limited set, though it will surely take some time in convincing the uninitiated viewer that there could be more than one of these “wave tables.”
“The wave table is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it won’t be my last excursion into surfing or ocean motifs. And certainly not my last coffee table. The parameters for design in coffee tables are wide-open. Its main functions are to sit low in front of a couch and to hold up a drink or a magazine. After you get it to do that, you can let it do almost anything else, as you can see in this wave table. I had one in the ’79 AC show called ‘Fascination Ridge’ that had a small mountain range running across it.
"This new one will be pretty successful, I think, but I’ve had an impossible time trying to name it. I have a list of possible names a page and a half long. One of my favorites is ‘Big Thursday.’ I also considered naming it for a surf break down the coast called ‘Tabletops.’ Eventually, I’d like to do a promotion for the surfing magazines with a picture of the table on the beach and the artist, me, surfing behind it. What do you think?” This reporter suggested that the table be named “La Mesa del Mar,” but after some discussion it was thought that rudimentary Spanish might turn the translation into things like ‘‘The Table at the Race Track,” or “Water Table,” which might suggest flooding of basements or sewage disposal problems.
As an artist whose reputation presently is strong enough that he does not require affiliation with any art or craft group in order to maintain visibility in the marketplace, King is yet active in and proud of the Allied Craftsmen. “I benefit by my association with the other Craftsmen. The prestige accorded the group and their shows has definitely been valuable to me in the past and it will be in the future. Beyond that, we can, as a group, be valuable to the art and craft world and to the community.
"Our short- and long-term goals, it seems to me, should be to present museum-quality shows, bring in guest artists, tour other cities as a group — all for the purpose of keeping state-of-the-art in crafts in full view of the public, both for the craftsmen and the followers of the crafts movement, and for the casual viewers. I think for the latter group it’s very important to have big museum shows as a means of reaching the great number of people who would otherwise not go out of their way to go to or would not even be aware of smaller gallery shows; and also as the best way to inspire those people with the great work that can be done and is being done in crafts. Inspiration is a good word here.
"It’s what I feel every time we ’re done installing a show in a big gallery like the one at the art museum at Balboa Park. You know, you see the work of your fellow artists occasionally, or you talk to them in meetings, but the sense of how wonderful the work really is is never as great as when it's all collected in one place, in a spacious, white-washed, well-lighted setting, where the pieces surround you like a great silent orchestra, and still have enough of their own space around them to dignify them individually in the way that they deserve. I hope we don’t lose the show in Balboa Park, but if they don’t want us. I’m sure there is someone else who does, and we’ll go to them, even if it means leaving town.”
She does not like to discuss questions that involve dates or exact numberings of years when she is associated with those dates or years. We know that she and her husband built their house on Curlew Street in San Diego in the 1940s. We know that she and her husband are numbers nineteen and twenty, respectively, on the list of Allied Craftsmen members, and that the eleventh member was in place by the late Forties. We know that she has shown in twenty Allied Craftsmen shows as of 1979. And we could easily know more about the dates and years, but let’s leave it at that and say that Phyllis Wallen, enamelist, is a productive and enthusiastic artist whose ‘‘great second half” (as they say on the bank commercials) is made even greater by the good fortune of being able to spend all the time she wishes (finally) creating art with colored glass melted onto acid-etched copper, a process in enameling known as basse-taille.
From her cozy studio overlooking San Diego harbor, she spoke recently about her career and its latest new beginning. ‘‘Art has always been at the center of my life, in one form or another. I’ve always done a lot of painting, drawing, and designing, and I’ve tried my hand at most of the crafts, but, for the usual economic reasons, most of my time and energy has gone into teaching.
"About five years ago I was finally able to give up even the part-time classes and private students and really settle down to full-time studio work. I felt that if I didn’t take the initiative to do this, I might live out my entire life without finding out what I was capable of when I put all of my creative energy into my own work. It’s a marvelous time for me now; my son is grown and has his own little family, and I can spend many hours concentrating on my craft.
“I came to enameling rather late in life. I’d previously admired it, even collected it, but had considered it too difficult and technical for me. I was finally drawn into it, in fact pushed into it, by friends and fellow craftsmen who were enamelists. I owe a lot to Barney Reid [another early Allied Craftsman]. He had a group of us at his house one night for a demonstration of the basic techniques of enameling, and he explained everything and made a piece there, from start to finish. Well, Barney is a wonderfully talented artist who knows exactly what he’s doing and makes everything look easy. In that respect I was the victim of a bit of a trick because the work is not at all as simple and easy as he made it look.
"But he hooked me on it, and continued to counsel and encourage me through the tough spots. It didn’t take me long to realize that here was the medium I’d been waiting for all my life. It is so challenging, so open-ended, so full of surprises, discoveries, directions, techniques, endless possibilities for expression — marvelous color, luminous qualities, permanence. It can also be very frustrating and fraught with disasters, but that’s part of the fascination. It’s not hard to ruin an entire piece on the very last firing; you can never be sure exactly what is going to happen in the kiln. It’s not like painting, where you can see and control everything that goes on. The temperatures and range of possible chemical reactions make complete control impossible. Sometimes the surprises are positive, sometimes not, but either way, surprises are the rule in enameling. ”
Wallen began her career in art as a painter, but was invited to join the Allied Craftsmen on the basis of her work with mobiles. She admits that, at first, she was not very serious about the mobiles, making them from scraps and odds and ends of various materials, and that she was quite surprised that she was asked to join the group. But join she did, and her work with mobiles became a more serious endeavor, though it was not to last. Restless for the right medium, she followed mobiles with extensive work in mosaics, then paper sculpture, then macrame.
She claims to be the person who launched San Diego’s version of the American craze for macrame in the early Sixties. “Macrame is a very old craft that was and is a strong part of the craftwork done in countries outside of this one. The word macrame itself is derived from a Turkish word makrama, which means kerchief or napkin or something of the kind that has embroidery. In the Nineteenth Century, sailors in our navy practiced macrame, and they would have competitions among ships to see who could make the most elaborate ceremonial macrame buntings or awnings. But to them it was just a more elaborate form of every sailor’s pastime of knot-tying, not the real art form that it can be. And otherwise it was an unknown craft in this country.
Then, a woman named Virginia Harvey, who was a museum curator in Seattle, discovered an old trunk full of macrame work that had come from some foreign country, and, recognizing it as a skilled craft, she took the time to work backwards and unravel the stuff to learn how the knots had been tied and what the techniques used were. When she had figured it out she put out a book that eventually became very popular. At the time the book came out I was teaching at the Art Enterprises studio in Mission Hills. I took an immediate interest in the macrame, learned the techniques, and began to teach it in my classes. And as far as I know I was the first person in this town to take up the macrame in a serious way. Some of my students went on themselves to be leading macrame artists in the area and to teach classes of their own.
“Of course, elementary macrame is now the popular craft of the home hobbyist. And usually when something like that gets to the level of being sold in the local hobby store, the real artists get out of it, but I believe that the creative possibilities in macrame are as broad and exciting as they are in anything — except enamel, of course."
Wallen’s studio is an enclosed part of what used to be a larger deck over the garage. It is a small space but well organized, with a workbench and tools under the west and south glass windows, two small electric kilns amid cabinets on the north wall, and a bank of row upon row of colored, powdered enamel in plastic bottles on the east wall, along with a palette of color squares that she made, painstakingly, as a color guide. It is not difficult to see that this crowded but efficient little studio is her favorite room in the house.
“I’m in here every morning by 7:00 a.m. My husband, Fennell, plays golf every day in the morning, so I usually have a wonderfully quiet and uninterrupted period each day to work. By noon I’m done, tired. It’s not hard work in a physical sense, but it is a close-up, intense sort of work that can wear you out. But I love it. There is no limit to what can be done in enamel. Time and new techniques will prove that the surface of the possibilities in enamel has yet been only lightly etched, if you will.
“My current work is mostly in the basse-taille technique, which in French means Mow relief.’ Over several years’ time I have worked out my own method of doing this, using an acid etching process in the copper and covering the design with several coats of transparent enamel colors. The process also includes many kiln firings.
“When I began this work, I spent an entire summer making that color guide. I wanted to have a palette that I could rely on, as much, at least, as one can rely on anything in this. I took all the various colors that I had and made those squares of them, and now I have a good reference chart. It was tedious but I’m very glad that I did it, now. I also have reference firings of the chunks of glass. You see, the glass is manufactured originally in sheets, which are broken into progressively smaller-size pieces right down to a #80 mesh grain* almost a powder. The glass melts differently and into different shades of color depending on the size of the stock. The larger chunks are excellent for beadlike accent points in an enamel piece, but as with the granular glass, it’s helpful to have a reference chart of already-fired glass of that size and color.
"If the glass gets too powdery, it’ll cloud the colors and lessen the brilliance, so I filter my granular glass through a #200 mesh screen. It’s surprising how much of the stock will filter through such a dense mesh, and though I discard a lot of expensive glass, the clearer, more brilliantly colored result is worth the sacrifice. That is, it’s worth it to me; I don’t know about my financial balance sheet. This is not a money-making operation. It’s very difficult to do production, repetition of a single piece, and I don’t care to try. I make one-of-a-kind pieces, though I admit that I’d starve if I had to survive on sales of my work. I’ve exhibited around the country and around the world (presently she has pieces in the prestigious International Enamel Exhibition at Limoges, France) hut I couldn't make a living at it.”
Her enthusiasm for the Allied Craftsmen has been steady and well documented. She has served periodically as an officer in the group’s hierarchy, and full time as a vocal supporter and lobbyist to any who would listen. She has taken a parascientific interest in the group and has charted the astrological sun signs of each member for the purpose of noting possibile similarities among sun-sign groups. Though she says that it would take an in-depth study of each member’s astrological chart to draw any valuable conclusions, there are some points of interest to be seen in the astrologically simplistic evaluation of the sun sign.
“Probably the most interesting result of this casual study is in the Taurus group. Of fourteen Taurus Craftsmen, twelve are women. That’s about a third of all the women members charted. And of the ten Scorpio members, seven are men. That’s more than twenty-five percent of the male members. Random chance would require that only eight percent of the membership fall into each group. The second largest group is Capricorn, and the unusual thing here is that Capricorns are not, traditionally, supposed to be creative. My explanation is that Capricorns are the ‘achievers,’ the ‘stick-to-it people,’ and their type of attitude is indispensible to successful work in art or crafts. Other lesser notes are that there are only two Cancers, both of whom are women, and that of seven Pisces members, six are men. It’s fun for me to chart them this way. If I had time for a second full-time career. I’d do a complete chart of each member, but I'm having a pleasant time as a humble enamelist, thank you.”
Joseph Nyiri, a forty three-year-old San Diego sculptor, is a prominent example of the diverse artistic directions that transect and simultaneously brace the structure of the Allied Craftsmen. By his own admission, his work is strictly sculptural and does not belong within the traditional concepts of craft work. Of course, those concepts have been altered in recent years to allow work that, if not of a utilitarian nature, at least uses the traditional materials of crafts — clay, leather, wood, fiber, enamel, glass, jewelry, metals — but Nyiri cannot even claim that connection. His present work is nearly all done in bronze and aluminum, and, far from being utilitarian, is plainly abstract, or, better to say, abstracted from forms found in nature and from forms designed by the hand of man, ancient forms which themselves began in somewhat abstract fashions.
During a recent conversation at his home (in the midst of one of the summer’s worst heat waves) he spoke of his work and its direction. “It was so hot last night I couldn’t sleep, so I spent the time, all night, actually, deciding where I was going in sculpture. And I think I will continue as I’m going now, staying with two general concepts: first, variations on the forms one sees and that are suggested by Stonehenge and the Devil’s Postpile [near Mammoth Lakes]; and second, variations on the theme and forms suggested by sundials. The latter, of course, allows exploration of the beautiful and infinitely complicated ideas of time and of our place and movement within time.
"We already have two Craftsmen, Larry Hunter and Fennell Wallen, who have done great things with variations on clocks. But the difference here is the difference between my work and the work of the more conventional craftsmen. Their clocks work, keep time, more or less, but definitely have movement as a normal clock would. In the tradition of fine-art sculpture, mine will not move; they will be static suggestions more than working models.
"But I’m not the first sculptor the Allied Craftsmen have ever had, and I didn’t complain or object when they asked me-to join. They’re as fine a group of artists as you’ll find. And as time goes on and has gone on, the work of crafts, the themes and styles, have become progressively more abstract and sculptural. The ceramics, the jewelry, the wood, the fiber — most of them have departed significantly from their antecedents. When the Craftsmen first began, most of the work was fairly straightforward and representational, if not altogether classical. Though the materials are pretty much the same, you don’t have to look hard to see how the forms are different today.”
In meeting Joe Nyiri, a lanky, strong-armed, strong-handed man, one might easily be forgiven surprise in learning that the sculptor began as a jeweler. How a typical jeweler is supposed to look is certainly not a matter of record, but it seems far more appropriate that this man spend his time working the heavy tools and machinery of large metal sculpture than tinkering with the more delicate craft of jewelry.
“Yes, I began as a student jeweler at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, making pendants especially,” he recalled. “But my jewelry kept getting larger and larger, until it was almost too big to wear — and very sculptural. Finally, in my senior year, a Viennese sculptor, Leo Stappat, said to me, ‘Joe, you are not a jeweler. Come into my class.’ And that was that. I’ve mostly been a sculptor ever since. If I’d stayed a jeweler. I'd be up to making metal body suits by now; cosmetic armor, no doubt.
“Mind you, it might have been safer to be a jeweler. I spent many years pounding metal on my anvil without wearing earplugs, and I’m now very short of hearing in both ears. Also, from working the bronze, heating it especially. I’ve often contracted zinc poisoning. The zinc in the bronze gets into the body and you don’t notice it right away. You go to bed and everything is fine; then, in the middle of the night, you wake up with pains and aches all over your body, and shaking uncontrollably. By the morning it’s gone. Fortunately, it’s not a cumulative thing; the zinc doesn’t build up or get stored in the body. Still, I’m wise to wear a respirator in here.”
“In here” is Nyiri’s workshop. A smallish, enclosed room, tucked like a secret clubhouse into the dense backyard foliage of his home in Banker’s Hill, it is crowded with tools, benches, drawing board, works completed and in progress, a variety of animal skulls — and one of a human — and other clamorous, indescribable miscellany. The inevitable question arose: whose skull? “Bill collector,” Nyiri replied. “Former bill collector. ” He laughed. "Actually, I don’t do too badly. I pay my bills. If he hadn't been so nasty about it, he’d still be out getting doors slammed in his face.
"I don't make sculpture full time [he is a respected teacher of art both in the San Diego school system and on a private basis] though I’d like to. It would be difficult to survive on just sales of sculpture. There are very few of the Allied Craftsmen who are able to make their art full time. It’s a difficult thing to do anywhere, and San Diego is not the healthiest of markets for serious art. Commercial crap can sell anywhere, but there are few places where people are knowledgeable in good art and simultaneously able and willing to spend money for it. And, speaking for myself and, safely, I believe, for the other members of this group. I can say that we are dedicated to the production and perseverance of serious, well-crafted, ambitious art. I’m a sculptor; others are jewelers or woodworkers or ceramicists; but above all. the Allied Craftsmen are artists in the best sense of the word, and some are extraordinary artists.
“It’s a tough business, a market in which it’s not easy to predict who buys or why. For example. I spent some time as a buyer of art for a group of wealthy men, most of whom were doctors. Actually, I’d just advise them which work to buy and then they’d buy it. They were only in it for investment; most of the time, they didn’t even like what they bought. But they’d place the work in their waiting rooms and write it off as office furniture, a tax deduction. After a while, when the reputation of the artist had improved, and with it, the value of his work, they’d sell it for a profit and give me a percentage. I could’ve made a lot of money if I’d continued doing that sort of thing, but it was too much of a cold, soulless business for me.
“If you want to make money in art today, one sure way is to make cowboy art. People are eating that stuff up. You don’t have to have anything to say — no special message —just he able to draw well, make a cowboy look like a cowboy, his horse like a horse, an Indian like an Indian, and you’ll be guaranteed to sell. Conservative people, especially, like cowboy art. and generally, they’re the people with money to buy it. Reagan people. After that man is president, you’re going to see a real boom in cowboy art. Every other kid coming out of art school will be imitating Russell or Remington.
“What the hell, you do what you have to to make a living. Me, I work hard and try to be honest about it. I do a lot of drawing for every piece of sculpture I produce, probably five drawings a week. And even so, the pieces inevitably come out differently. Many wonderful things happen in three dimensions that simply cannot be anticipated in the drawings. And sometimes I get lucky. This piece here [one of his Stonehenge themes] was going along well enough, I thought, and I had this element [he indicates one of the major sections of the piece] standing vertically, ready to be brazed into place. Before I secured it, I went into the house for lunch, and when I came out, the section had fallen to a horizontal position, much as it is now. When I saw it, I realized immediately that it worked much better horizontally than vertically. So it stayed that way.
“It takes perseverance and a real love of what you’re doing to stay in this business, especially if your work doesn’t sell. But sell or not, artists will keep on with their work because it is one of the few things that makes any sense to them in this world. They’re fortunate, at least, to have that reason to carry on. I mean, here we arc in a life that no one really understands, in a world where the Russians are digging underground cities and planning to try to win a nuclear war.
"And here I’m up all hours banging bronze and aluminum into sculptures. Why? I say. Why not? It makes a lot more sense to me than trying to get rich. I’ve met too many wealthy people who aren’t happy, despite their money. The doctors I worked for — all had secure jobs and plenty of money, but they were bored with their lives, even the surgeons. They wished they were artists or writers or something else.”
Among the wild collection of things that lined the shelves of Nyiri’s studio was an old radio that presently played KFSD-FM, the classical music station. Buttoning up the studio for the night, he stopped suddenly and leaned his head toward the radio. “Hear that?” he asked. The selection was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “That man was an artist. He didn’t care that the world around him was sick and going to hell. He didn’t even care that he couldn't hear the piano anymore. He just kept on writing that music. It must have been the only thing that really made sense to him.”
Though they have remained unified as an idea and as an organization for more than thirty years, the Allied Craftsmen have suffered their share of internal and external problems; so far, though, most have been minor and none significant enough to threaten the breakup of the group. “Probably our most annoying and persistent problems,” said Sterling King, “are people who don’t participate except when it gets to be showtime. They don’t come to meetings, aren’t active in other ways, yet are very ready to have their work shown at the big exhibition. There’s a rule in the group that if you miss a certain number of meetings, you’re automatically discharged from the group, but the rule is never enforced. Nobody really wants to vote anybody out, so we just let it slide.
“If there is a real problem in the group, it’s over keeping the work at the level of state-of-the-art, and that means juried shows instead of our traditional policy of allowing each member a minimum of two pieces into a show, regardless of what they look like. At the moment we have our own jury system that eliminates real deadwood, but there is still the two-piece minimum. This year, because of space limitations, the minimum is down to one, but it’s still there.
"The hard-liners in the group want to eliminate the minimum and have a regular outside jury cut and slash as they feel necessary, even if it means that some people will have all their pieces eliminated. The only time that was done was in 'll and it was pretty much of a disaster. We selected the juror from a long list of candidates and we thought we’d made a good selection, hut something went wrong and a whole lot of good work was left out. I don’t think that even the advocates of the juried shows were too happy with the selections that year. Generally, I think the problem is more one of principle than one of actuality. There are people in the group who don’t produce or don't produce up to the standard we’ve come to expect, hut I find that the majority of those people know it and don’t even submit work to the major shows. There are few instances of low-grade work being shown by the Allied Craftsmen. ”
In defense of nonjuried shows, Fennell Wallen offers the traditional policy of the group, one that seems to divide the members along age lines on the question. “It has been our policy since the beginning to make admission to the group such a strictly selective process, accepting only the cream of the craftsmen, that the admission process itself becomes a sort of lifetime jurying: if you’re good enough to get in, you ’re accorded the respect of never having to be juried for an exhibition. However, I think that policy will change. The Allied Craftsmen will probably be juried in the future.”
Juried or not, the future of the Allied Craftsmen is clouded, at least as far as their traditional place in the big gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art for their annual show is concerned. The Craftsmen arc worried, and apparently rightfully so, that after having no place on the museum schedule this year, they will perhaps not have one next year either, or ever. No decision has been announced on the matter by the museum, and the members of the Allied Craftsmen were understandably reluctant to discuss it publicly.
So the logical move seemed to be to query the museum's new director, Steve Brezzo, with whose administration has come, coincidentally or otherwise, the first substantial speculation in thirty-one years that the Allied Craftsmen might have to search for a reliable showplace other than the main exhibition space at the museum. Certainly, consideration of such a major policy change would be founded on logical, practical, defensible, and specific grounds, about which the director of the museum would be well informed and which he would be willing to discuss for the benefit of the Allied Craftsmen, their strong following, and the general public. So it seemed, anyway. But a call to Mr. Brezzo at his office produced the following conversation:
“Mr. Brezzo, though there has been no official decision on the matter, there is speculation in the community that the Allied Craftsmen's application for a date in the main exhibition gallery in 1981 will be refused and that they 're not seriously being considered for further shows there after that. Are these things true and if so, what are the factors that might be responsible for such possibilities?”
“Well, we are in the process of making those decisions and we 're keeping our options open. You realize that the Sales and Rental Gallery schedule is made well in advance.”
"The Allied Craftsmen are being considered for the Sales and Rental Gallery?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Then, they’re not being considered for the main gallery in 1981?”
“Well, you see, we have an expanded schedule and we want to keep our options open. We're considering a larger crafts show for the space.”
"Including more artists from San Diego in addition to Allied Craftsmen?”
“Or do you mean a national show?”
“Well, I don’t want to commit to any of that. We have crafts on the agenda for consideration.”
“What about after 1981? Are the Allied Craftsmen being considered for a place on the schedule?”
“You know, we have an exhibitions committee that works on these things. We have a great many things to consider.”
“Well, allow me to infer that there is a possibility that the Craftsmen won’t be permitted a place in the schedule. Such a thing would surely seem a distinct break in museum policy. What might some of the factors be that could cause that change?”
“We just would like to keep our options open on these things. We have many things to consider. ”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure you do. Can you give me an example of what some of those things are as they apply to the Craftsmen? I mean, there must be some logical reasons that would influence a decision either for or against placing the Craftsmen on the schedule.”
“Look, I’m trying to help you write the story. What do you want me to say? That there’s a conspiracy against the Craftsmen? Is that what you want to hear?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t say anything about a conspiracy. I wanted only to know . . .”
“Is that what you wanted to hear? A conspiracy?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry, but ...”
“Well, there’s no conspiracy! You can quote me on that! There is no conspiracy. And this interview is over!”
And that is the official word to date from the director of the San Diego Museum of Art on the subject of the Allied Craftsmen. If you are confused, you are not alone. Fritz Biederman, a long-time patron of the arts in Europe and this country, a part-time resident of San Diego (he keeps an apartment in La Jolla), and an old fan of the Allied Craftsmen, offered some opinions.
“In fairness to Mr. Brezzo, every museum director has his own particular tastes and preferences, and will naturally make some decisions accordingly. And there is pressure from all sides on a man in his position, but he should also be expected to have sound reasons for what he does with the museum and be willing to discuss those reasons publicly, since it is the public he is supposed to serve. The museum is not his personal club, after all.
“I’ve heard the speculation going around and some of it seems reasonable, some not so. The reasonable explanations for a possible refusal to show the Craftsmen are that there are bigger and better shows available or that a larger, more wide-ranging, perhaps national show of crafts would be more appropriate. If those things are true, then Brezzo should have no reservations about saying so openly; they would be sound reasons and he should have no cause to hide from a discussion of them. In 1973, I believe it was, the Allied Craftsmen gave way to an invitational exhibition of California craftsmen, which still included some members of the local group. It was a good idea and a good show.
“One rumor is of complaints of inconsistency in recent shows, with the absence of a jurying system responsible. Well, I’m sure that it’s more that the Craftsmen rather haughtily deems itself above the common jurying procedures than actual inconsistency in shows that is sticky here. There is, perhaps, something of a power struggle going on, a feeling of wanting to establish who is the boss, of trying to take the Allied Craftsmen down a peg. They have, after all, enjoyed a privileged position at the museum for many years, and they’ve called a lot of the shots. I’d wager that if a show-by-show jury was required for them to stay in the main gallery, they would gladly agree to abide.
“As far as inconsistency goes, it is my opinion that there has been relatively little of that in the Craftsmen’s shows of the last ten years, and whatever of it there might have been was a small price to pay for the wonderful, fresh work that has always made up the majority. Name a major exhibition anywhere that doesn’t suffer some inconsistencies. I’ve just come from the Modern in New York, the Picasso show. The man was a great artist, but nobody can convince me that if his name were removed from the work and replaced by an unrecognized name, the show would not be worthy of some criticism for inconsistency. I have spoken with more people than I can remember who told me that ‘inconsistent’ was surely too kind an appraisal of the recent British Art show at the San Diego Museum. And that sort of show costs the museum plenty to bring in, whereas shows by the Allied Craftsmen have been traditionally either practically free to the museum or of very low initial cost.
“Then, there is the possible rap against crafts as an art form. Well, I don’t think that you have to look too hard to see the art in the work of the Craftsmen, and in so many cases good craftwork is a superior thing to so-called fine art. Fine artists get away with a lot. Fennell Wallen could surely have thrown paint around with Jackson Pollock, but could Pollock have made Fennell’s clock [one of the more remarkable works in wood from the 1976 show]? Maybe, maybe not, but at least with good crafts there’s no need of having a critic or a scholar around to tell you whether the thing is a work of art or a piece of junk. Trash is art if the right critic or gallery dealer says so, and then the thing is clinched when the artistically hapless investor — the doctor or lawyer or plumber, who doesn’t know drawing from his drawers — lays his money out in the hope of becoming a collector of the avant-garde. With crafts, the quality and the art in the work are more easily discerned.
“Finally, there can be something of a negative stigma on you if you are a local artist or a local group. I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, in other cities and big towns. The museum director gets it in his head that he is not doing his job of upgrading the reputation of his museum when he shows local people, that the prestigious work, the work that will make a name for the museum, must come from outside the area, preferably from the major cities and art centers. I think that is ridiculous. In this town, in all towns, there are excellent and potentially excellent artists, and if they are good, they have a right to be shown. The Brandywine Museum does not refuse to show Andy Wyeth because he lives a mile away. Would the Louvre have turned down Picasso because he painted in Paris? Are there New Yorkers at the Met and the Modem? Of course there are. and though these are exaggerated examples, I believe that the same principle should filter down to lesser-known artists.
“Another problem with showing local artists is that once one local group is shown, other local groups want the same treatment, and, though I don’t really know whether this has happened here, it can be an easy way out for a museum director simply to make a policy of not showing locals at all as groups. That, of course, is simply ducking responsibility; directors are paid well to face these decisions and make rational choices. There are several good artists’ groups in San Diego, and the Allied Craftsmen are one of them. And the people of San Diego have proven that they enjoy seeing their work. I hope they get the chance again.”
The public will have at least one more chance (and probably many more in the future, in one place or another) to see the work of the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego when they show through September at Celebrations Gallery, downtown. The show had originally been planned for the spring at Celebrations, but a variety of organizational problems has pushed the date back to its present slot. In addition, problems of space limitation have developed since Joyce Yarborough, the owner of Celebrations, was forced by economics (and aesthetics, she adds) to lease half of her gallery space to a frame and print business.
The organizational uncertainty of the schedule has caused the exclusion of guest exhibitors from this show, and the need for conservation of space has limited the number and size of individual pieces submitted by the Craftsmen, but Yarborough remains optimistic. “We will have a wonderful show,” she said recently. “We are going to do some rearranging and painting and I think that people will be surprised at how large the space here actually is. And I’m glad to have the Craftsmen here as a group, though it’s taken a change in my philosophy to allow it. In the past, I’d been asked by artists’ groups if I would allow them a show here, but it had been my feeling that these people didn’t belong in a commercial space as a group for a major exhibition. There’s a tendency in such shows for the artists to want to show their best work, which often means that they choose pieces they don’t intend to sell, or pieces they’ve sold in the past and borrowed back from the owners for the show. Then, they either put a NFS [not for sale) on it or a price that’s ten times what it’s worth, knowing that no one will buy it at that price. Well, a commercial gallery like this has to sell to survive, so you can see the problem. But what happened was that the California Fibers people asked, and since I knew them fairly well and trusted them, we set up a show and it was wonderful and we sold several pieces.
“When the Allied Craftsmen asked, I realized that here was a group whose reputation was first-rate and who were known for their consistent production of new work. I explained my position and they had no trouble agreeing to it. I already have shown and sold much of their work on an individual basis, and it will be a privilege to have them as a group. And I might have a little surprise for everyone this time.
“As anyone who’s been here before knows. I keep our background music tuned to the classical music station. But actually I’m from Texas and I’ve got country and western music in my soul. I think sometime in September I’ll make a country dance tape, some good old Hank Williams and the boys, and we’ll have a genuine Texas Stomp! Did you ever Stomp? Heck, I about Stomped my life away in Texas. The Allied Craftsmen and a Celebrations Stomp . . . this should be fun.”