Why does it seem like it's so hard to "make it" as a metalsmith
I can guess that it’s partly because the field is so technically
demanding that it’s hard to also spend the time necessary to learn
what one needs to know about marketing and business in general.
There’s a lot of product out there proportionate to the number of
venues, so it takes a pretty good knack for thinking outside the box
to find new marketing angles and alternative venues.
And why do some of the people who've "made it" regret it, as
they are worn down by constant travel to shows?
This, I think, is another example of “Gersham’s Law” or “bad money
drives out good money”. If you’ve got a show with 400 artists, and
100 of them are “jewelers”, the competition is tough to begin with.
Why so many jeweler? Because there is so much that can call itself
"jewelry" compared to what there was a few years ago, and so many
people putting on shows, eager to fill the booth space. Glass artist
making wearables, bead artists, etc. Now if there are 100 "jewelers"
in this hypothetical show, and half of them are making stuff that’s
easy to turn out and can meet lower price points, pretty soon the
audience changes to people spending on those lower price points.
Less money to go around, all coming in as small sales. Now enter the
guys who are simply marketing mass manufactured stuff, purchased
overseas, and the price points get even lower. There are plenty of
booths with vendors who are making a living going to twice as many
shows, selling at half the price.
Or, is the perception erroneous?
Depends on your expectations. If you were in the craft market
business 20 years ago, it must seem pretty discouraging by
comparison. If all you’ve ever done is peddle cheap junk, and you
live in your car . . . well . . . it’s a living.
Part II: design It seems to me like it's harder in
metalsmithing than in other fields to come up with a unique voice
Is it true? *Is* it harder in metal than in other media? If so,
That question I feel very qualified and confident to answer. The
art schools have been teaching only technique for decades, especially
in the metals classes. And I find that the faculty and curriculum
these days is markedly devoid of design theory, unless you are in the
3-D design department, and those courses are not required for metals.
Nobody takes them either outside of design majors, because they are
commercially oriented and perceived as non-art. Many of the art
schools have separated themselves out from the old system wherein to
get a metals degree was to get not only a fine arts degree, but to do
that within the liberal arts curriculum. Now these schools call the
departments “fine and performing arts”. They’ve dropped all the
requirements. If I listed what I had to take before I could even
enroll in a metals class, you’d be astonished. Lots of design,
drawing, painting, life drawing, anatomy, art history, all on top of
the liberal arts group requirements of hard and soft sciences,
foreign language, English, etc. Top it all off with a philosophy of
aesthetics course, taught by the philosophy department, not the art
department, and finally, an English proficiency exam which, if not
successfully completed, forestalled one’s graduation. The private
schools teaching skills for the industry aren’t very interested in
design, but more in job preparation. There are “design” schools like
FIT in NY, RISD, etc., and although they may have stronger emphasis
on design in their curriculum, they fall a little short on the
technical end. I think they see hand crafts as a little too blue
collar. They are also a little enamoured of the fashion industry,
which is shallow aesthetically, in my opinion. Now if you look at
the jewelry industry, where in Hades are these folks going to learn
design unless they are lucky to land next to some true talent who is
an anachronism of traditional training or they take the initiative to
learn by themselves? The retail jewelers are largely picking each
others pockets (actually the fine arts people are not doing any
better). My point is this . . . you can’t find your own voice unless
you develop some vocal cords. Individual expression is only as good
as one’s ability to recognize it, develop it, and express it. This
takes a set of tools, and we have so few who are willing to teach,
even if they know how and what to teach. My suggestion is to go to
the local library, start picking out books on design and historical
jewelry or metals and pour over them. Get a big, fat sketch book
and start filling it with ideas. Then, select a few pieces. Take
one idea, make several variations on it. Do that again and again.
Every time you recognize a borrowed idea that you didn’t consciously
acquire, edit it out. Fall out of love with all your heroes, unless
you can be a good iconoclast about them. Your own voice is right
there with you every day, you just can’t hear it for all the
impersonations your ego is trying out. But you won’t get other’s to
hear it even when you find it unless you can equip it with good
diction and ability to project on stage. Get the training, whatever
is out there, from there, it’s all work and a lot of patience.
David L. Huffman