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Interview with artist James Metcalf: Metal mettle

The adventurer, war hero, metalworker, sculptor, and political activist talks about Paris in the 1950s and his work in Mexico

The story of James Metcalf is that of the ultimate American adventurer, a notoriously handsome artist, dubbed “the playboy of the Western world.”

By 1965, he had wearied of international haute bohemia and re-discovered himself as saviour of a small town lost in the mountains of Mexico, a town whose fortunes his teaching and technical expertise reversed. Metcalf has been friends with everyone, from Duchamp and Seamus Heaney, to Bill Copley, Giacometti and Civil Rights activist Coretta Scott, but for 30 years he has lived in the mountains of Michoacán.

In Santa Clara Del Cobre, Metcalf re-discovered his true vocation as an artist-metalsmith-teacher and saved the place from extinction. When he arrived in 1967 there were only 200 artisans left; now there are some 3,000.

One year after he arrived, Metcalf secured a commission for Santa Clara to forge the 1968 Olympic torch for the games in Mexico City, a fabled sculpture that ensured the town’s international reputation. Metcalf and his beautiful wife, the conceptual-artist Ana Pellicer, turned this dying village into a model of artisanal education and production.

At 75, Metcalf is still a man of great strength and raw energy, a handsome charmer, who, like some ancient god, knows everything there is to know about fire, gold, silver and the forge.

This is a man who trained as a boxer in Afro-American boxing clubs of the 30s; was a golden gloves champion; who chose to go to military academy to prepare for the war in which he served with heroism. He was among the first American soldiers to enter Rome and was severely wounded at the Futa Pass.

But Metcalf is also a true artist. When he to live in Deya, Majorca, in the 50s the resident guru, Robert Graves, became fascinated with his esoteric knowledge of metal and Metcalf created wood-engravings for Graves’ seminal 1955 book Adam’s rib.

Metcalf already has his place in art history as a modernist sculptor. He was given a studio by his best friend Copley at the Impasse Ronsin in Montparnasse, after it was vacated by Max Ernst. At the time, Brancusi was still in residence, but in those years the Impasse became the gathering place for the nouveaux realistes.

In Paris during those fabled Fifties, Metcalf was ubiquitous, not least partying at Jimmy’s with Alain Delon, Rubirosa, Ali Khan and his clan.

The story of Metcalf moves from Italy of World War II, through the Black Civil Rights Movement in 40s America, through the classic expatriate American artist life of 50s Europe, to the exotic obscurity of the Mexican mountains and his rescue of a dying indigenous craft-culture. It ends with recognition by the Mexican government that in 1991 completely rebuilt the craft school he and Pellicer had founded in 1976.

Final validation comes with the account of his retrospective of Metcalf’s life and work; “Copper, stone & fire: James Metcalf, Ana Pellicer and the artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre” at the Spanish Institute in New York (until 30 March). There is a simultaneous show of Metcalf’s recent sculpture using the most advanced AutoCAD programme at the Janos Gat Gallery, Metcalf’s first exhibition in a New York gallery since 1964.

RS/AD: You left the US for Europe in 1950?

JM: We first went to Paris, visited Arp, Zadkine and Giacometti in their studios. We found something very much to our liking at the London Central School of Arts and Crafts. But in fact, the only real schools for design were the museums. Between the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, there was more than one could use in a lifetime. We were living in Bloomsbury, and I would walk through the British Museum every day, in the back door and out the front, looking at the collection of Celtic, African and Polynesian art.

I had a warm relation with William Johnstone, the director of the Central, who took me to the great silversmith Francis Adam and told him, “Here is your student. Teach him everything you know.” At the Central, old Adam (who had been sword-maker to Emperor Franz Joseph) was everyone’s link with the past. I was his only intellectual student, so he regaled me with metal lore. I learned a lot.

RS/AD: You taught at the Central too?

JM: My last year, I taught silversmith apprentices. Their cockney accents were so thick I thought they had speech impediments. They had no interest at all in design. They were third and fourth generation silversmiths, and were simply going to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Finally, so they would at least do something different from classical design, I let them reproduce cartoon figures, like Popeye; but I made them carve their designs in reverse so they’d learn something. We put up all these moulds in the hallway, and people were amazed. Eduardo Paolozzi who was also teaching there at the time wanted to take all of them. It moved him toward the Pop imagery he later used.

RS/AD: What was working with Graves like?

JM: My relationship with Robert was a combination of a soldier in the ranks to his officer and a student to his tutor. He gave me the basic understanding of what a classic education gives one. He presented me as an expert. The man who knew it and could do it. He would introduce me, saying, “If you have a problem in metallurgy, here’s your man!”

Graves was delighted by technical details that I could demonstrate. I showed him how the classical metalsmith used concentric circles made by a compass to guide the raising of a bowl. From this, he elaborated a theory that the Cyclops was not a mythical monster but a whole class of Bronze Age Helladic artisans. Cyclops means ring-eyed, he explained, and therefore they must have been tattooed with rings on their foreheads as the sign of their craft. This was how they came to be seen as "one-eyed."

The English were fascinated by industrial history. I was able to dine out on my technical knowledge. One evening, over brandy and cigars, my host turned to me and said, "I don’t know much about iron smelting, but I’m sure you do!"

RS/AD: How did you meet Niki de Saint Phalle?

JM: I first met Niki on her arrival in Deya from the south of France. Her husband Harry Mathews had given up music and thought that by renting a house next to Graves a new career might rub off on him. Niki, having been a model, now wanted to paint and I helped her out. I went to Paris, then they came. One summer I was going to be away, so I lent her my studio at Impasse Ronsin. She got an idea of doing some very large figures and asked me would I help her. I told I would introduce her to a nice Swiss friend I had across the way. That’s how she met Jean Tinguely.

When I first knew Jean, he was winding wire around the pieces of his sculpture to hold them together. Then he asked me to weld things for him. But as I was doing long elaborate welds, this didn’t suit him. He would say, "Stop, you’re making it too beautiful!" So I told him about arc welding which was perfect for what he wanted to do. The thing that was wonderful about France was that art was talked about in this way, not like in the US.

I don’t think there are any American artists. I like how Hermann Broch analyses culture: the disease of economy has destroyed it all. Artists today are completely taken, all of them. It’s like putting money on a roulette wheel. In its exigencies, the economy leads all these people up blind alleys.

RS/AD: What about Yves Klein?

JM: I met him before Paris, in Deya where he was visiting his parents. They were artists too and his mother had a famous salon. He was very young, had just come back from Japan. He was teaching judo to the Spanish army. What killed him was the movie “Mondo Cane”. Did you ever see it? He did his thing of the nudes, printing with them. He was dressed up in a tuxedo; he never touched them. The girls would paint themselves. He talked a lot about making this movie; he was very happy. Then he went to Cannes and walked into the theatre dressed in his flamboyant Knight of Malta outfit, and it turned out to be the thing that killed him. When Niki and Jean told me he had died, I burst out laughing. Then we went to his apartment, and there he was laid out. He was the first to go.

RS/AD: What was it like to be a war hero-artist in Paris in the Fifties?

JM: It was put in our laps. They gave it to us like chocolate cake. This knowledge of our reality is a bit disgusting. For example, from the age of 18 to live without a few fingers. Mix in these physical imperfections with the whole. My personality is a personality of a person without three fingers. I approach every reality with this. I remember my grandfather said: "But you can’t belong to the Masons! You are no longer perfect!" In fact, the Masons changed the law after the war, so they could accept veterans.

RS/AD: Why did you abandon art as a commercial venture?

JM: I remember taking the train to the Documenta in Kassel. It was the first time I had been in the north of Germany, and I felt very uneasy. I found the castle and found my pieces. They had been relegated to the most obscure corner of the exhibition. After getting them together and up, I looked for a hotel. The exhibition was to open in two days, and there were no rooms to be found. In one hotel, I happened to see a list of reservations, the critics were all on it and the gallery owners, but not me. Alone on the train back to Paris, it occurred to me that I had been had and must out before it was too late. I broke with my gallery in Paris. What I did, in fact, was to go on strike. It would have been foolish to change galleries since they all work on the same principal. I was faced with the rather novel dilemma that perhaps self-expression is the antithesis of creation. In the middle Sixties Paris was changing very quickly. Ever since Brancusi had died in 1958, it was only a matter of time before his studio and ours clustered around his at the Impasse Ronsin would be torn down. Through my friend Bill Copley I was close to the Surrealists who were growing old in Paris. Bill was feeding them all out at Long Pont, his home outside Paris. They talked a great deal of the wonders of Mexico where native artists abound. The Surrealists saw in Mexico the ultimate expression of their cultural inferiority. Octavio Paz asked me to get Duchamp’s permission to reproduce “The large glass” in a book he was writing. Marcel at first was doubtful, "What does a Mexican need me for? In Mexico, everyone is an artist!"

RS/AD: Why couldn’t you work in New York?

JM: I didn’t feel like being initiated again into another society of artists with a different set of rules. The only thing I did do was make "The drunken Statue of Liberty" for the first Anti-Vietnam demonstration, and we put it on a flatbed truck in front of the Plaza. And we were attacked by Nazis. At that moment, I felt I was truly an American, in my town, just a few blocks away from the Graham Hotel on 55th Street where my aunts lived. So after a half-hearted try in my native city, I found the cellar loft I rented in SoHo too depressing. When the Mexican government offered me a large retrospective in Bellas Artes and a trailer truck to transport the pieces, I jumped at the chance to leave for good.

Santa Clara del Cobre fell into my lap. Writing an essay for my last show in Paris, I had came across a tantalising sentences in Forbes’ History of ancient metallurgy, “In primitive times all craft is sacred, and we find smith-gods among all peoples of Antiquity. Brahma as a blacksmith creates man and the Michoacáns of Mexico believe that they were created from copper by a god of the forge”. In Mexico, I asked if there were a place where they still worked copper and was told about Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacán.

RS/AD: What happened when you went to find these coppersmiths?

JM: I had been told about a bodega, the one store in town that sold copper. I found the owner simply closing bowls he bought from the artisans. He rudely dismissed my questions. “Go find the forges yourself. If you want to buy, come back.” So I walked across the street into a moribund forge and found a few artisans bewailing their outcast fate. I didn’t introduce myself. I just started talking, and one smith couldn’t contain himself. He’d never met an outsider who understood what they did. "Come with me!" he shouted. You’re just who we need!" He showed me the town.

RS/AD: What was it like?

JM: I found a group of artisans making a copper kettle being sold to the poorest social strata of Mexico. In Europe and the United States, wealthier people get along with iron or aluminum substitutes. Yet the Santa Clara cazo was a necessary household item for a great many Mexican families. As poor as they were, they could still afford a copper kettle, more and more of a luxury everywhere else. This is what impressed me most when I discovered Santa Clara. The artisans of Santa Clara, with an unimaginably primitive technique predating Homer and the Bible (where smiths forge on iron not stone), have been able to underbid modern industry for at least a section of the Mexican market. Today in Santa Clara husbands, wives and children are all artisans!

RS/AD: You intervened in how they were making their Spanish kettle?

JM: Brought up in a pure artisanal tradition, I was shocked. They would beat the kettle out of a block and then do this recent thing of rolling the edge over a wire. It was historically ridiculous! To change the traditional wired edge to a luxurious thick border was quite difficult. Rolling the edge of all vases and kettles over an iron wire was the lone tradition of the smiths. Their objects were substantially cheapened by its use. If they were unable to change this practice, not only would their work lack dignity, but they would never be able to work successfully in silver. It took almost twenty years for the wired edge to disappear from almost all their objects.

RS/AD: You brought your studio from Paris to Santa Clara?

JM: My white Chevy pickup was the first vehicle in town. I arrived with a large assortment of all types of metalworking tools including 30 assorted hammers, stakes, and anvils; two large French annealing torches; even an impressive English wheeling and rolling machine; and electroforming equipment, tanks and a rectifier. The artisans had never seen anything like it.

I set up my tools, built a forge and began to work. I forged the first copper vase in Santa Clara with a thick edge instead of a wired one. I filled it with pitch and formed six large grains of corn in repoussé, very much in the style of pre-Columbian Colima pottery.

I thought that making pieces would demonstrate to them the possibilities of their basic technique and that this was the best way to stimulate the development of their craft. One morning a smith came to my house and said, “Don Jaime, how do you expect to help us if you work alone all day? Come and work in our shop, so we can see how you do it.”

That’s when the artisans of Santa Clara introduced me to the possibility of participating in a creative social reality that I thought had disappeared in the 12th century. They had the domination of metal but no design. All of a sudden I liberated them from centuries of ignorance. The minute I gave them polished tools, they ran away with it. I brought them concepts developed since Greece in metalworking. When I showed them slides of ancient metalwork, they asked where work like this was done. "There are other people who do this?" They thought they were the only smiths who forged copper in the world!

RS/AD: How has your vision grown since you’ve been here?

JM: From the very beginning the idea of coming to Santa Clara was to create an extensive community of artisans because that was what I had come to appreciate as the most rewarding manner in which to live. I quickly realised, however, that a mono-culture of forging copper is not enough to engender the diversity of crafts needed to maintain the artisanal mode of production against the onslaught of capitalism. Teaching in the apprentice system is the fundamental essence of the artisanal mode of production, but it is disastrous to think that it is enough to pass on only the accomplishment of one tradition. Today the Adolfo Best Maugard School of Arts and Crafts is the foundation for the accomplishment of that dream. One of my principal preoccupations is creating new occupations for the ever-increasing number of young artisans here in Santa Clara. After my success with the copper smiths, I am now forming blacksmiths from the Indian communities of Chiapas and Oaxaca as well as Santa Clara.

RS/AD: How would you sum up your experience in Mexico?

JM: Santa Clara del Cobre is a logical development of my artistic career. One moves from America to Europe; works in clay, stone, or wood; sometimes a city seems better, sometimes a village; figurative gives way to abstraction and visa-versa. All these changes are, one hopes, essential resting places in the labours of a private maze. At Santa Clara I am approaching culturally and physically the centre of my labyrinth. If I follow Ariadne’s thread back over the years, metal bit by bit gained a hold on my destiny. Metal’s weldability is what first fascinated me, molten at the point of an acetylene flame. Pieces could be joined, married into one piece. Metal casts a spell over cultures that have succumbed to its mysteries. Today, Santa Clara is a rare artisanal community that is bridged into the future. The most archaic and modern techniques are not in contradiction but actually work together to secure a future for a growing artisanal population. In rural Mexico, where jobs are being drained away faster and faster, this is a sign of hope.

"Copper, stone & fire: James Metcalf, Ana Pellicer and the artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre" at the Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, New York, Tel: + 1 212 628 0420, fax +1 212 734 4177 (until 30 March)

u James Metcalf AutoCAD Sculpture at Janos Gat Gallery, 1100 Madison Ave, New York, Tel: + 1 212 327 0441, +1 212 477 5016 (until 6 March)