Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Art or Craft

Seaneen, a collector for many years of aluminum items, was fortunate in securing a ticket to the Antique Roadshow when it appeared in Minneapolis. In addition to a few other items, she decided to take a group of aluminum pieces. How many of us have dreamed of having such an opportunity!

There were four jewelry appraisers and none of them knew anything about aluminum jewelry. The appraiser gave an estimate of #1,200 to $1,500, which Seaneen thought was rather high. The appraiser also appeared very impressed with the pieces. Nice aluminum does seem to have that effect on people! I have often wondered if one of those bank lamps or patio tables ever appeared for their appraisal, if they would have a clue concerning their value or history.

Nome of the items were marked although in other collections, there have been tentative identifications according to patterns. In my opinion, many belts and the pins and pendant groups were made by Everlast.  Handbags with a chrysanthemum pattern were sold in the recent auction and indicated that this was the Continental Chrysanthemum  pattern. It was indeed a chrysanthemum but not the one  we normally associate with the Continental Company. Seaneen stated that she had once seen a handbag like hers with a NYC as part of its mark. She also notes that the bag and the belt are matching pieces. That would be an attention getting  wear and carry ensemble!

In the fifties I purchased a gold mesh belt and a belt of aluminum sections embossed with a rose motif, paying $5 each for the belts. My clothing allowance was shot for a month and I knew I should have stayed out of that ritzy department store but I wore the belts for years. I remember a time or two when the aluminum one fell to the floor with a clatter!! I still have the belt as a memento of my first piece of aluminum and of those days so long ago when a 22" waist was more important than breathing.

Before the publication of my first book on hammered aluminum, many antique and collectible dealers confessed they sent all aluminum items straight to the recyclers. Even later, after several shows, numerous articles, and a tremendous rise in prices, there was a surprising lack of interest on the part of sellers, in seeking knowledge. We who appreciate the skill that has produced the decorative aluminum that we love, find it hard to understand this attitude among those who are in a position to have first access to the best and most interesting items.
The fact that aluminum is not a precious metal is not acceptable, for there are collectible pottery items, made of the most common of materials.....clay. Then there are carvings of wood, another material that cannot be classified as precious.

 The best reason may lie in the large number of aluminum items made by homemaking clubs, 4Hers and scout groups in the 1950s. Although many of these items were cherished for years, few could match the items made by more skilled craftsmen in facilities better suited for their production. Combined with the  declining quality of aluminum used in many mass produced and imported items that hit the market in the 50s and 60's, aluminum began to get a reputation for trashiness. Still, after ten aluminum shows, several books and hundreds of collectors on the prowl, one would assume that "hammered aluminum" is important.

A conversation yesterday with a person with a long-time museum connection has tweaked my curiosity about this:

When does a craft become an art?.
What exactly determines art, anyway?
What is the category of Arthur Armour's Pioneer  pattern and others like it?
What about some of the old landscapes by the Forge or even the elephants marching across a tray?
Then there are the multitudes of cast figures; are them merely eye pleasing little do-dads, or are they artistic little objects?

I rather doubt there is a definitive answer to my queries. Judging by the extremes I have seen in museums, there's a wide difference in opinions. Perhaps our aluminum items are not wildly extreme enough to be eye catching.

Your opinions, please. The box below is waiting for you!




  1. Good post Dannie! My oldest daughter has a degree to teach art. She spent quite a bit of time explaining to me the difference between fine art and craft. I personally have always felt that art is anything that evokes a feeling, be it photography, painting, sculpture, etc. What drew me to the aluminum was and still is the hand made dies that the craftsmen used to make the handmade, hand hammered items. That is why I like the Arthur Armour trays so much. The detail, the way he saw a picture come to life...I think it is art. Also, I agree that most experts have no education about this whether it be a craft or fine art. I am also drawn to the fact that it is primarily made in America. Just my 2 cents worth.

  2. Thank you Susan! I agree completely with your statements. Perhaps our aluminum is a combination of both art and craft....a craft in the making, art in the design and form, and in the object's power to appeal. I suppose any artist must first master the CRAFT of their chosen field, be it painting, carving, or whatever, before their talent produces ART. Just debating the issue with myself!

  3. well here's my 2 cents worth. the craft of hammered aluminum is in the use of a relatively new material in an old way. repousee has been around for hundreds of years. copper was used during the arts and crafts movement. Aluminum being inexpensive took over the mantle during the depression era and replaced the "expensive" silver products people could no longer afford. the fact is that the art was taking a hard plain metal and turning it into something beautiful and hand crafted. it only became "trashy" when companies began using thin aluminum and impressing the patterns into it. they also flooded the market with these
    copies of hand made pieces. so it is with anything unique. One is beautiful, 300 is common. Every time i pick up a piece of my collection, i can feel the work of the person who created it. The die cutting, the hammering, and the finishing.

  4. Again I agree. And the connection we feel with those who created the handcrafted pieces is a special thing.

  5. Hello Dannie - I just now saw the posting [computer problems ...still]. Thank you for posting my jewelry photo. Yes it was quite an experience!

    Sometimes I think the distinction lies with many in the perception of whether the article crafted is utilitarian or simply to be looked at. Crafters can be called "smiths" or "artisans" and I think really the line is crossed when, as said above, a handmade object lifts the spirit just by looking at it. Then, surely the artisan was an "artist".

    "Art" is reproduced - limited editions, open edition prints - "reproductions" by un-named artists of famous paintings, an artist does numerous "studies" of the same image over and over. Da Vinci taught his students how to reproduce his "art" by a grid method very close to the Paint By Numbers of the 50's. Not really different than the aluminum/metal artist who creates the die to be hammered out by the craftsman ...? If the die is inspired and the materials are rich and honest and the craftsman is highly skilled ...then the piece is "art" in my opinion.

  6. Okay!!! I have enjoyed so much, reading your responses on art and our aluminum. We have some definite opinions on the pros and cons of our aluminum wares and we are agreeing that quiet a lot of it is art. I remember thirty or more years ago when gazing at Arthur Armour's "Pioneer" I was impressed with the sense of arrested movement in the rider's horse. Other collectors have spoken of the peaceful feeling that his horse and rider convey as they are shown riding near a lake. Other items appeal to us because of their graceful shapes and those we would also consider art. Surely, if a piece brings pleasure year after year, we can consider it art. This may be the dividing point for many collectors. Personally, I enjoy motifs of flowers whether in a panel of daisies or an intricate design incorporating tiny flowers with ferns or or scrolls. Palmer-Smith's motif of tiny incised flowers is a favorite. Other collectors would find little pleasure in owning these. Of course this applies to other accepted art fields. Then we have a large variety of items which should probable fall into the craft catagory.The skill that is represented is impressive, unique decorative touches are attractive and we use or desplay them proudly...but is our beloved perculator art? Next there is the group of light-weight items that soon become tiresome and get retired from our collections. But we must remember that there are pieces in this catagory that have found their place onto the "favorites" list of some collectors. They don't have to have artistic appeal to bring pleasure.