Jamie Bennett: Contemplative Jeweler

Jamie Bennett: Contemplative Jeweler
Adapted from an essay by Jeannine Falino in Edge of the Sublime: Enamels by Jamie Bennett,
Manchester, VT, 2008


J. Bennett, Red Site 3, 2, 1, 1980

Red Series 3, 2, 1, 1980

With paint, pencil, and enamel, Jamie Bennett achieves uncommonly poetic effects using floral and patterned imagery, and he creates surface interest with a sensuous touch. Bennett is also an iconoclast who has challenged the paradigms of traditional jewelry forms and hierarchies of art. In a career that now spans more than thirty years, Bennett has evolved from an art student into an internationally acclaimed artist and innovator in the world of contemporary jewelry and enamel.

A discussion of Bennett’s artistic career must begin with the early and enduring influence of his mother, Jean Grippi, who was a designer for Henry Rosenfeld, a prominent New York dress manufacturer, and worked closely with designer Joseph Whitehead. From an early age, Bennett understood and appreciated Grippi’s identity as an artist, and by extension, what it meant to be the son of an artist who was also a single mother.

Bennett briefly attended New York University but in 1966 he relocated to the University of Georgia, Athens, where he studied under artists including metalsmith Robert Ebendorf. Ebendorf enjoyed working in the studio alongside his students and expanded their horizons by holding workshops for visiting artists. Bennett’s mother visited her son in Athens and wrote him upon her return to New York in October 1970:

Jamie, I am happy I came to see you, I can now understand your decision and work better . . . I think you’ll do so well, you have the feel for it. I think in all the arts, of course, it is a lot of hard work and you know I’d never say your [sic] good if you weren’t, . . . So Jamie, my artistic son take care and continue your work. I certainly was proud of everything I saw that you made, really. Jamie, I’d never say this if I honestly didn’t mean it, you should know that by now.

Bennett’s mother passed away shortly after his graduation; in 1971 he enrolled in graduate school, following Ebendorf to the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Bennett joined the Department of Fine Arts at SUNY as one of the first students in the Gold and Silversmithing program. The senior professor at the time was Kurt Matzdorf, whose highly skilled and disciplined approach to historical metalwork and the work of such acknowledged masters as Cellini, Fabergé, and Lalique balanced Robert Ebendorf’s preference for new thinking and methods.

 J. BennettJ. Bennett

Ebendorf made the most of his connections and the school’s proximity to New York City by inviting visiting metalsmiths from England or Europe to spend a few days in New Paltz. While paying close attention to these influences, Bennett began to study enameling with Matzdorf, and then traveled to North Carolina to attend a summer enameling class at the Penland School of Crafts taught by William Harper, acclaimed for his skill and artistry in the medium. Harper proved to be a generous teacher, as did the talented William Helwig, who later held a workshop in New Paltz. With these experiences, Bennett renewed his efforts and began to see greater success in the kiln. Soon he realized that enameling could become an important aspect of his work as metalsmith.

The field of metalsmithing had reached a critical mass in the early 1970s, and Bennett attended early conferences organized by the Society of North American Goldsmiths, meeting an international roster of jewelers, blacksmiths, and other artists. Bennett still recalls with excitement a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he and colleagues, including visit organizer Ebendorf, were permitted to handle historic works of art such as a Syrian gold cup (1). The following year, New Paltz’s College Art Gallery presented the exhibition The Art of Enamels, developed by Matzdorf and Ebendorf using works of art loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others by contemporary artists. For the exhibition, Bennett wrote about enameling techniques, created a display illustrating these techniques, and assembled an educational slide kit. Bennett arguably received the best training in enamels of any American metalsmith in his generation.

While still a graduate student, and with Ebendorf’s encouragement, he began to participate in exhibitions. The pedagogical side of the craft also appealed to Bennett, and following graduation, he taught at Bradley University, the Memphis Art Academy (now the Memphis College of Art), Summervail, an influential summer arts program held in Colorado, and Boston University. Tensions—in his own work and in the field—between form and content, tradition and innovation, and commercialization and meaning led Bennett to painting and creating wall pieces as a means of working out his ideas and figuring out his next step in jewelry.

In 1985, Bennett was hired to replace the retiring Kurt Matzdorf at SUNY New Paltz, joining Robert Ebendorf on the faculty, and? he remains today. For Bennett, education takes place in the form of technique and concept in equal measure; he works closely with students so that they explore the intellectual perspective behind a work of art as well as its structural integrity and quality of execution.                J. Bennett, J Raglan White Series (brooch), 1979    J. Bennett, Pattern, 1978

Raglan, White Series, 1978   Pattern, Black Fragment Series, 1978

From pattern profiles his mother made during the course of working in the fashion industry, Bennett abstracted forms, re-stating and re-shaping them in many drawings and works in metal and enamel, making a visual statement about the process of creating fashion in a piece of jewelry. With the Red Site series, the shapes of a barn were splintered and recombined in a manner similar to the re-workings in the fashion pieces. During this period, the works were roughly square or rectangular, with the viewer’s attention drawn to a picture plane whether or not a bezel setting encompassed it.

Bennett next began to build up assertive shapes and textures that began to require unique contour settings, the first indication that the frontal picture format that had dominated his work and that of most contemporary enamellists had reached the end of its usefulness. These efforts led to a major breakthrough that can be witnessed in the Priori (4) series. Frustrated with the persistent focus upon the “jewel,” Bennett wanted to create a different sort of experience for the wearer. “I did not want an institutional ‘jewel,’ I was interested in the physical sensation, in the instinct one had to bring an intimate object to the body, a more visceral experience. Unfortunately the frame was still a signifier of institutional jewelry which I did not want.” In searching for an alternative, he hit upon electroforming, a method of creating three-dimensional sculptural shapes that “offered the opportunity to break from that stigma and to a more instinctive adornment.”

Bennett was interested in what ornament meant at a very basic human level before the first jewelers turned it into a valuable object made of gold and precious stones. To somehow return to this long-ago frame of mind, he created abstracted forms that had their source in nature. He chose the word Priori as a way of signaling that they were “formed or conceived beforehand,” that is to say, before the formalized conventions of jewelry came into existence. In breaking with convention and creating a completely new form, Bennett paved the way for a new generation of contemporary jewelers to create works of art that were unrestrained by the framework of traditional jewelry.

J. Bennett, Priori #10 (brooch), 1988J. Bennett,Florilegium 1, 2002J. Bennett, Rocaille 9, 1991

Priori 10, 1988   Florilegium 1, 2002   Rocaille 9, 1991

The next phase of Bennett’s career indicates his heightened receptivity to works of art, particularly historic western and nonwestern objects that were intimate in scale, devotional or domestic, and ornamental. Modern artists, architects, and design reformers had rejected the idea of ornamentation as superfluous at best and immoral at worst, a position that suggested that it was a weak and inferior form of art. Yet since the word “ornament” is a synonym for jewelry, Bennett has made a significant contribution to the rehabilitation of the term and its various meanings. These interests had been stoked since his first trip to Istanbul in the early 1970s and distilled through repeated trips to Morocco and Istanbul over the past twenty-five years.

Using terms such as jurjani, composed garden, chadour, and safavid, Bennett began a new series of inquiries into nonwestern cultures, especially that of the Arab world, using the patterns and intense colors that he found in tiles, textiles, and Persian miniatures as a point of departure. For example, this new emphasis on pattern was expressed with bolder designs and increasingly brilliant colors, so as to make the eye travel continuously about the surface of the brooch from one richly rendered enamel to the next.

In the last six years, Bennett’s works have grown larger and more expansive, with increased space for pattern and a sensuous interpretation of nature. The Florilegium series possesses a new sculptural monumentality even as the delicacy of decoration, painted with a hair or two of the brush, creates a pattern more like a silken weave than an enamel. (6, 7 on cover) In mosques in Turkey, Bennett experienced firsthand the extraordinary veiled atmosphere caused by the effects of sunlight through window tracery. Bennett attempted to capture this sensation of “lace and light” as seen in the accompanying sketch and in his enamels. (8, 9 in checklist if necessary)

Recent investigations in the Urban Traces series of 2006 reflect Bennett’s ongoing botanical and microscopic interests combined with small, overlooked elements in the world. Such modest items, rendered in enamel with Bennett’s masterful brushwork, are immensely satisfying and complete worlds in themselves. (10 in checklist if necessary)

Bennett, a contemplative jeweler, continues an intellectual and visual journey that has taken us to our origins and points us squarely into the future.