Talk at Black Mountain College, March 25, 1942
When I was asked to speak here about some work I had been doing, together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher at Black Mountain College, a work started quite a while before this war,—I was asked too, if I could refer in some way to defense work, in the mind of so many of us the most urgent work of the moment. Though our work has nothing to do with defense work, there was something right in asking to connect it with it. For it is obvious that the urge we feel for doing our part in a catastrophe of such huge proportions as this war, stands in the foreground of all of our thoughts. But I think we have found that for many of us our part can not be that of going into a munition factory or that of helping those who suffer in this war in a direct way. Many of us are tied to our homes, to our normal circle of action to our work continuing as usual. But in all of us, I believe, the need to take some part is accelerating. The work we are doing may have no immediate effect on the outcome of war, as also the work I am going to speak about here, will have no influence on it now. But as every action transmits its sense or nonsense beyond its actual radius, whatever we do has its effect. To give our actions the meaning we want them to have implies questioning them anew and becoming conscious of their implications.
The work I am going to speak about here is the work I have been doing together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher, at Black Mountain College. It was not started with any clear knowledge of its possible inferences. Like any other work that has not been tried before, it took on form only by being tried. We knew the direction in which we wanted to go but not where we would end.
You will be astonished, I think, to hear, that the first stimulus to make jewelry from hardware came to us from the treasure of Monte Albán, the most precious jewels from ancient Mexico, found only a few years ago in a tomb near Oaxaca. These objects of gold and pearls, of jade, rock-crystal, and shells, made about 1000 years ago, are of such surprising beauty in unusual combinations of materials that we became aware of the strange limitations in materials commonly used for jewels today. Gold and silver, pearls or diamonds or their substitutes comprise just about the total scale. Rock-crystal with gold, pearls with simple seashells are beautiful together, we found. We began to look around us and, still in Mexico, we found beads made of onyx, which nobody ever seemed to buy. We saw silver beads and remembering the Monte Albán combination of rock-crystal and gold, we combined onyx with silver. We made variations of this first combination and later, back in the States, we looked for new materials to use. In the 5 & 10 cents stores we discovered the beauty of washers and bobbypins: Enchanted we stood before kitchen-sink stoppers and glass insulators, picture hooks and erasers. The art of Monte Albán had given us the freedom to see things detached from their use, as pure materials, worth being turned into precious objects.
After indulging for a while in new material combinations of our necklaces we soon found the need for good constructions in addition to our strange conjunctions of materials. As we were neither goldsmiths nor knew even the simplest metal work or stonepolishing, we were forced to use materials as we found them as elements for our work. Strangely, we found that having to work with given elements or units, brought about new ways of construction, new ways of linking parts together, new catches, new ways of suspending parts. The professional jeweler has means of forming all parts forming a piece of work. His inventiveness in regard to construction depends on reshaping in already given ways, while our amateurish manner of using existing units made new constructions necessary. They were rather forced upon us by the material than being sought by us. We felt more acted upon than acting. I believe a goldsmith would come to many new and surprising results if he reversed at times his usual procedure and would, instead of making all parts to fit a given whole, form independent parts which would challenge his inventiveness and constructive ingenuity in combining.
To our surprise we found that though we used such common materials as bobbypins or washers or stopper chains for our necklaces they sometimes looked quite beautiful and even precious. To our greater surprise still, we found that other people liked them too. But our greatest surprise was, that others, like ourselves, did not care about the value or lack or value of our materials used, but enjoyed instead of material value that of surprise and inventiveness, —a spiritual value.
From the beginning we were quite conscious of our attempt not to discriminate between materials, not to attach to them the conventional values of preciousness or commonness. In breaking through the traditional valuation we felt this to be an attempt to rehabilitate materials. We felt that our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things, though we believe them to be permanent. We tried to show that spiritual values are truly dominant. We thought that our work suggested that jewels no longer were the reserved privilege of the few, but property of everyone who cared to look about and was open to the beauty of the simple things around us. Though the so-called costume jewelry has gone in this direction, it is hard in them to trace back the simple elements that constitute them. We tried to emphasize just this side in our work. We wanted to lead the person looking at our jewels back through the process that brought it about. All things are at their beginning formed in this way of unprejudiced choosing. From time to time, it becomes necessary again to go back to it to clear the way for new seeing.
If we can more and more free ourselves from values other than spiritual, I believe we are going in a right direction. Every general movement is carried by small parts, by single people forming their way of believing and subordinating everything to this belief. We have to work from where we are. But just as you can go everywhere from any given point, so too the idea of any work, however small, can flow into an idea of true momentum.