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Harold O’Connor: Between Art and Nature

Article  /  Artists
Published: 25.07.2014
Harold O’Connor: Between Art and Nature.
Author:
Andrea DiNoto
Edited by:
Metalsmith
Edited at:
Eugene
Harold O ’Connor. Necklace: Nordic Skies, 2011. 24k and 18k gold, silver, spectrolite. diameter 2 3 ⁄8'. Photo: Harold O ’Connor. Harold O ’Connor
Necklace: Nordic Skies, 2011
24k and 18k gold, silver, spectrolite
diameter 2 3 ⁄8"
Photo: Harold O ’Connor
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.

Intro
Among the most accomplished metalsmiths of his or any generation, O’Connor enjoys a dual reputation as both artist and esteemed teacher. His jewelry resides in seventeen museum collections worldwide — and he has taught and lectured in sixteen countries, including Korea, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Japan.
A must read article to understand the works and career of the North American artist.
In the springtime, a burly Irishman travels from his Rocky Mountain home in Salida, Colorado, to Le Arti Orafe, the prestigious jewelry school in Florence, Italy. He’s come to teach a workshop on the centuries-old art of granulation, a process in which minute grains of gold are fused to metal to create a distinctive surface decoration (1). The man, Harold O’Connor, an American-born, award-winning art jeweler whose career spans five decades, has long been acknowledged internationally as a master of the skill, as well as that of reticulation, another demanding method of surface texturing accomplished with a pinpoint flame on metal (2). He brings artful, effortless exactitude to these tasks, sprinkling golden grains fine as pollen dust over hand-wrought crinkled silver landscapes designed as wearable art.

    O’Connor is used to cries of “But you make it seem so easy!” from struggling students who fill the frequent Dunconnor Workshops he conducts every year around the country—and in any far-flung location he’s invited to (3). Among the most accomplished metalsmiths of his or any generation, O’Connor enjoys a dual reputation as both artist and esteemed teacher (4). His jewelry resides in seventeen museum collections worldwide (5)—and he has taught and lectured in sixteen countries, including Korea, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Japan. O’Connor was trained in the European metalsmithing tradition, but his body of work—over 2,000 pieces, he estimates—is in no way bound to classical design; instead, he incorporates traditional techniques within his own unique forms and compositions. O’Connor’ approach is, admittedly, conceptually free-wheeling—often abstract, at times narrative, primitive, or even daringly humorous, as in witty visual puns served up, without irony, in 18k gold.
O’Connor draws inspiration from nature,
ancient cultures, found objects,
his immediate environment,
and his entire lived life
.
He also cites the formal influence of renowned sculptors such as David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Anthony Caro, and Eduardo Chillida; and in fact, O’Connor’s jewelry has a sculptural sensibility. Working from sketches, he builds each piece as a three-dimensional art object that occupies space with as much authority as it graces the body. His intuitive approach produces one-of-a-kind pieces, usually within a particular theme—but never two alike. (He rarely, if ever, makes earrings, he says, because “you have to make two of them.”) O’Connor favors brooches and rings, always wearable forms suited either to abstract or narrative styles. He might incorporate nonprecious materials like wood, bone, or amber into works of silver and gold, or he might opt for metal exclusively, combining several techniques into a single piece to produce the unique and complex surfaces that give his work its distinctive style. In addition to granulation and reticulation, O’Connor uses embossing to achieve a subtle form of surface patterning, accomplished when metal is fed through a rolling mill together with handmade Japanese paper.

      All three techniques—embossing, granulation, and reticulation—are employed to exquisite effect on a single boldly scaled pendant titled Wind From the East, in which a matte gold-on-silver embossed disk is inset with a shallow, silver shadow box that frames a low-relief “image.” O’Connor wields his technique with astonishing virtuosity: the reticulated silver surface has been covered with minute granulation in the shape of a fern with radiating fronds that shimmer as if touched with golden dew. The understated elegance of this piece represents just one of O’Connor’s many disparate styles and creative modes.

      In contrast, there are two dissimilar series—made decades apart—that grew out of his explorations of areas near his home: the long-abandoned tracks of the Union Pacific railroad and Colorado’s many derelict mining camps. For the 2003 railroad series, O’Connor used bits of metal found along the tracks—in his words, “remnants of bygone days”—but indirectly. His experimental method was to “put objects on a copy machine and reduce them in size to an actual piece of jewelry.” He then remade them, as in Rusted Remnants Between the Tracks where he reproduced a piece of perforated rusted metal in gold and silver, combining the ragged forms with iridescent spectrolite to create a wholly abstract, tricolor composition. For the mining series, made in the late 1970s, his innovative approach was to photograph abandoned structures and equipment—mine headers, boilers, a stamping mill, coal breaker, and such—and use the 1 x 1-inch, 35 mm slide images as a basis for low-relief renderings in 18k gold. For added realism, he re-created in gold and in miniature the massive seven-strand cable used by miners, which he incorporated into these and later designs to embody both the roughness and romance of this fabled era. Writing of the series in Ornament magazine, Robert K. Liu observed that these “golden sculptures . . . completely integrated technique and content . . . [and] art has been abstracted from machines.”

      As he relates to his physical environment, nothing is lost on O’Connor, whose 2010 “Backyard Muses” series included a choice bit of detritus: a vintage, used-up zinc toothpaste tube which he mounted above a common river stone for a funky, yet strangely elegant brooch. He also made castings of his garden’s grapevine twigs to provide graphic, linear elements for assemblages with leather, silver, amber, and
spectrolite.


      After the death of his father in 1982, O’Connor was moved to produce a series that played with the concept of time, each piece a visual pun rendered as a scene or object and functioning as a ring or wearable “watch” attached to a leather band. One such timepiece is Conference Time (1992), the watch face a round conference table peopled by ten tiny figures cast in gold from plastic N-gauge train figures. Another, Neighborhood Watch (1992), is hinged like a locket and opens to reveal facades of houses with their tiny owners literally keeping watch—an image that might be a precious form of folk art, its surfaces agleam with granulation. A Serving Time (1992) ring made for the series takes the form of a tiny dining table complete with a sushi platter, chopsticks, and rice bowl!

      O’Connor’s exposure to Japanese gardens prompted evocations of that restrained, contemplative esthetic. Embossing, reticulation, and granulation are all employed, together or singly, in pieces that range from an impressionistic rendering of Mt. Fuji to a magnificent necklace of Japanese river stones, each inlaid with a gleaming rivulet of granulation. Negative space and abstract calligraphy, together with miniature versions of tea-house constructions—a garden gate, for example—are all part of O’Connor’s self-described “meandering” through the Japanese garden aesthetic. In several of these pieces, he produces subtle surface coloration through the use of shakudo and mokume-gane, age-old techniques that exploit the beauty of alloys and mixed-metal lamination respectively.


      What becomes apparent in viewing O’Connor’s oeuvre is that every piece of jewelry, every theme and variation, exists as a touchstone to some experience or event in what has been a peripatetic life (6). He has traveled widely as a student, exhibiting artist, and teacher, and is always a keen observer of diverse cultures and the natural world. Born in Utica, New York, he studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico, but in his senior year a course in metalwork so engaged him that he quit school six credits shy of graduating to pursue the field full-time. He was accepted at craft schools in Denmark, then Finland, and finally Germany, where he studied classical metalsmithing under Klaus Ulrich and Reinhold Reiling at the Hochshule fur Gestaltung, in Pforzheim. O’Connor calls that year, which culminated with a summer session in Austria, “the foundation of my life’s work,” citing the new European emphasis on jewelry as an art form, with concept as the primary engine, but not at the expense of execution. Returning to the States, O’Connor was the first resident metalsmith at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. From there he headed west to Crested Butte, Colorado, something of a forced stop: “The Volkswagen bus broke down so that’s where I landed.” O’Connor set up a studio in a coal shed, but since he hoped to teach eventually, he went back to the University of New Mexico, earning a BUS degree in 1971. He soon realized, however, that to teach on the college level he needed a post-graduate degree, and he obtained an MFA from the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, then took a job teaching jewelry design and metalsmithing at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada. After two years, he left and began giving workshops in Canada, before returning to Crested Butte where he ran summer schools and workshops, activities that continue to help support his art to this day. In 1978 he moved to Denver, finding a “strong, supportive arts community,” but, ever restless and seeking creative stimulation, he headed for Taos, New Mexico, in 1986, where he worked for eight years, relishing the town’s community of artists and the ability to exhibit at the local galleries. O’Connor still refers to Taos as “my sacred place.” Ultimately, however, the Taos experience proved distracting, and in 1993 he moved to Salida, where he can recharge creatively in the town’s quiet and isolation between the frequent workshops he teaches—as many as twelve per year.
He always returned to metal, his passion,
with gold being central to his work.
      At the start of his career, O’Connor, like other emerging art jewelers, explored new materials, such as titanium and cast resins, and experimented with then-new processes of photo etching and electroforming. But he always returned to metal, his passion, with gold being central to his work. He makes his own alloys in order to control the color variations that give his pieces their particular richness, especially in combination with silver. Spectrolite, the stone he discovered and fell in love with during his first trip to Finland, and uses almost exclusively, provides a dramatic color element to many of his brooches, its surface flashing from black to deep iridescent blue according to the light. His unusual settings for the stone include piercing, strapping, and suspension between spiculae, the lightweight tapering tubes of gold he uses in many Asian inflected compositions.

      When O’Connor introduces nonprecious or found materials to his work—bone, most dramatically, but also wood or even small geodes—it is always in partnership with gold or silver, the latter acting as structure or embellishment. For his geode rings, O’Connor encases the rough outer shell in textured silver and clusters granulation within the crystalline interior so that rock and gold combine to form an altogether new jewel. Bone, organic in substance and prehistoric as a jewelry material, provides both formal and chromatic qualities to pieces that might be ritual objects from ancient cultures. For a dramatic fishbone pendant with a 7-inch rib span, he applied a radiating cluster of granulation to the vertebral core to create a golden eye within an organic vortex. Similarly, a brooch made from his own dog’s stark-white cremated bones, bundled with golden cable and paired with silver and amber, suggests a totemic object expressive of loss, myth, and memory. Commenting on similar work, David Revere McFadden, former chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, has noted that O’Connor’s “jewels float with grace and splendor somewhere between nature and art.” (7)

      The artist’s ability to span worlds and juggle many disparate themes at once will become even more complex as he considers a new direction: architecturally inspired form, using elements from the urban landscape as his starting point. Meanwhile, he’s at work on a commission for a collector—a former student—who requested O’Connor’s thumbprint in silver, with every whorl outlined in gold granulation. “Fine,” said O’Connor, typically unfazed. He explains that the piece, currently on his workbench, will be a ring in gold with spectrolite. Speculating on what the piece might mean to the wearer, he offers this explanation: “I guess it’s like having part of your instructor with you all the time.” Put another way, any jewel by O’Connor carries his unmistakable imprint—a unique melding of nature, art, and supreme craft.


>> Andrea DiNoto is a New York-based writer on art and design.

References

(1). A granulated surface can produce a pebbled effect, or, when the granules are flattened, something more akin to pave, often a preference among modernist jewelers. O’Connor employs both approaches throughout his work.
(2). His awards include YES Jewelry Award, Stebro 99, State Gallery of Art, Legnica, Poland (2000). He was elected member, International Guild of Master Craftsmen, London, England (1982); and received a Certificate of Merit, University of Fine Arts, Lavoro, Italy (1982).
(3). O’Connor coined the term Dunconnor for his workshops and publishing activities: dun is Gaelic for fort, thus Dunconnor translates as the Fort of Connor.
(4). He is the author of five self-published books on metalsmithing, including the best-selling The Jeweler’s Bench Reference, in print under his own Dunconnor imprint since 1977.
(5). Among the museum collections that include his work are: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution; Goldsmith’s Hall, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; National Ornamental Metal Museum, Memphis, TN; the German Goldsmiths Society, Hanau; State Art and Work School, Pforzheim, Germany.
(6). Harold O’Connor, oral history interview by Dinah Zieger, October 11 and 31, 2007, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Certain quotes in this essay are drawn from O’Connor’s reflections on his life, work, and travels.
(7). David Revere McFadden et al., Harold Thomas O’Connor: Between Nature and Art, trans. Marta Kionowska, exh. cat. (Legnica, Poland: Galeria Sztuki w Legnicy, 2001).

Remarks

Article originally published at:
Metalsmith Magazine Vol. 34, Nº2
(Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A.)
Suzanne Ramljak, ed.
Society of North American Goldsmiths, 2014

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Harold O ’Connor. Ring: Japanese Dinner, 1992. Silver, l8k gold, ebony, rubies, emerald, palladium. 1 1 ⁄2 x 3 ⁄4 x 1'. Photo: Harold O ’Connor. Harold O ’Connor
Ring: Japanese Dinner, 1992
Silver, l8k gold, ebony, rubies, emerald, palladium
1 1 ⁄2 x 3 ⁄4 x 1"
Photo: Harold O ’Connor
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Bracelet: Neighborhood Watch, 1992. Silver, titanium, l8k gold, leather. 1 1 ⁄8 x 1 1 ⁄8' (closed). Photo: Harold O ’Connor. Harold O ’Connor
Bracelet: Neighborhood Watch, 1992
Silver, titanium, l8k gold, leather
1 1 ⁄8 x 1 1 ⁄8" (closed)
Photo: Harold O ’Connor
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Pendant: Wind from the East, 2009. 18k and 24k gold, silver. diameter 75 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Pendant: Wind from the East, 2009
18k and 24k gold, silver
diameter 75 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Brooch: ‘Backyard Muses’ series, 2008. Found toothpaste tube, beach pebble, silver. 35 x 50 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Brooch: ‘Backyard Muses’ series, 2008
Found toothpaste tube, beach pebble, silver
35 x 50 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Brooch: Remnants of My Best Friend, 2004. Dog bones, amber, silver, 18k gold. 50 x 50 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Brooch: Remnants of My Best Friend, 2004
Dog bones, amber, silver, 18k gold
50 x 50 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Pendant: From the Grapevine, 2008. 18k gold, silver, spectrolite. 50 x 50 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Pendant: From the Grapevine, 2008
18k gold, silver, spectrolite
50 x 50 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Pendant: Up from the Deep, 2010. Fish vertebrae, blue coral, 24k and 18k gold, silver. 100 x 175 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Pendant: Up from the Deep, 2010
Fish vertebrae, blue coral, 24k and 18k gold, silver
100 x 175 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Brooch: Aerial Landscape, 2012. 18k gold, silver, red gold, shibuichi, spectrolite. 45 x 45 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Brooch: Aerial Landscape, 2012
18k gold, silver, red gold, shibuichi, spectrolite
45 x 45 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Harold O ’Connor. Brooch: Out of the Woods, 1997. Deer vertebrae, 24k and 18k gold, silver. 50 x 50 mm. Harold O ’Connor
Brooch: Out of the Woods, 1997
Deer vertebrae, 24k and 18k gold, silver
50 x 50 mm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
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