I Want to do Something That Used Both my Head and my Hands together. Harold O'Connor interviewed by Florida Society of Goldsmiths

Interview  /  Artists
Published: 20.11.2019
Harold O'Connor Harold O'Connor
Florida Society of Goldsmiths
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Harold O'Connor. Brooch: Untitled, 2013. Silver, 750 gold. Harold O'Connor
Brooch: Untitled, 2013
Silver, 750 gold
© By the author. Read Copyright.

I consider myself a creator of art jewelry works - miniature reliefs or constructions that people can wear. I start with an idea, usually related to a larger theme, but I am never sure where it will end up.
Harold - what’s your story? How did you get started making jewelry?
I was born in Utica, N.Y. in 1941 and grew up in upstate New York. I was introduced to the arts as a child by my mother who was a talented painter. Even as a little kid, I enjoyed miniature objects and was comfortable working with little things - building train sets, models, and the like. My fifth-grade teacher remarked once, Are you trying to write the Bible on the head of a pin? My first endeavor in jewelry making was to try to solder a ring in a metal vise. Didn’t work. I also tried to melt metal in a steel ladle. That didn’t work either. So I thought I had better take some classes!

I ventured out west to college in Gunnison, Colorado, to major in psychology and sociology. Then a visiting professor influenced me to transfer to the University of New Mexico and major in anthropology. I had been travelling since I was 13 and thought anthropology suited me. Throughout my time in college, I continued to take art classes. Then in my last year at UNM, I dropped all my classes except metalworking. I was tired of academics and wanted to do something that used both my head and my hands together. I remember when I told my father that I had found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, his reaction was, Who would buy it? (Later on, he did support my work and at the end was very proud of the things I had done.)

So with an anthropology degree in hand, and metalworking my focus, I decided to go to study in Europe, where they do it best. My first stop was Copenhagen, Denmark, to learn enamelling; then up to Helsinki, Finland, to the National Art School. While I was there, a professor by the name of Bertal Gardberg watched me working at my bench and declared, I know where you should be: the Art and Work School in Pforzheim, Germany! I had never heard of the school but followed his advice. I soon found out that I was in one of the very top schools in the world for goldsmithing arts. And I was fortunate to be there during the golden years of the school. 
I have also pursued advanced studies at the International Fine Arts Academy in Salzburg, Austria.

Brooch by Harold O'Connor, 2013. Material: silver, 750 gold, vaccum-cast.

After your studies in Europe, you became a teacher. Can you tell us more about that?
When I returned to the U.S. in the Winter of 1968, I was the first resident metal craftsman at Penland School in North Carolina. Then I returned to Colorado to set up my own studio in the mountain town of Crested Butte. But I didn’t stop studying. In 1970 I went to Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende for an MFA so that I could teach at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I was head of the Metals Department there from 1971-1973. Since that time, I have been a freelance jewelry maker, book author, and workshop leader. I have been at it for 57 years now - every day is different. I have conducted more than 260 workshops across North America and in 23 countries. I’ve written four books, including The Jewelers Bench Reference, (more than 40,000 sold and going some 42 years); and The Flexible Shaft Machine - Jewelry Techniques. I’ve participated in countless group exhibitions and have works in 21 museum collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian Institute, Metropolitan Art Museum in N. Y., Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Montreal Art Museum in Canada. I consider myself a metal artist who creates small objects that people can wear. I especially enjoy creating brooches and rings - the brooch, especially, because one can work it like a painting.

Brooch by Harold O'Connor, 2013. Material: 750 gold, silver​.

What is your favorite technique and how do you keep it fresh?
I tend to work on a theme which may last a year or up to three years in duration. Some themes in the past have been old gold and silver mining equipment found in the Colorado mountains, human anatomy, meandering through a Japanese garden, unusual ways to hold stones, remnants found along old railroad tracks. Currently, I’m doing Unfinished Works based on ideas that never got made, some decades old. Over the years I have worked with silver, gold and various other materials including resins, plastics, woods, titanium, bone, etc. I have enjoyed many techniques, including granulation (the curse!), gold lamination, casting, reticulation, roller printing, and creasing/folding. I am comfortable with soldering and fabrication, and I enjoy creating textures. I use whatever media/techniques are best suited to effectively present my design and to produce the finished result I am aiming for. I do have a favorite stone: Spectrolite, a relative of Labradorite. I go to Finland to a mine on the Finnish/Russian border (the only place in the world where Spectrolite is found) to pick my stones.

Pendant: Desert Lines by Harold O'Connor, 2015. Material: 925 silver, Spectrolite, 750 gold.

What do you consider your highest achievements and honors in your career?
My life story is available in the Smithsonian Archives because I’m included in the Smithsonian Audio History of Prominent American Artists. I was also honored to teach a workshop with the Inuit people on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic.

Where do you find your inspiration?
I get inspiration from all kinds of things: nature, my travels, social interactions, the work of noted sculptors, social commentary, the beauty of my mountain environment, my friend Susie’s yard….

Pendant by Harold O'Connor, 2007. Material: silver, 18kt gold granulation, sagebrush.

Do you have a consistent process?
I consider myself a creator of art jewelry works - miniature reliefs or constructions that people can wear. I start with an idea, usually related to a larger theme, but I am never sure where it will end up. The idea develops through the making, ending up where the materials and the process take me. I look at my work as fine art, inspired by sculpture. I’m most at ease doing 3-dimensional constructions vs. 2-dimensional. I used to draw designs, but recently I work things out in my head.

Brooch by Harold O'Connor, 2016. Material: 925 silver, 750 gold, spectrolite. 

Do you have a favorite tool?
My Flexshaft or micro-motor is my favorite. The one tool we all use every day, it has the most uses in creating jewelry. It eliminates the need for a whole lot of other tools and is convenient for travelling. I like it so much I wrote a book about it!

What is your opinion about changing styles in art jewelry?
I see the use of non-traditional materials in the creation of art jewelry exploding in recent years, due in part to the high cost of metals, and also because of changes in peoples wants and needs. The use of plastic, rubber, cloth, beads, and other materials has created the need for better training in the use of these materials in jewelry creation. Whatever the material, success comes from knowledge of the material and technical skill appropriate to its use. Sometimes we forget that a good design poorly executed is not worth all that much.

What does the future hold for you?
I hope to continue to make work for galleries, teach various metal workshops, exhibit work, and attend international gatherings of jewelry makers. I want to continue learning new approaches to my work. For example, in my new series on the theme Unfinished Work, I am having fun with new kinds of fabrication, model-making techniques, and soldering methods.

About the Interviewee

Harold O’Connor is an American artist practicing in Salida, USA. O’Connor mastered his skills as a jeweller through numerous international institutions including the National Arts And Crafts School in Copenhagen and Fachhochschule Fur Gestaltung in Pforzheim.  As an active member of the jewellery community, O’Connor has participated in over 200 group exhibitions, conducted workshops in 14 countries and published several books on jewellery techniques. His artistic practice focuses on using traditional techniques of metalwork in a contemporary way.