Although Art Smith’s jewellery might take a cue from Alexander Calder’s abstract, kinetic designs, his materials and form also went beyond to become embedded as an influence on Greenwich Village’s bohemian culture. Elevating everyday materials such as glass, brass and copper, Smith’s designs revelled in the handmade aspects of jewellery making as he hammered and soldered offcuts and shaped metal into new, biomorphic forms.
Smith was born in Cuba in 1917 to Jamaican parents who moved to Brooklyn in 1920. After training as a teacher, he met his mentor, Winifred Mason, who had opened a studio in Greenwich Village. Smith recalled the shop as ‘a kind of… little Bauhaus’ that produced one-of-a-kind copper jewellery (Kirkham and Stallworth, 2000: 135). Smith’s main shop was opened on 140 West 4th Street. Alongside leatherworker Nele Cuyjet (Deihl, 2018: 226) they called the shop Craft House and worked on designs that began to catch the eyes of big department stores and growing avant-garde cliques alike. Moving to Greenwich Village had been a conscious move to become part of the Black, queer communities that were forming there. He was also introduced to the Neal Salon by dancer Talley Beatty (which was frequented by the likes of painters Felrath Hines and Charles Sebree, playwright Brock Peters, author James Baldwin and singer Harry Belafonte). Celebrity beckoned as Smith was commissioned to design a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt, and create cufflinks for Duke Ellington (which famously incorporated the first notes of Ellington’s famous 1930 song “Mood Indigo” into the pattern). In 1969, a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts was mounted, and he also his work featured in Vogue and Haper’s Bazaar.
Smiths designs were made in dialogue with the body. They are the definition of wearable art – designed to be worn with comfort in mind. For example, his lower-arm ‘Lava’ bracelet (one of his earliest designs) not only reflected a Surrealist underpinning through overlapping forms but also contains enough space for the wearer to move. Items like ‘Silver Eddies’ and ‘Bejeweled Neckpiece’ were also designed with everyday wear in mind giving a modernist twist to any outfit. In 1979, he produced what some have called his most ‘abstract, spatially challenging, and sculptural’ piece of work (From the Village to Vogue, 2008: 7). Due to declining health, the ‘Last’ necklace can be read as an experimental and poignant final statement, only one version of this piece was made but it never had the chance to appear in a shop window.
A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a “what is it?” until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with.Art Smith, 1969
The question is, as he says, “not how do bracelets go, but what can I do with an arm?”Art Smith, quoted in leaflet from the exhibition “Jewelry by Art Smith” held in the Little Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, 1969.