Friday, September 12, 2008

Commemorative Jewelrymaker

Narrative Jewelry Disguised as Play - Don Tompkins (1933-1982)

In 1954, Don Tompkins, a twenty-one-year-old student of the influential northwest artist-teacher Russell Day, entered three pieces of jewelry in the second annual Northwest Craftsmen's Exhibition at the University of Washington's Henry Gallery in Seattle. It was the first juried exhibition he had ever entered, and his first jewelry.

He won a special award, and one of his works was reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Using found objects, wire, photo-etched and cast items, he created a visual language that is familiar to us now, but was a strike away from the familiar when he began.

Minnesota Fats, 1971
Sterling Silver, Gold, Cultured pearl, Magazine Photo, Plexiglass
3 x 6 1/2"
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,
The Helen W. Druff Collection
Photo: Lynn Thompson

Tompkins was born in 1933 in Everett, Washington. His parents were lifelong teachers, mainly in small rural western schools. The Pacific Northwest has long been a fertile center for the crafts, but only relatively recently has the importance of Don Tompkins in this history been acknowledged.

At Right: Pendant, 1954
Brass and Silver
Collection of Mary Tompkins

He created charms, talismans, artifacts. He used home welders, flat irons and blow torches instead of specialized sculpture or jewelry tools. He used any machinery available, saying that the main thing is the heart and the head, not the hand. From early on, Tompkins brought found objects, non-traditional materials and experimental techniques to his jewelry, reflecting his wild native curiositity.

Pendant, 1965
Sterling silver, Semi-Precious Stones, Coin
2 3/4 x 2 1/2 x 3/9"
Collection Marilyn Whyte

A slide of the work is labeled (in Tompkins' hand), "Pendant, ca 1965." Marilyn Whyte, who luckily still has the piece, says of it, "It's probably one of the first medallion pieces. No theme to this one like his later pieces. He cast one of [his son] Paul's toy indians, wax paper, etched lettering from a newspaper somehow, added a couple of stones, a Canadian penny, and pearls."

Day says, "People like Ramona [Solberg], Ken Cory, and Bob Winston have been given credit for what was the beginning of Pop Art in American jewelry. It was Don that brought the found object to American jewelry."

Regardless of who's on first, the series Tompkins later called "Commemorative Medals," produced between 1965 and 1976, helped stake out new ground for work that fundamentally changed American jewelry making. He wasn't alone of course; it was a halcyon time, as Don and Merrily Tompkins and others, each in their own way, redefined the field.

Jack Zucker, 1972
Sterling Silver, Found Objects, Photo-Etching
Collection the Zucker Family

He began making commemorative medals using cast metal charms and other junk he found, experimenting with visual language that was totally unique. There is a record of at least 25 commemorative medals, including Minnesota Fats, Richard Nixon and Jack Zucker.

Jack Zucker (ca. 1972) is one of the gems and comes out of a terrific story. Zucker, a Philadelphia union organizer, was a friend of Betty Tompkins's parents. Along with so many intellectuals of the 1950s, he was called up before Senator Joseph McCarthy's specious Un-American Activities Committee and asked to defend himself. He said, "Senator McCarthy, I have more patriotism in my little finger than you have in your whole body."

Tompkins commemorates those words in the work, along with an etched portrait of Zucker, an American Federation of Labor pin, and a kitschy cast charm of a dancing girl, all wonderfully balanced in the grid format. A terrific tribute.

Courageous, boisterous, lusty and creative, Don Tompkins died in 1982 of a heart attack, leaving behind jewelry and images that are a lasting influence in American metalsmithing. His work looks familar to us looking back at it, which emphasizes the depth of change he brought to jewelry making.
See article here:

This is a continuing blog post series on legendary jewelry makers, including Alexander Calder, Ramona Solberg and Amy Pfaffman - to see them all use the 'legendary jewelrymakers' label search.


Amanda said...

His jewelry is so interesting! Although, go figure, the most simplistic-appearing piece is what I consider my favorite, out of the pictures you've posted. The second picture down in the post, of the pendant in silver and brass. It very strongly resembles a fortune cookie... any idea what it was intended to be, if something other than an abstract shape?

Additionally, I can't see (in that photo) where he might have used silver... could that just be the lighting?

(: I enjoy these legendary jewelrymaker posts! An excellent salute to those that came before us!

Hope you're have a nice weekend, Lynn!

Amanda said...

On the Ganoskin link (I just started reading it), the watch brooch he created... absolutely FABULOUS.

Beth Hikes said...

Oh thank you for introducing me to this artist. I don't know how he slipped by my search for found object artists undetected. I love his concepts and his ability to connect disparate images. What a wonder way to honor him in your blog!

Cindy Gimbrone said...

Awesome post, Lynn! He was so ahead of his time - wow! I love history so keep it coming.


LLYYNN - Lynn Davis said...

Thanks for letting me know you like these themes, about those jewelry maker artists who introduced some of the things we now consider regular fare. I was also facinated when I started reading about his work, he is using so many techniques I like (the photo etched metal, wire work, cast resin) and then you see the date - 1965? Wow! The use of metal grid boxes, the commemorative pieces. It looks so contemporary now, and it was made in 1954 or 1975.

So glad you are enjoying reading about these fabulous creative minds as much as I'm enjoying researching them.