J. Fred Woell: An American Vision

 

An artist of supreme democratic spirit

This newest episode in the Maine Masters series of documentary film portraits of Maine artists features an interview with artist/writer Robert Shetterly about the nature of metalsmith J. Fred Woell’s political message. The film opens with Fred’s iconic piece Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Rob opens the film calling that piece “subversive … because,” Rob says, “it’s really a medal given for imperialism that suggests the mask of America. All smiles and being young and being happy.” And Rob foreshadows the message of the film and Fred’s work saying, “but there’s a dark side.”

J. Fred Woell, “Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation” mixed media pin, 4″ x 4 1/2″ x 5/16″, 1966

Simply using the materials that Fred did was a subversive act. Take Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Art and Design, who discusses in the film how jewelry has traditionally marked a person as being wealthy. “Just think of a crown,” he says. But what Fred did with jewelry was to make it completely horizontal using found objects such as soda bottle tops and bullet shells. “So he is an artist of supreme democratic spirit,” Adamson states. “… and that’s such a powerful idea. It makes jewelry into a politically progressive medium when of course that’s precisely the thing that it wasn’t.”

But Shetterly goes a step further and politically dissects one of Fred’s most powerful pieces called Four Corners. Behind Fred’s cleverness, irony, and wit, Rob says, is a profound analysis of the history of politics of America.

J. Fred Woell, “Four Corners” mixed media with barbed wire

“The fact that it’s done with barbed wire,” Rob says, “which was the actual material that was used in the west to shut off the flow of native animals like bison and the flow of the Indians moving across the Great Plains. … To put the Indians in the cross hairs of this barbed wire is an extraordinary achievement. It seems very obvious to me that it represents a crucifixion … it’s our sin itself being commemorated, the sin of the genocide of Native people…. And then behind it you see this piece of weathered wood like a barn board and it’s cracked right down the center. Just like there’s a crack in this country, and what we stand for and what we say and what we do, it’s cracked.”

Rob continues. “The other thing that is equally key is about value. Here you put the face of a native person on money, partly to say, ‘we value you’. But this isn’t on a 50 dollar bill, not on a hundred dollar bill. It’s on a plug nickel. And then you set it up on a cross hairs and you take target practice.” And Rob concludes his analysis saying, “and Fred’s obvious point here is … what does this say about us?”

This is the deepest exploration of one of the most understated, yet insightful artist/metalsmiths of our time… an artist who had a significant influence on so many others.

The film is produced by Richard Kane and Rob Shetterly. It will premiere at the Stonington Opera House on September 21, 2017 at 7pm.

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