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Beauty Melts

Boise's metal arts go molten


Born of necessity, created objects became more and more inspired over the centuries as survival segued to existential ease. Decoration and adornment carved daily experience and artistry split almost entirely from function. Passive forms like painted canvas and sculpted stone became the most traditional and universally celebrated, leaving the baser elements—wood, cloth, clay and metal—to be "used" rather than admired. The canon stuck well into the modern age with definitions of beauty inexorably linked to classical standards and the idea of art for diversion's sake. The very utility of things made them somehow less fine, less worthy of calculated appreciation, but the contrast would prove similar to Cinderella and her stepsisters; that value is not always made in two dimensions.

For Anika Smulovitz, Boise State's new director of metal arts and president of the recently re-banded Idaho Metal Arts Guild, the contrast drives imagination. She is an artist of three dimensions, one who works outside the constraints of what can be framed, backlit and hung on a wall. Photography, silver tooling, enameling and abstract studies are all in her repertoire, the result of going where "concepts take her." In less than a year, she has managed to revamp the curriculum, maintain old students, attract new ones and draw big names from the metal community to lecture and inspire future talent.

While recognizing that the field has gotten more recognition and patronage in the last few decades, Smulovitz also believes that metal as fine art medium is still relatively obscure.

"The metal arts don't have the glamorous history of other forms and don't get as much press," she said. "People say: 'Oh, you're an artist—what do you paint?' and I feel like we need a Dale Chihuly. He brought so much attention to the glass world, and this field has just as much to offer, but we need a lot more education."

With such clear vision, Smulovitz began looking for educational outlets. Having earned her B.A., M.A., M.F.A. and teaching chops as a grad student and adjunct professor at the University of Oregon and University of Wisconsin, Smulovitz was qualified and prepared to take over at Boise State.

"I did what all grad students do—apply for jobs wherever they were, and BSU thought I had something to offer," she said. A few months before settling in, she attended a S.N.A.G. (Society of North American Goldsmiths) event and met local jeweler/gallery owner, Robert Kaylor (of the R. Grey Gallery). Kaylor started the original Idaho Metal Arts Guild back in 1996, and upon meeting Smulovitz and hearing of her impending move, he was motivated once again to help create and support a community for local artists working in metal.

"When I heard Anika was coming to take over the metals department, I got very excited. New blood and energy are great things for guilds, and this time I knew we would have the support we needed," he said.

Having worked his way up from peddling handmade silver and turquoise pieces in college to studying with a Yugoslavian master to opening his own galleries in three downtown locations since 1982, Kaylor is no stranger to the ins and outs of the industry. He explained that the first guild was set up with the same hopes of promoting the metal arts and an artist's infrastructure but that personalities got in the way.

"In every organization, there are certain people who go with it and others who resist," he said, "and some of the founding members were afraid to open up." In addition to internal fears and power struggles, the guild had no support from the University, the museums or any of the commissions for public art. "We weren't permitted to be in the gallery association because we didn't make products you can hang on a wall," he said. As a result, membership dwindled, and all that remained of the guild for many years was a bank account and a set of bylaws—that is, until Smulovitz showed up.

Coming into an office that had for three decades been filled by the same man, Smulovitz initially had a hard time converting the program from straight technique to a balanced study of method, design and concept that also encompassed the histories of the metals themselves.

"All materials keep with them a certain history. Lead versus gold, plywood versus enamel—there are associations and contrasts between the objects and the materials, and while I'm interested in good design, I'm more interested in the dialogue created between old and new," she said.

Commercially, Smulovitz is in the minority, at least in Boise. Most of the metal artists in town are jewelers and tend to be more concerned with aesthetics than conceptual philosophy. Kaylor is one of the few independents among them, and he commented on the disproportion of overall population to the number of jewelers listed in the phone book (63, to be exact).

"It seems there are more here than anywhere else I've lived," Kaylor said. "For original work that is not homogenous and mass-produced, there are only a few places in town, and the guild was meant to promote such things—to expand people's ideas about art metals," he added. Smulovitz echoed this sentiment. "If we could make the masses more aware of this field, they might realize there are options outside of [supermarkets] if they want to buy wedding rings."

So in addition to the program she is developing at Boise State, Smulovitz has formed a student club in conjunction with the new guild, hoping to attract as many members from as many different sectors as possible. She is also hoping to disconnect from the past in order to infuse the reformed organization with positive energy and a new generation of artists and collectors.

"We have new bylaws, new members and we're open to any artists working in metal," she said. "This includes blacksmiths, welders and foundry workers—their work is very separate from what I do, but I'm not willing to close any doors on anybody. I think we can all learn from each other."