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Silver Takes The Prize
Silversmith Ubaldo Vitali didn’t recognize the number on his cell phone and didn’t have time to talk; he was buying supplies for his workshop at Home Depot. The caller wanted 20 minutes. “I said, ‘No, I don’t have that kind of time. Call me tomorrow,’ ” he recalls.
Vitali, whose career highlights include commissions for popes, presidents, and museums, as well as restorations of priceless artifacts (such as the reliquary of St. John the Baptist and a teapot made by Paul Revere), had no idea that a representative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was calling to notify him of his selection as a MacArthur Fellow, widely known as a “genius grant.” The fourth-generation silversmith will receive $500,000 over the next five years.
When the foundation called back, “it was one of those things that was like a dream. I still cannot believe it,” Vitali says. “You work because you have the passion, the fire in your belly. You don’t do it to be recognized.”
Vitali is one of 22 fellows announced in September, and he’s the only recipient from the craft and visual arts community this year. The Maplewood, New Jersey-based craftsman joins a select group of craft artists who have won the grant, including Sam Maloof (furniture maker), Tom Joyce (blacksmith), Timothy Barrett (papermaker), and Claire Van Vliet (book artist and printmaker). Other 2011 MacArthur awardees include an architect, an economist, a lawyer, composers, journalists, historians, musicians, poets, and scientists.
In addition to his work as a silversmith, Vitali is a scholar and historian, most recently published in Silver Studies: The Journal of the Silver Society. Conscious of his age (a youthful 67) and now armed with new resources, he is determined to ramp up documentation and publication of his research on old-world metal techniques.
“I feel I owe it to the many people in my life that mentored me,” he says. “Some of them aren’t here anymore, but certainly they’re in my mind.”
Vitali will also continue working with the material that has captivated him since he was a boy, learning the trade from his father and grandfather in Rome, where he grew up.
“Silver is very sexy, very sensual, contrary to gold. Gold is bold and arrogant. Silver is like a beautiful woman that wants to embrace you,” he says. “I know it sounds like BS, but it’s not BS to me. Silver is like the moon: Everything under the moonlight looks beautiful.”
Andrew Zoellner is American Craft’s assistant editor.