Interview With J. Fred Woell

Interview With J. Fred Woell

Published on Friday, July 27, 2012.
J. Fred Woell

J. Fred Woell in his studio in Deer Isle, Maine (2010). Photo: Courtesy of Eleanor Moty

Artist and craftsman J. Fred Woell recently received a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths. His found object jewelry is in the collections of several museums including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and Design, and his long career as an educator has included positions at Boston University, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and the Swain School of Design. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Woell, a rousing and engaging interview that touched on his thoughts on consumer culture, musings on the notion of perfection, and his approach to working and creating.

When I asked Woell about how he finds the objects for his assemblages, he replied that for the most part, people bring objects to him, and there is never a shortage of interesting junk to use. That led to a conversation about choosing objects.

J. Fred Woell: I think things have a tendency to pop into view. There’s maybe an element of serendipity for me, a "chance operation," as John Cage would refer to it. And there’s a number of different ways that I’ve taken to doing it, for example things I collect. I collect things without thinking about what I’m going to make out of them, and I put them aside in a box […] and then - I’ve done this more than once - I’ll say, well, today I’m going to finish something in one day and I’m going to pick at random five or six or less pieces out of that box that’s gotten too full and make something out of those things. So it creates kind of a challenge and also that element of chance and serendipity come into play. 

ACC: You’ve talked about discipline, and have said that the learning environments in which you’ve flourished were spaces in which you were expected to discipline yourself and keep your own schedule. Do you think that discipline is something that comes naturally to you, or is it something that you’ve developed?

JFW: I think it’s something that I’ve developed. There’s a lot of different ways of dealing with it. I mean, if you really want to make something, you have to think, well, at the end of the day, or the end of the week (or two weeks) you want to accomplish X, Y, or Z. Because there’s some kind of satisfaction in that kind of - actually, if you never finish anything, there’s no satisfaction, as far as I’m concerned. [...] And you have to be able to trust yourself that at the end of something you’ve finished something and allowed yourself to say it’s finished. Philosophically, there’s a big message there. People that can’t take the risks of saying, “well, I’ve finished something,” and take a look at it and let it sit a while so that they can assess it after they’ve done it, there’s so many emotional things that are going on when they are in the process of making things. Because we’ve been under, in my opinion, the pressure of "how’s my friend Judy gonna like it?” or, you know, all of the issues of acceptance. This piece that they’re making, 10 years from now might be a landmark piece, but in the short run, right after they’re finished, people might look at it and say “what’s that?” And, you know, the whole issue of taste and the way we look at things changes from decade to decade.

ACC: Is it difficult to learn how to let that part not play into your expectations for when something is finished?

JFW: Sure, it took me awhile to get around, to get to that point, that’s for sure. But one of the things I do with the found object classes that I’ve done - I call the classes “Art by Accident: The Use of Found Objects.” If you think about the idea of accidents, there’s a part of an equation. You realize, if you’re dealing with found objects, they're not something that you go to Walmart to find. You pick it up on the street, or wherever. It kind of happens into your life - that’s the accident part of it, and there’s something about that crushed can, or the broken glass or something - the shape of it - that appeals to you. So you pick it up not knowing if you’ll ever use it or not, but there it is, and that’s the beginning of it. The other thing about working with found objects is it’s healthy if you can accept that idea that anything that’s worth doing poorly - so get on with it, get it over with. I mean, number one, it’s a found object. It has no intrinsic value, or if you’re working on gold or diamonds or precious stones, they already have intrinsic value because you’ve paid a hundred bucks for that stone - that creates a wedge in terms of how free you’re going to be in terms of how you’re going to use them. Where, with a tin can, it’s a rusty tin can. You like it because of the rust, and as you’re working on it, you break it and it’s ruined. So what, you found it, so who cares?

ACC: So do you think that leaves more room for mistakes, or do you decide that something is a mistake, or do you just accept it for what happened?

JFW: Well, there’s a number of things that have happened in my life that have kind of educated me. For example, if you go into an antique shop, looking at something old, it shows the wear, right? It’s got nicks in it, you look at it and go, boy, that’s a wonderful appearance there. Because the surface has been rubbed and polished by just lots of use, and so you’ll pay a lot of money for something like that not just because it’s old but because there’s something about the appearance of how it’s been used and how it’s weathered the years, and I think that if you begin to think that way - the reason I’m telling you this story - because the piece that I’m probably most famous for is a piece called “Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation.” [...] Now if you look at that piece, there’s a dent in that piece. Now, that happened in the process of me making it, because I was working too late at night. I was trying to solder the piece together. It fell apart and bounced off the floor, and I was so pissed off I said I’m just going to get this out of my way and get it done. And I never fixed the dent out, and that became probably the most famous piece I’ve ever made - it’s now in a museum. So I mean it’s kooky things like that that have to be acknowledged and as you work in terms of what the whole art experience is, and I think that’s as important in many ways as making, or what you make. 

The entire transcript of J. Fred Woell’s interview is available at the American Craft Council Library. Images of Woell's work, as well as exhibition catalogs from the Museum of Contemporary Crafts' shows are available online in the ACC Library Digital Collections.