Remembering: J. Fred Woell

Remembering: J. Fred Woell

J. Fred Woell

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

It is with great sadness that we share news of the death of influential craftsman J. Fred Woell. Known for his found-object assemblages, Woell created thought-provoking jewelry that incorporated the artist's unique take on political and social satire. He was 81 years old. 

Born in 1934 in Evergreen Park, Illinois, Woell earned a degree in economics in 1956 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) before serving two years in the United States Army. Upon returning to Illinois, Woell pursued a second UIUC degree, a BFA. It was during this stint at the university that Woell took a course in art metal and jewelry from the renowned metalsmith Robert von Neumann. This experience inspired Woell to pursue his graduate degree in metalsmithing. He received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in June of 1962.

Upon graduating from UW-Madison, Woell taught art in primary and secondary schools for two years, during which he met and worked for the sculptor Frank Gallo. It was also at this time that Woell created his first pop art jewelry piece (titled Lincoln for President), the style for which he would become celebrated.

In 1967 Woell received a scholarship to study sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He graduated from this program with his second MFA in June 1969. After graduating, the artist spent four years teaching in the University of Wisconsin school system. During this time Woell had his first one-man shows at he Museum of Contemporary Crafts and the Lee Nordness Gallery in New York.

Woell moved to Deer Isle, Maine, in 1973 to join the staff at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. He worked and taught at Haystack intermittently through 2001. From 1976 to 1987 Woell was a professor of art metals at Boston University. He also taught at State University of New York at New Paltz from 1989 through 1993.

Throughout his teaching career and following his retirement in 2001, Woell participated in dozens of solo and group exhibitions across the globe. His work can be found in the permanent collections of institutions including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C., the Museum Het Kruithuis in the Netherlands, and the Detroit Institute of Art among others.

In addition to being part of numerous public and private collections, Woell has received many awards, including three National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Society of Arts and Crafts' Artist Award (2004), and the Society of North American Goldsmith's Lifetime Achievement Award (2012). He was named to the American Craft Council's College of Fellows in 1995.

A personal statement from Woell's artist file in the ACC Library reads:

My work is commentary on what is going on in my own personal growth and my reactions to the world around me. The ecosystem and how we fit into it has been more and more apart of my thinking each year. Can we grow indefinitely in population, GNP, and physical development of own open spaces? I wonder? Is it better to stop growing and begin to refine what we have? Is it better to develop a world with a higher sense of self-awareness and a world where quality becomes our most significant goal; not just quantity?

My found object constructions and cast-from-plastic-toy-parts-metalwork are motivated by these thoughts. Recycling materials, I find, is my way of using what we normally would throw away into commentary about the world and my life in it. It is my way of being part of the body politic.

For more on the life of the prolific artist, read an interview Amy Fox conducted with Woell in 2012. For additional information on services and remembrances for Woell, visit the Jordan-Fernalt Funeral Home website