by Fredrick Hunter and Cheryl Brooks, Past MSG Board Members

It could be said that metalsmithing got its start in Michigan in the 1920s in a round-about way through the very successful newspaper publisher, Mr. George Booth. Booth had a long history of interest in metalsmithing, begun early in his life while working at a metal working company, and sought to promote the art through his association with the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Mr. Booth brought English smith, Arthur Neville Kirk, to Michigan to take up the appointment of artist-in-residence at Cranbrook in 1927. Kirk was instrumental in bringing national recognition to the Cranbrook metalsmithing department while associated with the Academy.

Kirk’s work reflected the English traditions of Gothic design and he solidified his place in history through his ecclesiastical work, such as-chalices, altar pieces, and candelabras, just to list a few. Kirk was commissioned repeatedly by Booth and created numerous pieces for the Gothically-inspired interior of Cranbrook’s Christ Church. Architect Eliel Saarinen was the Art Academy’s president during this time and Kirk collaborated with him to produce major additions throughout the Cranbrook complex.

In the mid-1930s Kirk exited Cranbrook due to differences of opinions with Saarinen. Kirk’s impact on the metalsmithing scene in Michigan reached far beyond his work with Cranbrook. Early in his career, 1928, he initiated the metalsmithing program at the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. He was also instrumental in the organization of the metals department at Wayne State University, where he taught for the next 20 years.

In the Detroit area one did not have to look far to study metalsmithing. The programs at Wayne, Arts and Crafts, and Cranbrook were the primary locations in the state to study the craft. WWII brought a major blow to the student of the master smiths. Materials and manpower were few and far between and everything had to wait until the end of the war.

In the late 40s, with metal and students a plenty, the metalsmithing activities in Michigan began to flourish. The Michigan Silversmiths Guild was formed by a group of smiths and artists interested in promoting their art. The Guild was developed to endorse metalsmithing as a fine art by sponsoring lectures, workshops, visiting artists, and by creating a forum for dialogue among artists. The formation of the Michigan Silversmiths Guild was able to bring a professionalism to the area’s smiths as was never experienced before.

It is recorded that Reginald Brewer was the first to present the idea of establishing a guild of silversmiths to exchange ideas and promote their art with other craftspersons nationally and internationally. It was unanimously decided, in October of 1948, at a dinner at the Park Shelton, by the dining partners; Marion and Fred Kenney-Eagan, Michael Vizzini, Hulda Creaser, Robert Eaton, Virginia Lowrie, F. Nitzberg, and William Woolfenden, to call on all Michigan craftspersons, involved in metalsmithing, to meet to discuss the establishment of the “Michigan Silversmiths Guild.”

In January, 1949 the first meeting was held at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Michigan Silversmiths Guild was formed. Officers were elected the following month and the first documents of the Articles of Incorporation were sent to the state. Reginald Brewer was the first President, William Woolfenden-Vice President, Fred Eagen-Recording Secretary, Virginia Lowrie-Corresponding Secretary, and Michael Vizzini was the Treasurer. It was decided that to obtain an active membership an artist would submit three pieces of sterling, either hollow ware or jewelry, to be evaluated by a jury. Only pieces exhibiting “traditional or contemporary design” would be accepted as admissible; those exhibiting commercial techniques would not. The work had to have quality craftsmanship and creative design. Associate memberships could be had by anyone interested in the arts and crafts and sharing information with the like. The Guild would also establish a strong relationship with students, encouraging them in the field of metalsmithing.

Around the birth of the Michigan Silversmiths Guild, Richard Thomas took over the metals department at Cranbrook and established the first college degree program in the nation for the study of metalsmithing. The new and innovative programs Thomas created came at a time when smithing was beginning to grow in popularity. Students flocked to Cranbrook, were introduced to the Guild and the craft prospered. Cranbrook soon became one of the leading centers for the advanced study of fine-art smithing in the world.

The Guild held most of their meetings at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook, and the Center for Creative Studies. Early on several eminent speakers and craftsmen were invited to speak to the members. These included; Baron Erick Fleming-Silversmith to the court of Sweden, John Pripp, Adda Husted Anderson, John Paul Miller, Kenneth Bates, Richard Thomas, Fred Miller, Margaret Craver, Greta Pack, Alma Eickerman, Arthur Pulos, Robert von Neuman, and Hans Christianson, all memorable figures in metalsmithing history.

The Guild was an active contributor in the Michigan Crafts Council, the Michigan Council for the Arts, and the American Crafts Council. Michigan smiths, Marion and Fred Kenny-Eagen, Mike Vizzini, and Reg Brewer were among the founding members of the Guild. Each would go on to produce work that brought local and national attention to their doors. Later on Phil Fike and Earl Krentzin would join the illustrious group and all would win award upon award for their artworks.

The Michigan Silversmiths Guild was born on the doorstep of the Detroit Institute of Arts and has had a long association with the establishment. A large number of pieces in the DIA’s collection came from pieces that were either donated or purchased prize works from annual MSG shows. Marion and Fred Kenney-Eagen, enamelists, and Phillip Fike, all three early members of the guild have work in the DIA’s collection. The Michigan Silversmiths Guild donated a piece by Baron Erick Fleming in 1949 to the Institute’s collection as well. It has been noted that a group of MSG members visiting the DIA, in the 80s, had a hand in identifying some of the pieces in the collection that had limited history recorded on them.

The Michigan Silversmiths Guild in its original constitution set out four purposes or objectives they are as follows:

  1. To gather together those people who have attained such proficiency in the broad field of silversmithing, jewelry and metal craft as to make them eager for more advanced information and instruction. This information to be attained through lectures and demonstrations of invited artists and craftsmen in the field.
  2. The Guild will not undertake to provide any type of instruction beyond its membership, which is already being offered through schools, colleges and private instruction.
  3. The Guild will invite students and non-members of the organization to participate in any lecture or activity that would be of interest to a large audience.
  4. The Guild through its sixty-year history has maintained the spirit of those goals even as it has changed and evolved to meet new needs and conditions.

In order to gather together and inform its membership the Guild has continued with its original administrative structure consisting of a board of directors and elected officers including a president, vice president secretary, and treasurer. Through its history to date the Guild has had 21 Presidents; several have served multiple terms of office. Of this group Bill Fitzpatrick deserves special mention having served four terms as president from 1995 through 2003. The guild has had thirty sets of officers and sixty boards of directors. Many individuals have served in a variety of roles and for multiple terms, there are more than can be listed in this short history but they are the glue that holds this organization together.

In the early years the membership was kept informed of guild activities through a series of meeting notices. By the 1980s the membership had grown in number and in geographic area well beyond the Detroit area. A more regular and extensive news media was needed. In early 1986 the Board established a committee to develop a quarterly newsletter, in the fall of that year the first issue of the Michigan Silversmiths Guild Newsletter was issued. The basic format of that publication, with some variation, has remained the same till the present. In the early newsletters one of the guild members, Warren Hollier, was listed as cartoonist on the newsletter committee. You might enjoy an example of his work from the spring 1989 issue. The newsletter has served and continues to serve as a vital link between the members of the guild and its leadership.

On September 21, 2004 the guild took another step in fulfilling its goal to gather together and inform the metalsmithing community by going online with http:// the MSG web site. Members now have access to a discussion forum, information about up coming events, a members photo gallery and links to metalsmithing web sites all over the world. Guests to the web site can find out about our guild, view our members work in the gallery, sign up for a workshop and view nearly all of the interesting things to be found there. The guild is fortunate to work with Mr. Robert Thompson on the development of this web site.

The second objective of the founders was to provide instruction through lectures and demonstrations. This goal has been the main thrust of the organization from the beginning. In the years since its inception the guild has sponsored or co-sponsored 265 events. These events have taken a variety of forms. The first activity, on March 15,1949, was a lecture by Miss Margaret Craver with slides of historic silver from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the years to follow there were many more public lectures and demonstrations. The guild has expanded its activities to include: Workshops ranging from one to five days, exhibitions ranging from local invitational to international competitive and tours to attend events related to the field.

The goal of the third objective is to provide instruction without competing with established schools, colleges or private instruction. The guild has always concurred with this objective and has strived to work in concert with educational intuitions. In the early history the venues for events were in the Detroit area at places such as the DIA, Cranbrook, the Society of Arts and Crafts, the Detroit Edison Co, Wayne State University and Cass High School. As interest in the field grew formal instruction grew with it, as did the venues for guild activities. The guild has held events at: The University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Bowling Green State University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association, Ann Arbor Art Factory, and many private studios. In addition to providing facilities for guild events the faculties and students of many of these institutions have provided leadership by serving as officers and on the board. Cooperation and enhancement between the various constituents of the field has been a key to the success of the guild and the vitality of metalsmithing in the area. The fourth objective, to include students and the public in activities of interest to a larger audience, has the goal of creating a wider interest in the field of metalsmithing in the population at large. In addition to public lectures and demonstrations one of the main ways the guild has involved the public interest is through participation in and the promulgation of exhibitions. From 1947 through about 1970 the Detroit Institute of Art held an annual exhibition titled The Michigan Artist Craftsmen. This show was one of the main opportunities for early guild members to display their work. From 1950 to 1964 thirty of the prizewinners of those exhibitions were members of the guild. This group included the following individuals some of whom were winners in multiple years: Fred Eagen, Marian Eagen, Michael Vazzini, Norma Wiesner, Fred Colby, Greta Pack, Georgiene Green, Philip Fike, Lester Fader, Reginald Brewer, Elizabeth Plant, Firginia Bradley, Stanley Lechtizin, Rosemarie Simonton, Martha Halsted, Charlotte Quinn, Henry Rogers, Margaret Cody, George Whiley and Bruce Blyth. By the early 1970’s the DIA was no longer holding the artist craftsmen shows and although there were other competitive shows the guild members participated in we felt the need to initiate exhibitions of our own. There is little mention of guild sponsored shows until the March 5,1977 opening of the First Annual Michigan Silversmiths Exhibition at the Center for Creative Studies. The guild has been a sponsor of at least 19 exhibitions many of these have been shows of members work at venues that include: CCS, Detroit Bank and Trust, Comerica Bank Detroit, Ann Arbor Art Association, Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association and the Taubman Center U of M Hospital. The MSG cosponsored with EMU an international competitive exhibition, titled Metalsmithing the Michigan Influence, which drew artists from 17 states, Canada and the Philippines.

Jewelry + Objects is the current series of exhibitions, they are biennial juried membership shows. The first in a series of five was held on May 18, 2001 at the Ann Arbor Art Center which has been the venue for the series.

In addition to its exhibitions, for the past four years the MSG has been promoting interest in the field through its participation in the Ann Arbor South University Art Fair. Members’ display their work and present a series of demonstrations of metalworking techniques for the enlightenment of the public.

Each decade since its 20th year the Guild has marked the occasion with an exhibition of its members work. The 20th was a party at Northwood Inn with each member showing two pieces of their work. The 30th was held at the Detroit Bank and Trust displaying 107 pieces by 34 artists. Our 40th year was marked with the exhibition Spring Into Color at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association a juried exhibit of 140 pieces by 37 artists. This year is our 60th anniversary and is being celebrated by this show Jewelry + Objects: Michigan Silversmiths Guild 2009 Membership Exhibition. We hope you are enlightened by this short history and that you enjoy our 60th anniversary show.