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Inside the Collection: J. Fred Woell

“Today we make jewelry and wearable art from any material that we choose but it was Fred Woell who in the 1960s broke the rules and paved the way for us. Fred Woell pioneered the concept of using found objects and cast offs-and was into recycling long before that term was part of our vocabulary. Believing that jewelry should be displayed as art and not tossed to the back of the drawer when not worn, Fred designed and constructed wall mounts and stands that integrated beautifully with each piece.” – Eleanor Moty (1)

The Metal Museum is premiering the new documentary J. Fred Woell: An American Vision by Richard Kane and Robert Shetterly next week on Thursday, April 26th, at 6:00pm. Watch the trailer below and click here to RSVP! To learn more about Woell and his work, keep reading!

(Trailer for J. Fred Woell: An American Vision, a Kane Lewis Production)

Woell in his studio. Photo courtesty of Eleanor Moty.

"Art, like life, is a challenge. It challenges all our resources, mentally and physically. It can't be predictably created from a linear didactic formula. It eludes methodology, technology, or ritual. It is, like life, more about being human, being vulnerable, being imperfect, and about things unexplainable. It is not a science. Art is about surprise, about the unexpected, about letting go and risking. It is about taking steps towards places where there may not be any footholds, and falling and failing.” – J. Fred Woell (2)

James Frederick Woell was born on February 4, 1934, in Evergreen, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Because his father transferred frequently for work, he ended up spending his childhood in different parts of the Midwest, but his father ensured that each new home had a shared workshop where Woell could tinker. After graduating high school, he initially enrolled in Park College (now North Park University) in Chicago. He studied painting and some sculpture under the single art professor Park College employed, but after his professor claimed he would be a “great teacher,” Woell quit taking art classes. He said, “And you know, when you're starting out and young and think you're going to be a great artist, another Picasso or Rembrandt, and someone says he thought I'd be a good teacher, that was a pisser. And I quit art” (3). As a junior, Woell switched to economics, but he then transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) his senior year to avoid taking the religion courses Park College required. In 1956, he earned an undergraduate degree from UIUC in economics and political science, and while he had found political science interesting, he hated “every bit” of economics (4).

After doing a two-year stint in the army, Woell returned to UIUC and started a BFA in art education. His ceramics professor at the time encouraged him to take a jewelry class taught by Bob von Neumann. It was this course that irrevocably changed his future. Von Neumann recommended him for the MFA program in jewelry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), which he began in 1960, equipped only with that one metals class under his belt. Initially he was interested in specializing in both sculpture and jewelry, but eventually settled on jewelry after taking courses with Art Vierthaler. Woell completed his MFA at UW-Madison in June 1962.

After graduation, Woell taught art classes for primary and secondary schools for two years and focused on making his own jewelry. In 1965, he created a line of Scandinavian-inspired cast silver jewelry and took it to several New York City galleries. But unbeknownst to him, gold was back in style, and he was told to “use gold or forget it” (5). Woell said, “That really makes me mad to think that the metal you chose to create your jewelry in would determine whether it was acceptable in the marketplace, so I returned to the Midwest and decided to make my work out of materials that had NO value whatsoever” (6). Woell had created a new genre: “anti-jewelry” (7).

Sources disagree about what piece of anti-jewelry came first, either Fetish Pendant, now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, or Lincoln for President, made from his father’s old wristwatch, which was accepted into the 1963 annual Wisconsin Designer/Craftsmen show at the Milwaukee Art Gallery. While Lincoln for President seems to be the first found object piece he created, it was Fetish Pendant that Woell created in direct reaction to his experience in New York. It is these early pieces that distinguish him as the first jeweler to consistently use found objects, and furthermore, as one of the first to add social commentary to his work.

In 1967, Woell received a scholarship to study sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and graduated from this program with his second MFA in June 1969. He continued to develop his artistic style after learning how to cast from plastic models from sculptor Edward Higgins. According to Eleanor Moty, fellow artist and longtime friend of Woell, “Around 1970, Fred began a series of cast pieces using plastic toys and model car parts that he melted, manipulated, and cast to create pins, boxes, small sculptures, and spoons. Not having the money to buy casting silver, Fred “recycled” the sterling silver flatware from his first wife’s ‘hope chest’” (8). In addition to these cast pieces, he also began making assemblages from beer cans, soda tops, and any other metal object he could get his hands on. According to Moty, “Through his jewelry and sculpture, Fred expressed his thoughts and reactions about conditions and situations that exist in contemporary society, and he used discarded materials as a statement against the waste and excess in American culture” (9).

During this period, Woell moved to Deer Isle, ME, to teach at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. He taught intermittently at Haystack until his retirement in 2001, but was also a metals professor at Boston University from 1976 to 1987 and at the State University of New York at New Paltz from 1989 to 1993, in addition to holding positions at the University of Wisconsin and the Swain School of Design. He taught countless workshops across the nation and internationally and did become a great teacher, just as his former ceramics professor suggested. According to artist and former student Claire Sanford, “Fred is a teacher of rare generosity; never holding back and always ready to help but, perhaps more importantly, he carefully and patiently tries to get people to understand what he’s doing rather than mimic what he makes. This is a hard attribute to describe but I believe it’s one of the aspects of Fred’s teaching abilities that truly sets him apart and it’s the aspect I most try to emulate when I teach. That, and his handouts” (10). A collection of Fred’s handouts is in the Library Collection at the Metal Museum, in addition to a book of poetry he wrote in 1991.

Woell received many awards throughout his career, including three National Endowment for the Arts grants, the American Craft Council's College of Fellows in 1995, the Society of Arts and Crafts' Artist Award in 2004, and the Society of North American Goldsmith's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. In addition to being part of numerous private collections, his work is included in collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House, Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, and of course, the Metal Museum.

While teaching and earning awards for his work, Woell also participated in many exhibitions, his last being a retrospective of his work entitled J. Fred Woell: Art is an Accident that opened at the Metal Museum on March 13, 2015. Just a couple of weeks later, he passed away on April 2nd in his Deer Island home. According to his wife Patricia Wheeler, he was still working in his studio up until a few days before his passing.

The Metal Museum currently has three works by Woell in the permanent collection, two of which were included in the J. Fred Woell: Art is an Accident exhibition. The first, T-Spoon, was made in 1992 and is one of his cast sterling silver pieces. It incorporates a TCBY spoon, the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Sanders, a Nikon camera lens cover, and the face of a sphynx. This piece was donated to the Museum by Patricia Wheeler. In 2016, the Museum purchased the brooch entitled Social Security Alert, a 2005 assemblage piece that includes a can lid, a postage stamp of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wristwatch mechanism, and a buffalo head nickel. In the same year, Micki Lippe donated Nile Nite Flite, a sterling silver brooch with a working brass propeller that celebrates the 1878 flight of Frank Limburgh over the Suez Canal. The Museum also has two belt buckles in the Permanent Collection that once belonged to Woell, "Fish Shanty" Belt Buckle I and "Fish Shanty" Belt Buckle II. Both were made by Eleanor Moty and depict the fish shack that Woell lived in during his graduate school summers. All of these pieces are on display in the Museum’s Visible Storage Gallery, and to see more of Woell’s work, check out our slide archive!


1. Eleanor Moty, Excerpts from her May 24, 2012 award presentation to J. Fred Woell for the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) Lifetime Achievement Award, 2012 SNAG Annual Conference, Scottsdale, AZ.

7. Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) p. 277.

10. National Ornamental Metal Museum, “J. Fred Woell: Art is an Accident,” (Memphis, TN: National Ornamental Metal Museum, 2015).

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