Inside the Collection: Fred Fenster
(Fred Fenster talking about his work. Video courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
“There’s nothing sophisticated about the techniques I’m using. I’m working with the time-honored techniques of hammering, hammering, hammering, and then fabricating the parts that are hammered to shape. But sometimes the results are a little unusual.” – Fred Fenster (1)
Fred Fenster was born in 1934 in the Bronx, New York. At City College of New York (CCNY), New York, NY, he studied industrial arts, and according to Fenster, his time at CCNY gave him “such a sense of understanding about materials, concepts, and how things worked and how – how to problem-solve basically, really problem-solve on a high level” (2). He graduated from CCNY with a BS in 1956, and for the next two years, he taught industrial arts at middle schools in the Bronx. After learning about Cranbrook Academy of Art’s metalsmithing program from CCNY alumnus Al Pine, Fenster decided to apply and relocate to Cranbrook, Michigan. During his second year at Cranbrook, he won a scholarship to pay for his tuition, and he completed his MFA in Metalsmithing in 1960.
Two years after finishing his graduate work, Fenster was hired to teach design, jewelry, and metalsmithing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, and taught there for over 40 years until his retirement in 2005. In addition to teaching at UW Madison, he has also led many workshops, mainly in pewter, both across the country and internationally. Fenster has earned many awards over the course of his career, including the 2002 Hans Christensen Sterling Silversmiths Award from the Society of American Silversmiths and the 2006 American Craft Council Gold Medal. He was a founding member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) and was presented with SNAG's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Fenster was also chosen as the Metal Museum's 2011 Master Metalsmith.
“My work is functional. My purpose is to make objects of lasting value. I try to invest these pieces with a sense of craftsmanship and timelessness. I try to give both visual and tactile pleasure to the user and provoke thought in a throw-away culture that disdains such values. I work in silver, gold and pewter and make both secular objects for the home as well as ceremonial objects for prayer and celebration. My hope is that the work will be cherished and passed from one generation to another."
– Fred Fenster (3)
Fenster’s work has primarily focused on gold and silver jewelry and silver, copper, and pewter hollowware, including some contemporary Judaica as shown in the video above. According to curator Jody Clowes, “While clearly rooted in the traditions of early American and Scandinavia modern design, his personal vocabulary spans a remarkable range of whimsical and inventive motifs, from buckled sine curved to mushroom-shaped caps and jaunty pyramids” (4). She goes on to explain, “Fenster had an almost devotional relationship to his material…. For Fenster, honoring the metal means keeping his designs quite spare, removing whatever seems extraneous to the form in order to focus on the shape, texture, and gesture” (5). To see more examples of Fenster’s work, check out his entry in our SNAG Slide Archive.
The Metal Museum has six pewter vessels by Fred Fenster in the Permanent Collection: five cups and one teapot. Three of these cups were made during workshops in the early 1980s at the University of Arizona, Tuscon, Arizona, and the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. According to Michael Croft, the donor of one of these workshop cups, "The cup, with its file finish and coiled rim, is very typical of the work Fred was doing at that time. He preferred a dark finish and applied a simple homemade patina from readily available ingredients." These three cups are very similar in style, and you can see them on display in our Visible Storage Gallery. Two of the other pewter cups made by Fenster in our collection, one with a braided handle and one with a wooden handle, were both made in 1990.
Our newest Fenster acquisition is a pewter teapot, entitled “Taco Teapot,” that was made in 2005. The piece was included in the 2006 exhibition Metalsmiths and Mentors: Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the catalog of this exhibition was generously donated to our library by Fenster’s colleague and longtime friend Eleanor Moty. “Taco Teapot” was also included in the 2008 exhibition Fred Fenster: Metalsmith at the Visual Arts Gallery of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and you can see it featured prominently in this video of the exhibition. A very similar “Taco Teapot” is in the collection of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, but if you look closely at both teapots, you will notice that the handles are slightly different. Fenster donated our “Taco Teapot” this past June to be included in the upcoming 40th anniversary exhibition Crafting a Legacy: 40 Years of Collections and Exhibitions. Look forward to seeing this piece on display in February 2019!
(1) Jan Yager, Oral History Interview with Fred Fenster, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2004: 86.
(2) Jan Yager, Oral History Interview with Fred Fenster, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2004: 5.
(3) Fred Fenster, “Artist Statement,” unpublished, sent to the Metal Museum in June 2018.
(4) Jody Clowes, Metalsmiths and Mentors: Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006), 26.
(5) Jody Clowes, Metalsmiths and Mentors, 26.