top of page

Beyond the Gallery: Interview for "Crafting a Legacy" - James "Wally" Wallace

Interview for Crafting a Legacy – James Wallace

Interviewed by: Grace Stewart


{Text and transcription by: Grace Stewart}

Founding Director, James Wallace had the challenging and exhilarating task of starting an art museum from scratch, without the benefits and restrictions of a wealthy collector or patron, as is common for most art museums. While James Wallace, fondly referred to as Wally, could be considered a miracle worker on many fronts, from facility operations to fund- (and friend) raising, the following interview focuses on his experience building a museum collection and launching the Master Metalsmith exhibition series. The Master Metalsmith series began in 1983 and has become a cornerstone of the Museum’s exhibition program as well as a highly revered annual honor within the metals community.

Stories from the early years of the museum have now become a delightful blend of historical fact and the stuff of legends, and so instead of trying to decipher one from the other, I decided to go directly to the source and ask Wally himself. I sent him my questions via email, not at all Wally’s preferred method of communication. I offered Wally the option to send back written responses, but part of the way through writing these out, he wisely recognized these types of things would be better discussed in person.

Arrangements were made and on a Tuesday morning in November, I watched Wally and Mary Lee Hu (metalsmith and long-time partner of Wally) walking across the Museum grounds, from my vantage point in the Keeler Board Room on the second floor of the Library where another meeting was taking place. The Museum has grown to the point that every nook and cranny has been converted into usable space and the best location for conducting the interview ended up being the staff kitchen in the Library. But before settling in to answer my questions, Wally spotted a seemingly familiar visitor in the gallery and went to speak with him, unsure if he knew him or not. The chances of Wally knowing whoever it is to next walk through the door is pretty high, and if he doesn’t know the person, he will soon enough. I never did confirm if this visitor was someone he knew or not, but they spoke together for a few minutes before Wally returned to the kitchen to begin the interview.

GS: Can you tell us about why you started the Master Metalsmith series? How did it come about and what that process was like?

JW: The Master Metalsmith series is an outgrowth of Repair Days. Even from its inception, Repair Days was devised to accomplish three things. Number one: raise a little bit of money for the Museum. Number two: provide a community service that wasn‘t available anywhere else in the city. Number three: offer an opportunity for young crafts people to get together and work with more established craftspeople.

The original Repair Days consisted of me, Richard Prillaman, and Mike Weeks, who was the Museum’s very first intern. About four other people came from the Memphis College of Art, and I think somebody came down from Carbondale that first time. That was it. We had Wanda that owned the P&H Café help cater the whole thing. We had a good time. It was a fairly lowkey event. We ended up getting more work brought in than we knew what to do with, so we knew there was a good possibility that the event would work. It seemed that the next year was basically about the same, except that some of my comrades from Carbondale came down. So, we had Carbondale coming, Memphis College of Art, a few other folks from around town here, and we were starting to get a few from farther away.

Black and white photo from an early Repair Days at the Museum. Photo from the Metal Museum Archives.

There was still no Master Metalsmith. But we had an exhibition up, and I think at that second time, it might have been work from Berney Hosey. Berney came to the Museum but it wasn’t considered a Master Metalsmith show. Then we realized we should be expanding on Repair Days and having an exhibition of work by a master metalsmith who could come to the Museum. The artist’s work would be on display, but it was equally important to have that person working with all the younger students and new participants. The artist could spend time talking to them, being with them, and exchanging ideas. As the exhibitions became a little bit more sophisticated, we still always maintained that there was a public opening. The public was invited to tour the exhibition with a lecture by the artist. That lecture was tailored to content or what the work was all about. And that was it. Sunday morning was what we called the “Tech Talk”. That was when the Master Metalsmith would tour the Museum with all the other metalsmiths who were there. The talk was primarily oriented to other metalsmiths, so the artist could talk about technique, everyone could ask questions about technique, and the artist could discuss their work in terms of a technical aspect. The entire audience, then, knew what the artist was talking about. The visual content was also discussed, but it was pretty much secondary to the technical aspect. That was really set up exclusively for the young, visiting metalsmiths.

Well, the first visiting artists we had early on, we didn’t have any money. September was always, as TS Eliot would have said, it was the cruelest month. We were broke. We were really down to stems and seeds. And so, trying to get an exhibition together for that October was very, very difficult. A lot of our decisions of who to ask to be Master Metalsmith were based on whether we could afford to ship the artwork or if the artist was physically close enough to the Museum that we could go pick it up. Metalsmiths, all of us in that time, we were all poor. The Ring Show used to travel by Greyhound bus. There were a lot of things we would travel by bus, but Master Metalsmith you couldn’t really do that. So how could we get it here? How could we deal with it? We never could catalog much of anything because we just didn’t have the money. That didn’t happen until much later.

Wally makes a few references to people and places in his response. First, he talks about Carbondale, referring to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, which was and continues to be one of the most influential blacksmithing degree programs in the country and has the only Master of Fine Arts degree in blacksmithing. It is also Wally’s alma mater, so it makes sense he would later draw on his relationships there as he built the Museum’s programs. Next, he mentions Wanda of the P&H. He is speaking of Wanda Wilson, owner of the P&H Café here in Memphis until her death in 2015. Lastly, Wally quotes TS Eliot with his “the cruelest month” commentary about September. Eliot was talking about April in The Waste Land, but the point remains: some months are less forgiving.

MLH- Now I have a question. There are some gaps when you look at the list of Master Metalsmiths in the past.

JW: What would be interesting, then, is what exhibitions were up at that time?

GS: I know one of the years, there was a group show of past Master Metalsmiths, it was an Anniversary show.

JW: Then there’s one or two in there where we didn’t have a Master Metalsmith, and I can’t remember exactly why.

MLH: So, you think that’s true? It’s just that somehow it fell through the cracks?

JW: I'm not sure. I think there was at least one year that we had someone online and then they decided not to participate. I can’t even remember who it was. But again, what would be interesting to see is what exhibitions were up doing that period. Now there all the exhibition records in notebooks. Every exhibition that Judy ever organized at the Museum had a notebook.

GS: I think one year it was a traveling show, an international traveling show that came through, that was pretty big. We went back through and tried to check and see what was actually up. So, I think it might have just been a timing issue, possibly, in order to take that show.

JW: Could have been that too. In close to 40 years I think there were only three years without a Master Metalsmith. Three years out of 40 is 7% or 8%, so that’s a large percentage of years with a Master Metalsmith.

GS: That's pretty good.

JW: (chuckles)

Wally was right: it is interesting to go back and see what exhibitions were up for those years we did not have a Master Metalsmith show. There were three years: 1985, 1986, and 1992. Judy Wallace, Wally’s wife and orchestrator of all things exhibitions and collections related, did keep records of the exhibitions. Unfortunately, a few of them have gone missing over the years, including the records for the Fall of 1985. But, I was able to find a newspaper clipping from The Commercial Appeal dated Friday, August 16, 1985. In this article, we learn that the Museum was temporarily closed the summer of 1985 as the Smithy was renovated and that the exhibitions that would be on view once it reopened were Selections from the Permanent Exhibit and American Pewter. Both shows would be open through November 17, 1985, meaning they were up during Repair Days that year. I wasn’t quite right about the international traveling show, but in 1986 the exhibition Cast Iron: Art & Industry was on view from August 31 to November 9, and would have been a large and expensive show that received significant sponsorship from the Lawler Foundry in Birmingham, AL. The Anniversary show, did take place September 13 to November 8, 1992 and was titled Repair Days Reunion.

GS: How would you define a Master Metalsmith? When you were first deciding on Master Metalsmiths, what were some of those criteria?

JW: We were looking for someone whose work had a national or international impact. We were looking for somebody whose work, and personality, had made a significant contribution to the field. It didn’t matter whether it was jewelry or iron or whatever. It just had to be in the field of metals. Some artists were selected because they were good teachers. Some were selected for other ways they had impacted the field. For example, Tim McCreight was selected because his writing and his books were just a huge contribution to the field. They were the “cookbooks”.

MLH: Did whether they would come and interact with the students make a difference?

JW: Oh yeah, it did. I’m fully aware of how people teach. If a person could lecture and they could communicate ideas well, then they could have a big impact while at the Museum. If they can’t lecture and they don’t know how to teach, then it doesn’t matter how good their work is because if they come to the Museum, they’re not going to be able to interact with everybody else. And remember, never forget, that one-third of the reason Repair Days existed was for that interaction between that artist and the students. That was very critical.

MLH: So, it might have been that a good person is still alive but sort of past being able to interact with everybody?

JW: Right. They wouldn’t have the capability.

MLH: For example, this is what happened with Fred Woell?

GS: Right. That happened with Fred Woell. He was invited but he couldn’t travel to the Museum. So, we gave him a different show, but it wasn’t a Master Metalsmith show.

JW: He couldn’t fulfill the obligations of being the Master Metalsmith. That’s still really critical, I would think. I’m not involved in these decisions anymore, but all those same criteria seem to be taken into account right now. So really, what I think has evolved in terms of Master Metalsmiths over the years is that the Museum has grown to a point where the series can be funded to the level that it always should have been. In the early years, the Master Metalsmith had to reach deep into their own pocket to help cover the financial costs of the exhibition. It was always a little embarrassing to try to ask your friends to ante up for our program, you know? But they always did.

J. Fred Woell was invited to be a Master Metalsmith but his health was failing and he would have been unable to travel to Memphis and participate in Repair Days. Everyone at the Museum at the time agreed that Fred deserved a retrospective exhibition, even if he couldn’t formally be a Master Metalsmith, in the way we define it. The exhibition J. Fred Woell: Art is an Accident opened on March 13 and ran through June 12, 2015. Fred never did get to see the exhibition in person. He passed away on April 2, 2015, just two weeks after the show opened.

GS: Why do you think it’s important to have a show each year that highlights someone at the Master Metalsmith level in the field? What does that do for the Museum? What does that do for the field?

JW: The series has progressed to the point that it’s become a merit badge in the metalsmithing field to be called Master Metalsmith. To have had your exhibition here is a nice little gold star by your name. And I think that’s important to do. It’s important for the Museum to do one every year so you’re staying fresh. I mean, there’s a whole new crop of people that are coming up that are going to be considered these days. Ones that are the younger generations that have been there and beat their heads against the wall and have made their contributions now.

GS: What do you think the series has done to shift the metals field? We’ve now had almost 40 years of Master Metalsmiths. How do you think that’s impacted the field as a whole?

JW: It's hard to tell. I think it has impacted the field through the fact that people have the opportunity to come work with the Master Metalsmiths. It has certainly strengthened the metalsmithing community as a community. It’s really solidified and helped form almost a family, you know? Has it contributed to the field? Yea, I think it has.

MLH: As far as contributing to the field, I think if the Master Metalsmith show can start traveling then more people will see it. Contributing to the field can mean two things to me: you contribute to us in it, or you contribute to the visibility and understanding and appreciation for those outside of it. I don’t know how much this series has done for the latter, because it’s been limited to only the Memphis community that sees it. Nationally I don’t know how many people realize it’s there. Catalogs will help. Touring shows will help.

JW: The number of shows that tour anymore and travel is greatly reduced from what it used to be.

We briefly discussed the trend in traveling exhibitions and funding for such endeavors. Wally recalls, with no small amount of frustration, his struggles to receive funding, particularly from federal institutions that have traditionally held such stringent applications processes that smaller institutions were unable to compete for support. Thankfully, some of those processes have been revised over the years and the Metal Museum has recently been able to receive a few federal grants.

GS: One of the things we’ve been trying to do is collect work by Master Metalsmiths. What are your thoughts about collecting that work?

JW: That’s important because it is a record of who we exhibited and of their experience here. It is also a testimony of what they thought of us if they are donating to the collection. We really wanted to have them represented too. I think for the most part, we acquired artwork from quite a few of them.

GS: Yes, I think at this point we have something from everyone except three or four of the Master Metalsmiths.

JW: Good, good. So, you have a pretty good collection.

Installation view of a piece by Marilyn da Silva titled "Peacock Tales," which was created for the Metal Museum in 2009.

At the time of this interview, 33 of 37 Master Metalsmiths were represented in the collection. And we’re working on those missing four.

GS: What would you say is the benefit for Master Metalsmiths to have their work here? As opposed to another museum? A lot of artists have their work in multiple museums.

JW: Hopefully this institution is going to maintain a policy of pretty liberal loaning, as opposed to other institutions. The work is going to be available, and not buried in the bowels of the institution where it will never see the light of day again, like pieces in so many other institutions. So, it’s going to be seen, it’s going to be exhibited, on a reasonably regular basis, if it comes here. The other thing is that because the museum has always been thought of as more of a community than just a place, when artists have work in the collection they become more of a part of the family.

MLH: In the academic world where I come from, the resume is king. And there are some, I think quite a few, of my colleagues who would like their work in lots of museums so that they have a longer list there.

JW: Their chances for promotion are greatly enhanced.

MLH: So, I have a friend who at one point years ago suggested to me that “well Mary, if a museum has one piece of yours, they have no reason to ever be a center for scholarship on you. They have no reason to put together a retrospective show of your work in the future. If they have a whole body of your work, then they are the museum that everyone looks to for loans and research.” So, I started saving out what I consider my best pieces. My personal collection of my work is fairly large, but not because I couldn’t sell it. My collection includes the best pieces of my own work that some year might go to one institution. So, what is the benefit to the artist to have work in the Metal Museum? Yes, I think there’s the fact that it’s small enough that it will loan things and not so hoity-toity that it won’t. But if it has a good collection of works by single artists and would be receptive to people coming and researching, it becomes a center for metal scholarship for those artists.

GS: We titled this show Crafting a Legacy. When we named it, we were thinking about both the artists who craft their legacy, and then the institution crafting its legacy as a museum. So, one of my questions is, how do you define legacy? In terms of artists and in terms of the institution? And then why do you think considering a legacy is important? Or do you think it’s important?

JW: Well, you know, you got yourself a legacy here now. I mean, that it is. Why was it important in the first place? My original thinking on that is that we as metalsmiths had always been sort of bastard children everywhere. We made pretty stuff that people would exhibit for a while or they’d deal with it, but you know, we really had no, there was no institution or anything that really cared much about us. Other than maybe for an exhibition here and an exhibition there. But nobody collected it per se, except haphazard, and they also collected ceramics and paper or paintings and did performance stuff and everything else. So, what we wanted was a home. And that’s what we pretty much built everything on. Whether it was in terms of exhibitions, whether it was taking in stray metalsmiths off the street that would fall out of the sky and stay here for a month, two months, six months, you know. They just stayed here, you know. Some of them worked and some of them, you know. Well, all of them worked. I can’t think of anybody who ever stayed here who didn’t. It was a place for people to come to sit out by the river and watch the river, get to spend some time in the studio talking to some other metalsmiths, meet some other metalsmiths. There were a lot of people that came here that stayed a month or something, just working in the studio with us and hanging out. And then they met someone else here and went off to go work with them somewhere, at other different studios. The legacy of the Museum is really as much a home and a community as it is a collection. It’s far more than just a collection. Anybody can get a collection. What do you think? (to Mary).

MLH: Well, I was trying to think of what the definition of a legacy is. History, I guess. Yea. We all have an ego. We’re devoting our life to something and we sort of like to be respected and remembered. And you touched on it, our whole lives, we’ve been on the defensive. Especially in academia. I remember when I got admitted to Cranbrook as a sophomore and excitedly told my design professor “I’m going to Cranbrook!” And he was pretty impressed. He said “Woooooooah! Well congratulations! What are you going to study?” “Metalsmithing!” “What do you want to do that for, you got talent.” Just put down. From the tiny, shiny comments that the painters would make, to the sculptor not wanting to have anything to do with us because we were craft. When we grew up in an art department in the university, it was the crafts were sort of secondary. And this was a museum for us. Understood us. Valued what we did. So, we all wanted to pitch in and build it. Help build it.

Mary Lee Hu, Pitcher, 1965. Sterling silver, wood. Gift of the Artist. This piece was created during her first year at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

GS: You know, other crafts curators, whenever we’re together at conferences, we always talk about how every time you visit a museum, with these encyclopedic museums, there’s always the craft corridor, where all the crafts are just stuck. They’re in a hallway on your way to something else, and how offensive that is.

JW: (chuckles) Yep.

MLH: And yet, so many essays will be written and articles saying well, yes, but that was in the past and it’s all better now. It’s not. It absolutely isn’t. So, we’re still fighting the battle. But you come here and that isn’t a battle. That’s not a question. We all respect each other. We all love the process. Process is not a bad word here.

JW: Process is fun. It’s like American cheese. You can make all the fun of it you want, but it’s still pretty good.

MLH: I used to say “Process is my concept.” That was just, they couldn’t get that. You had to have a concept. “Yea, can I do it. It’s a challenge. This is the concept I’m working with.” Anyway. I don’t know what context the legacy was with the question. Good for the field? And is it, again, which definition of field? Interior or exterior?

GS: I guess, either or? Both?

MLH: I think mainly, because I’m a craftsman so I’m looking at it from that interior way, it’s great for us. And how much does it have an effect on the wider art community? I can’t really tell.

JW: I can’t either. I mean, every once in a while, we have a big impact. Especially when you do something like you take an exhibition to another institution. Early, early on we organized that tour for Toward a New Iron Age from the V&A. And we did that as if we were a bunch of blacksmiths, or metalworkers. How do you move that much big iron into most museums that don’t have forklifts, don’t have people to deal with it, they don’t know how to cope with it? And how do you transport it and get it somewhere at a financial level that they can afford, and we can get this thing out? And so, when we took that exhibition on the road, it moved by Ryder truck, or Uhaul truck.

Every single venue we went to there was an iron and steel or rigging company that donated their services because we had asked them to. They got in there and they moved all that heavy stuff. They moved it into the gallery so that the curators and registrars didn’t have to try and move 600 pounds Paley gates by themselves. There were ironworkers that came in and did that for them. And so, the Museum crafted its legacy as a can-do institution that was dedicated to the field, early on. And we did bring metalwork to other institutions that would never have had it. Certainly, never would have been at the American Craft Museum if we hadn’t gotten it there and moved it there and moved it into that building. They never would have had it. But that way it was shown in New York City. And it got good reviews in New York and everything too. It got great reviews there. We would, every once in a while, get a sparkle of respect from, you know. But I think most of it was because they couldn’t believe that the quality of work was coming out of a bunch of hot, sweaty metalsmiths. But then they’d forget about it the next time a painter came and showed up. You know, did something odd. We did make some of the art world and some of the museum world stand up and take notice and take metals a little more seriously. For how long? I don’t know. Long enough for people to start buying metalwork for a lot of people, so that was good. That was good.

Wally references the exhibition Toward a New Iron Age. This exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, England and The British Arts Council. Research began in 1978, 51 artists were selected, the exhibition opened at the V&A on May 12, 1982 and was on view until July 10 of that year. The Metal Museum, under Wally’s leadership, coordinated the exhibition traveling in the United States. Wally secured funding from First Tennessee Bank, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition was at the Metal Museum from September 10 to October 17, 1982 and then went on to the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, MI, the University Museum, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC and finally the American Craft Museum in New York, NY from June 17 to September 4, 1983. The American Craft Museum was originally named the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (1956-1979). It was then renamed the American Craft Museum (1979-2002) and finally is now known as the Museum of Art and Design (2002-present).

GS: We're at a point where many of that first generation of artists that were really instrumental, whether as Master Metalsmiths or otherwise involved, are getting to the end of their careers. We have some people who are passing away. What responsibility do you think this museum has to preserve the legacies of artists that are leaving us?

JW: Well, I think it’s pretty important to do so. I think it’s real important. That’s why both Mary and I are talking to other metalsmiths about placing their collections. Whether it’s the collection of their own work or their collection of stuff they’ve collected from other individuals. You’re starting to reap some of those now from the people we’ve spoken to that are thinking about it. I think the responsibility of the museum is such that when you do have, when one of the older ones passes on. I think it would almost be the responsibility of the museum to contact the estate and say, we don’t have a big budget, but we really feel that the work here is important to be included in a good, public collection. And we can guarantee you that if the work is collected here then it will be available for loan and that person’s legacy will live on.

MLH: But along with that, along with the work, then a decision has to be made about how much room to give to the archives, the sketchbooks, and the letters.

JW: Yea, well the Archives of American Art wants the paper.

MLH: Now the Archives of American Art will have a lot of people sort of tapped already. So, the first thing you ask the relatives, whoever is the caretaker of the estate, is are all the papers going to the Archives? If not, then you have to make a decision about whether, you know. Because a lot of us didn’t have kids, so it’s nieces and nephews. They didn’t grow up with this stuff. Young people don’t want stuff. So, you sort of have to do it soon before it’s all just pitched. But if it’s a niece or nephew, they’d sort of like to think that their uncle or aunt is being remembered and that stuff would be there for future reference and research. So, I think you might get a good response in many cases.

JW: See, one of the things that happens when someone dies, there’s an estate left of their work. Usually, usually, the heirs think the work is worth a huge amount of money, and it’s going to increase in value now because the person is dead and all that. Well, no. No. That's not what happens. Usually. What usually happens is that work is worth its maximum amount within two weeks after that person dies because all the friends may be willing to purchase a piece. But after that, it starts to go down. So. It's important that the museum collect these things and it’s important that the metalsmiths actually make arrangements to make the donations early on.

A quick word about the Archives of American Art, located in Washington, D.C. This Smithsonian Institute archive is self-described as “the world’s preeminent and most widely used research center dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America.” Many, many metals artists have extensive collections in this archive, including stellar oral history transcripts. The Metal Museum often utilizes the Archive for research and is grateful for their dedication to the field and their efforts at digitization and accessibility.

GS: The last question that I have is where would you like to see the Master Metalsmith series be in 10 years, 20 years, the next 40 years?

JW: I think it’s doing a very good job in the way it’s going. I think it’s going to evolve in a whole different group of people. The installations are beautiful and perfect. Of course, I would like to see catalogs improve and go upwards and outwards and everything. Because that’s such an important aspect. That’s the record of the exhibition or the event.

MLH: Touring? You think that’s a good idea?

JW: I think touring would be a really good idea too. I don’t know if you’d be able to tour all of them. But you could certainly tour some of them. And they may be an abbreviated exhibition. But where I would like to see it go? I would like to see the catalogs expanded.

MLH: I got a black and white, sort of looked a little like a bookmark, for my show.

JW: That's right, you did. It looked a little bit like a bookmark. (chuckles). Yea. It was all we could do.

GS: Was there anything else you wanted to add that I didn’t ask that you think is important? That you want to include?

JW: I don’t think so.

MLH: So, this exhibition is going to be the Master Metalsmiths and the Tributaries people?

GS: Yes. It’s going to look at both. Mostly because they are the two biggest ongoing exhibition series that we have. The way we’ve been talking about the show is looking at artists at the height of what they’re achieving and then what’s feeding the field now. So being able to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. At this 40 year milestone. And we’re at the point now where we’re starting to see some of the Tributaries artists move over to be Master Metalsmiths. So, we’ll now have had two Tributaries artists that will be Master Metalsmiths coming up. That’s always really fun to see that growth and transition.

JW: Well that’s good. That’s alright.

350 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page