Inside the Collection: Elsa Freund
"The innovative and creative jewelry [Freund] has made has greatly enriched our decorative arts history in the area of personal adornment. One could define her art as the spontaneous transformation of a form from nature or an emotion into a piece of jewelry which must not lose its meaning, its function and effect on the body or in space.” – Robert Ebendorf (1)
Elsa Freund (1912-2001) was a watercolorist, textile artist, and jeweler. She went widely unrecognized for her contributions as a studio art jeweler until the late 1980s, when her friend and colleague Robert Ebendorf set out to preserve her legacy.
She was born Elsa Bates on January 12, 1912, in a game preserve in Taney County, MO. Her father, of Irish and Cherokee descent, was the game keeper there. Neither of her parents were particularly artistic, but it was in rural Missouri where she first discovered her love of nature, which inspired her as an artist for the rest of her life. In 1929, she completed high school in Branson, MO, at the age of 17. After teaching children for one year, Elsa decided to attend the Kansas City Art Institute where she studied illustration, painting, design, and drawing. Unfortunately, in 1932, lack of funds during the Great Depression abruptly ended her art education. She then decided to move back to Branson, where she opened a small gift shop featuring jewelry she made from walnut shells and painted plaster casts she fashioned from the live trophies fisherman had caught in the surrounding area.
It was in her shop that Miss Bates met her future husband Louis Freund in 1936. Louis was a painter and taught art and art history classes for most of his life. They married in 1939 and soon purchased a 12-room home in Eureka Springs, AR, which they eventually turned into their Summer Art School. Between 1940 and 1942, they traveled between Arkansas, where Louis was an artist-in-residence at Hendrix College, Conway, AR, and trips to the East Coast. During this time, Elsa first learned weaving from an Appalachian weaver on a four-harness loom. At Hendrix, Louis taught painting and drawing, and Elsa eventually taught weaving and fabric design. In 1942, Louis was drafted, and Elsa took over teaching his classes in addition to her own. After WWII was over, the couple used the GI Bill to study at the Colorado Springs Art Center, where Elsa learned Native American weaving techniques. In 1948, she also studied ceramics formally for the first time at the Wichita Art Association.
“In Elsie Freund’s jewelry, valueless materials are transformed into objects of great worth. The simplicity of her forms, the jewel-like tonalities of her glazes, and the archetypal structures of her designs, all combine to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.” – David Revere McFadden (2)
Throughout the 1940s, Freund had been experimenting with clay alongside her Arkansas students while also teaching her weaving courses. She began making jewelry in the mid 1940s by combining clay and glass, firing them together in an enameling kiln, and creating her own stones. She combined these handmade stones with cold-forged silver wire to create simple but modern jewelry pieces. Louis fondly referred to these stones as her “Elsaramics,” which she shortened to “Elsa.” It was then that she decided to sign all her jewelry as “Elsa” and all her watercolors as “Elsie.”
“But Elsa never worried about what was “hot” or the kind of work that was being shown in the museums or galleries. She was more interested in making jewelry that you could use and enjoy wearing every day.” - Robert Ebendorf (3)
In the late 1940s, a particularly terrible ice storm convinced the Freunds to pursue work in a warmer climate. They both became artists-in-residence at Stetson University, DeLand, FL, and this began an 18-year period for the couple of summers in Arkansas and winters in Florida. Freund began actively selling her jewelry in shops in Florida and Arkansas, and in 1957, her work was accepted by the American House in New York, NY. Until 1964, she sold a specific 5-stone necklace design through the gallery that came with matching earrings and brooch and could be color-customized.
When they retired from Stetson in 1967, the Freunds settled permanently at their home in Eureka Springs. In 2001, Elsa passed away in Little Rock, AR. While she did participate in some competitions and exhibitions during her lifetime, Freund was always more concerned about creating wearable pieces for her clients. Fellow jeweler Robert Ebendorf helped organized some solo exhibitions of her work in the 1990s, and now Freund’s jewelry and other work is represented in almost 30 museums and art institutions around the world, including the:
The Metal Museum currently has two of Freund’s neckpieces in our Permanent Collection, which were donated to us in 1993, sometime before the traveling exhibition Elsa Freund: Modern Pioneer came to the Museum in fall of 1994 (4). “Neckpiece #1” was made around 1963 and includes two amber-colored stones and cold-forged silver wire. “Neckpiece #23” is an older piece, made c. 1950-1955. It features seven orange-colored stones strung with aluminum beads. Both neckpieces are on permanent display in the Museum's Visible Storage Gallery. On your next visit to the Museum, be sure to check them out!
“Through her jewelry, we are reminded that eternal values—spirit, imagination, and integrity—are not dependent upon monetary power, but upon the power of the human eye, hand, and heart to transform the very nature of our world.” – David Revere McFadden (5)
Robert Ebendorf, "Curator's Statement," Elsa Freund: Modern Pioneer (St. Petersburg, FL: Florida Craftsmen, Inc., 1993), 15.
David Revere McFadden, "Elsie Freund: A Personal Tribute," Elsa Freund: Modern Pioneer (St. Petersburg, FL: Florida Craftsmen, Inc., 1993), 7.
Both donors of these works were lenders to the Elsa Freund: Modern Pioneer exhibition, but these pieces were not listed in the exhibition catalog.
McFadden, "Elsie Freund," 7.