Inside the Collection: Helen Shirk and #5WomenArtists
To finish the Metal Museum’s month-long celebration of Women’s History Month and our participation in the #5WomenArtists campaign, sponsored by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (see below for more information), this blog features Helen Shirk, the first female artist the Museum honored with the title Master Metalsmith.
Helen Shirk and her fraternal twin sister Judy were born in Buffalo, NY in 1942. Shirk was always creative, and in high school, she enrolled in all the available art courses. Shirk received a New York Regents scholarship to attend college in New York state, and she chose to attend the all-female Skidmore College in Saratoga, NY. Shirk knew she wanted to pursue a degree in art, and at Skidmore, she took courses in screen printing, life drawing, weaving, and jewelry. She took her first jewelry class with enamellist and painter Earl Pardon almost by accident, as all other art courses had filled up by the time she registered for classes. In 1963, she graduated from Skidmore with a BS in Studio, Fine Arts, and Jewelry.
“An innovator and veteran in the world of metals, Shirk’s work evolved over the years, beginning with her early Scandinavian-influenced designs in the 1970s. Her sterling silver vessels and jewelry from this period were a reflection of a 1963 Fulbright to Denmark, and incorporated the characteristics of this popular style.” – Jill A DeDominicis (2)
During her senior year at Skidmore, Pardon had encouraged her to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, which Shirk was awarded that same year. From the summer of 1963 through June 1964, Shirk lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, and there she studied at the Kunsthaandvaerkerskolen (now the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design) and worked on her own pieces out of Otto Hertz’s jewelry shop. After spending a couple more years in Europe, Shirk decided to go to graduate school for metalsmithing. She attended Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, IN, and in 1969, she earned an MFA in Jewelry and Metalsmithing while studying under Alma Eikerman.
Shirk attributes Eikerman for expanding her work from very frontal and two-dimensional during her time at IU. According to Shirk, Eikerman was “the one that developed my three-dimensional sense, because she made sure you had that when you walked out of that studio at the end of your time.” (3). Janice Keaffaber stated, “This three-dimensional approach [in Shirk’s work] would also prove to be the common thread as she moved from silver hollowware and jewelry to silver and titanium brooches, and then to copper and brass vessels” (4).
After completing graduate school, Shirk stayed in Bloomington as an Assistant Professor at IU, and two years later, she moved to Des Moines, IO to teach at the Des Moines Art Center. In 1975, she accepted a professorship in the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University (SDSU), San Diego, CA. According to Jill A. Dedominicis, “A demanding but unwaveringly supportive professor, Shirk worked hard to provide her students with the proper tools and techniques to work metal—always with a keen eye for craftsmanship and quality design. A fine critical sense and a passion for the field are qualities she wants students to walk away with most” (5). After thirty-five years of teaching, Shirk retired from SDSU in 2010 as a Professor Emeritus of Jewelry and Metalsmithing, and she guided many others who are now educators and studio artists in the field of metalsmithing.
During her time as an educator, Shirk also took sabbaticals to complete artist-in residencies all over the world, which in turn influenced how her work developed over time. In 1983, she was a resident at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture, and Design, London Metropolitan University, London, England. During this time, she ended a nearly four-year period of jewelry-making and transitioned to creating more vessels. According to Shirk, “The vessel seemed a more intimate format to me…primarily because it allows a private conversation between me and the object” (6). In 1993, she did a six-month faculty exchange at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. In the words of Dr. Eugenie Keefer Bell, friend and fellow artist, “Following her Australian sojourn, the landscape increasingly served as the wellspring of inspiration for new work” (7).
Shirk has been an actively exhibiting studio artist since she was an undergraduate student at Skidmore, and she has participated in many group and solo exhibitions themed around contemporary craft, jewelry, and hollowware. Her early work was included in many of the pivotal exhibitions in the 1960s and 1970s about contemporary craft and metals, including the 1962 exhibition Young Americans 62’, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, NY; and the Society of North American Goldsmiths’ (SNAG) first exhibition Goldsmith ’70, Saint Paul Art Center, St Paul, MN. Her 1989 retrospective Master Metalsmith exhibition was called Helen Shirk: 20 Years, and the accompanying catalog is in our Library (8). Upon her retirement from SDSU, the school’s Everett Dee Jackson Gallery mounted another retrospective exhibition of her work and the work of her students, entitled Points of Departure: Helen Shirk and Alumni of SDSU. The catalog for this exhibition is available in our Library and can also be viewed online.
Throughout the course of her career, Shirk has received many awards and recognitions for her work as an educator and metalsmith. She was granted two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Craftmen’s Fellowship in 1978 and the Visual Artists Fellowship in 1988. The following year, the Metal Museum named Shirk our 1989 Master Metalsmith, the first female artist given this title. She was also designated a Fellow of the American Crafts Council in 1999, and in 2017, the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) awarded her their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award. Shirk’s work is also in numerous private and public collections around the world, including:
Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, NY
Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC
National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Schmuckmuseum, Pforzheim, Germany
“Shirk’s skillful and expressive use of various metal coloring and surface altering techniques, ranging from anodizing, chemical patination, acid etching, and plating, to colored pencils, altered hammers, and china paint distinctively identify her pieces, both large and small.” -- Sondra Sherman (9)
The Metal Museum currently has four pieces by Helen Shirk in our Permanent Collection, all generously donated by the artist herself. The “Hide and Seek (bowl),” made by Shirk in 1988, is one of a series of conical vessels she made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The “Commemmorative Cup VI” and “Three” vessels are very indicative of Shirk’s later work, which usually features natural motifs and bright surface finishes. The sculpture “Split Rock” was made for the Metal Museum’s 2009-2010 exhibition Re-make/Remodel, where artists were invited to make new work based on artwork in the Museum’s collections. “Split Rock” was based on Tom Joyce’s "Memorial Sculpture, September 11, 2002."
To see and hear more about Helen Shirk and her work, check out her entry on our SNAG Slide Archive or watch the video below of a lecture she gave in 2018 for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, MA.
It started with a seemingly simple question: Can you name five women artists?
Since 2016, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) has been asking this question on social media each March during Women’s History Month using the hashtag #5WomenArtists. The campaign calls attention to the fact that women have not been treated equally in the art world, and today they remain dramatically underrepresented and undervalued in museums, galleries, and auction houses.
From 2016–2019, more than 1,500 cultural institutions from seven continents and 54 countries have participated! To learn more about the campaign, read this recent post on the American Alliance of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums blog, written by Amy Mannarino, NMWA’s Director of Communications and Marketing.
Helen Shirk, “Personal Statement,” Helen Shirk: 20 Years (1989), [unnumbered pg. 1].
Dr. Eugenie Keffer Bell, “Intensity, Commitment and Invention,” Points of Departure: Helen Shirk and Alumni of SDSU (San Diego, CA: San Diego State University, 2010), 2.
To learn more about Shirk and her work in this exhibition, read Janie Keaffaber’s review, which originally appeared in the Fall 1990 issue of Metalsmith Magazine.