Inside the Collection: Mary Ann Scherr and #5WomenArtists
“Jewelry is not just fashion or fad for Mary Ann Scherr, it is a way of life. As jeweler, teacher, and pioneer in methods for working with exotic metals, her contributions to the jewelry industry span  years.” – Blue Greenbery (1)
To finish the Metal Museum’s month-long celebration of Women’s History Month and our participation in the #5WomenArtists campaign, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (see below for more information), we are celebrating the life and work of designer, jeweler, educator, and innovator Mary Ann Scherr (American, 1921-2016).
“My own background reads like a telephone book, because once the work became too familiar, I had to move on and on.” – Mary Ann Scherr (2)
Scherr was born in Akron, OH, in 1921 and began her artist career in middle school, selling portraits on bottle corks to a local department store. She attended the Cleveland Institute of Art (Cleveland, OH) until the outbreak of World War II, when she dropped out of school to work as an illustrator and cartographer. After the war, she married Sam Scherr and became one of the first female interior and accessory designers at Ford Motor Company. In the late 1940s, the Scherrs moved to Akron, OH, and opened a design firm, where Mary Ann worked on designs for everything from clothing and appliances to toys and graphics. Soon after, following the first of her son, Scherr was introduced to metalsmithing.
“[Metal] was an open, alluring canvas of possibilities.” – Mary Ann Scherr (3)
It was not long after she began learning metals techniques that Scherr also started her career as an educator. In 1950, she was first exposed to these techniques in an evening jewelry course at the Akron Art Institute (Akron, OH). Shortly afterwards, she was hired by Kent State University (Kent, OH) to teach design courses and later took on metals classes as well. She taught at Kent State and built up their metals program until the late 1970s, when she moved to New York City and eventually became the chair of the product design department at Parsons School of Design (New York, NY). From 1968 onwards, she also taught summer courses at Penland School of Craft (Penland, NC).
Mary Ann Scherr (American, 1921-2016), Electric Oxygen Pendant (closed and open), 1974. Sterling silver, electronics, amber, oxygen mask. Courtesy of the Scherr Family Collection. Photo credit: Jason Dowdle.
All throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Scherr continued to make and exhibit her work. Her elite client list and collectors included Vice President Walter Mondale, the Duke of Windsor, and Andy Warhol. “Scherr is perhaps best known for her body monitor jewelry—decades before the Fitbit or Apple Watch, she envisioned wearable devices that would monitor vital signs or air quality using electronics and liquid crystal displays, housed in ornamented metal pendants, bracelets, and other forms of adornment,” says Rebecca E. Elliot (4). “She conceived the first body monitor in 1969, developed other ideas into prototypes in the 1970s, and continued working on them intermittently into the 2010s.”
The Scherrs decided to move from New York to Raleign, NC, in 1989. There Mary Ann continued to teach classes and workshops at Penland, Duke University (Durham, NC), Meredith College (Raleigh, NC), and NC State University (Raleigh, NC). During this time, she served on several non-profit boards and maintained her studio practice, experimenting with the use of exotic metals (like titanium) in her work. She passed away in 2016 after living twenty-seven years in Raleigh.
During her lifetime, Scherr won numerous awards for her work, including being designated a 1983 Fellow of the American Craft Council and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a North Carolina Medal of Arts Award, and a North Carolina Governor's Achievement in Fine Arts Award. In 2014, she was a nominee for Cooper-Hewitt's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Scherr's work is in a number of well-known private collections including Liz Claiborne, Helen Drutt, the Knapp Jewelry Collection, U.S. Steel Corporation, and the Alcoa Company. Her jewelry can also be found in institutions around the globe, including the:
Goldsmith Hall (London, UK)
Vatican Museum of Art (Rome, Italy)
In 2017, fellow jeweler Mary Lee Hu donated this brass cuff bracelet made by Scherr to the Metal Museum. It features a stylized $1000 dollar bill, with Hu listed as the U.S. Treasurer. Scherr made this bracelet as a gift for Hu using photoetching, or photochemical machining, a chemical milling process that corrosively machines away selected areas. To learn more about the process, read this 1983 Metalsmith article called “Photoetching for the Studio Jeweler” by Allan Liu and Carol Webb.
In 2020, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design (NC State University, Raleigh, NC) organized a retrospective exhibition of Scherr’s work titled All is Possible: Mary Ann Scherr’s Legacy in Metal, curated by jewelry historian and educator Ana Estrades. The exhibition contextualized Scherr’s early career in industrial design, illustration, and fashion during the 1940s-1950s, and showed the breadth of her jewelry design, including chokers, necklaces, cuffs, bracelets, and titanium work. To learn more about this exhibition, click the link above or read Rebecca E. Elliot’s exhibition review on Art Jewelry Form, and to see more photos of the artist and learn more about her life, watch this video made by the Gregg Museum:
If you would like to see and hear more about Mary Ann Scherr and her work, check out her 150+ entries on our SNAG Slide Archive or watch this brief 2011 PBS profile of her on YouTube:
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.
Each year, hundreds of cultural organizations and thousands of individuals take to social media to answer the challenge, sparking a global conversation about gender equity in the arts. Since 2016, over 1800 institutions in from 57 countries have participated in the #5WomenArtists campaign.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts. With its collections, exhibitions, programs, and online content, the museum seeks to inspire dynamic exchanges about art and ideas. NMWA advocates for better representation of women artists and serves as a vital center for thought leadership, community engagement, and social change. The museum addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past while promoting great women artists working today.
Blue Greenberg, “Mary Ann Scherr,” Metalsmith 1991 Spring (1991). https://www.ganoksin.com/article/mary-ann-scherr/
Mary Douglass, “Oral history interview with Mary Ann Scherr, 2001 April 6-7,” transcript of an oral history conducted in 2001 by Mary Douglass, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 71 pp. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-mary-ann-scherr-12648#transcript
Rebecca E. Elliot, “All is Possible: The First Museum Retrospective of Mary Ann Scherr,” Exhibition Review, Art Jewelry Forum (January 25, 2021). https://artjewelryforum.org/all-is-possible