Oral history interview with J. Fred Woell, 2001 June 6-2002 January 19
Woell, J. Fred, 1934-
Gold, Donna, 1953-
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts
Boy Scouts of America
Cranbrook Academy of Art
University of Wisconsin--Madison
Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America
Place of publication, production, or execution:
Transcript: 75 pages.
Originally recorded on 6 sound cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 11 digital wav files. Duration is 5 hr., 43 min.
An interview of J. Fred Woell conducted 2001 June 6-2002 January 19, by Donna Gold, for the Archives of American Art's Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, in the artist's home and studio, Deer Isle, Maine.
Woell speaks of his childhood and the impact of many moves; his affiliation with the Presbyterian Church; his experiences at Park College and the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, studying economics and political science; and the influence of jewelry teacher Robert Von Neumann. Woell describes his experience in the masters program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and refers again to his early childhood noting his participation in Boy Scouts and how it engendered his respect for the environment. He also mentions collecting baseball cards and rocks; the absence of a peer group; and his lack of confidence. He discusses his affinity for open space and unpopulated places; his enjoyment of camping, kayaking with his wife Pat; and notes that his views of nature mirror those of Taoists. He cites effective teaching techniques and comments on secondary school curricula. He discusses a cover story about his work in Metalsmith and his mother's response; his early art classes and interest in drawing cartoons; his tendency to be a clown; his participation in an American-Legion-sponsored event called Boys State; artists as purveyors of culture; and the premise for a workshop titled "Art by Accident." Woell speaks of influence of a John Cage performance at University of Illinois and subsequently contacting Cage; and teaching at Boston University, Haystack, and elsewhere. Woell also provides thoughtful commentary on the teaching style and learning process at Cranbrook Academy of Art. He discusses in some detail the strong influence of Vincent Campanella and Frank Gallo on his work; sharing a workbench with Bob von Neumann; recording and saving ideas; drawing preliminary sketches for jewelry; and his early sculptures of helmets and spoons. He describes and interprets his piece, "Come Alive, You're in the Pepsi Generation," and he comments on found-object pieces that were inspired by Scouting and cartooning. Woell explains how his environmental concerns inform his work and argues that art has a healing function. He remarks on meeting and marrying Kathleen, his first wife; his one-man show at Garth Clark Gallery; and how his work is part of an American, rather than international, tradition. Woell discusses his relationship with galleries including Helen Drutt in Philadelphia, Sybaris Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan, Connell Gallery in Atlanta, and Mobilia in Cambridge, Massachusetts He points out the value of being included in publications such as, "Metalsmith," "Jewelers Circular Keystone," "Ornament," "American Craft," "Craft Horizon," and "Craft Report." He speaks about commissions for institutions and individuals and describes his current obligation to Haystack and his plans for his retirement, which includes exploring photography and making videos. Woell also describes his typical workday and his symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia. He recalls Peter Voulkos, Jennifer Burton, Francis Sumner Merritt, Ronald Pearson, Georg Jensen, Audrey Handler, Jerry Brown, Jon Wilson, and others.
On January 19, 2002 Woell added an addendum to the interview which included remarks about September 11, 2001 acts of terrorism in the U.S.
Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with J. Fred Woell, 2001 June 6-2002 January 19. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for this interview was provided by the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America. Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.
J. Fred Woell (1934-) is a jeweler and metalsmith from Deer Isle, Maine. Donna Gold (1953-) is an art critic from Stockton Springs, Maine.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 750 9th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001