Bruce Metcalf

Admittedly obsessed with jewelry, Bruce Metcalf says he’s inspired by natural images, such as leaves, pods, buds and seeds that he crafts into small wood-carved necklaces and other fine objects.

Bruce prefers to be called a jeweler rather than an artist. He focuses on making things well, and he’s loyal to a way of working, not the varied materials he manipulates. Sketches capture his concepts and the specs for each piece. As a boy, he built model planes and cars, then studied sociology and architecture, before gravitating to metals his senior year in college. All this shows in his work.

Metcalf, today an American Craft Council Fellow, initially came to Philadelphia in 1986 as a visiting artist for Sharon Church at the University of the Arts, and returned in 1991 as a homeowner because housing was cheap. He started writing in graduate school because critics misinterpreted his work. Writing was a way to explain his work, and that evolved into writing about craft too. He wants people to understand careful making; process is important. Metcalf’s most ambitious publication to date is Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, with art critic Janet Koplos in 2010.

Metcalf, 66, moved into his studio at the Crane Arts Building in 2006, soon after it was rehabilitated for art studios. A former industrial area, the train tracks embedded in the street reflect a busy former era, carried on now in industrious, small work spaces.

In Metcalf’s work space, drawings with blown-out assembly specs abound on his small bench and side tables. Hammers and music CDs hint at how the flow happens. So does a nearby table of painted and yet-to-be painted wood elements. These get pushed around in test compositions and photographed with his iPhone to aid design decisions. Metcalf carves maple because it is hard and grainless. He also favors Micarta and glass cabochons in seven colors.

Bruce Metcalf

Photo: Tina C. LeCoff

Mannequins help Metcalf decide how a necklace will drape. Asymmetrical alignments around a circle or oval typify the final layouts. Each wood carving is lovely in its own right, yet the focal points at the bottom of each neckpiece are special curiosities. One element and its color are the key to each assembly. Eight to ten coats of color add solace or drama, and intentionally obscure the wood. These are statement pieces in size and composition, but lovely and feminine enough to wear. They are sexy sculpture between wearings.

For brooches, wood elements are carved and painted; found objects might accent; and meticulous curved metal plates hold it all together on the back. Indeed the engineered backs of Metcalf brooches are as intriguing as the colorful fronts, with their plates, Phillips head screws and pins. To own Metcalf pieces means to live with color, curves and sculpture. Your eye travels over, under, and around and around. And when you flip it over, a brooch is like a beautiful fossil, to be examined with a magnifying glass. One can imagine Metcalf inspecting his work with the same care during creation. Screws mean he can easily take the pieces apart if they need changes: glue does not allow easy disassembly.

—Tina C. LeCoff