Before deciding upon the last drawing, Mignon Faget already understood that her fascination was founded not in the jewelry but the idea of it.
That’s what the drawings were. What they still are.
Ideas and the possibilities that fuel them.
Amazing how such possibilities can linger long past a death in 1966. That’s when William Spratling died in a car accident in Mexico, where he lived and worked in Taxco. He’d left his job as a professor of architecture at Tulane University in 1929. Spratling’s creativity would spill over into so many different areas. Some writers today refer to him as the quintessential Renaissance man.
But even that title seems a little restrictive, because when looking at Spratling’s career, it’s clear he never bothered with boundaries. He simply made his ideas happen.
As he did the ideas in ink and watercolor drawings that will hang in the Newcomb Art Gallery exhibitLas Delicias: The Drawings of William Spratling, Artist and Entrepreneur, through Sunday, March 3. Most are designs for jewelry created by Spratling in Taxco.
The show is a companion to the museum’s exhibits, Sandra Pani: De Ser Arbol and Treasures of Darkness: Spanish Colonial Silver, which also run through March 3.
Newcomb Art Gallery is located on the Tulane University campus, as is The Latin American Library, which houses the Spratling-Taxco Collection. It’s where Faget spent hours upon hours searching through Spratling’s ink and watercolor designs for his jewelry.
And it’s where Faget discovered the possibilities that continue to linger in Spratling’s ideas.
“Drawings reveal so much about the artist, and it’s more exciting in a way that the finished work can’t be,” Faget said. “The finished work is resolved, whereas the drawings are still a work in progress.”
Faget will be talking about this, as well as Spratling’s life and work, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Room 205 of the Woldenberg Art Center on the Tulane Univeristy campus. She’ll be joined by leading Spratling scholar Penny C. Morrill.
Admission is free.
For now, though, she talks about Spratling from her home phone in New Orleans. The gallery’s director, Charles M. Lovell, asked if she’d be interested in curating the show. It simply made sense. Faget is probably New Orleans’ best-known jewelry designer. Her works are known throughout the world. She was born in New Orleans, earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in 1955 and launched her first ready-to-wear jewelry line in a studio in the city’s Riverbend neighborhood in 1969. Her jewelry is inspired by natural and man-made landmarks in New Orleans and south Louisiana. Many times those landmarks are found in New Orleans architecture.
“William Spratling was an architect,” Faget said. “He was very aware of scale and why things were built the way they were built. And his jewelry was miniature to the scale he was used to working in.”
Back to Faget’s work, her jewelry is fabricated in gold, sterling silver, bronze and semi-precious stones. She also designs items for personal home adornment and gifts.
Spratling also created items for the homes, and Faget has included a few such items in the show. The items were loaned by a New Orleans couple.
“But I kept that to a minimum, because the show focuses on William Spratling’s work in Mexico,” she said.
Most specifically his drawings.
So, Lovell’s notion only made sense. Who could appreciate an artist and jewelry designer’s work more than another?
“It was a neat idea,” Faget said. “I’d never curated someone else’s work; just my own.”
Faget’s work has been featured in solo exhibits at The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana State Museum’s Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge in recent years. But this show was different.
She knew of Spratling through her personal collection. Penny Morrill had hosted some Spratling shows in the past, and Faget has bought a couple of his pieces.
“I wanted to know more about William Spratling,” she said. “So, I read a couple of books about him.”
She started with Taylor Littleton’s 2000 biography, The Color of Silver: William Spratling, His Life and Art, then moved on to John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s, published last September.
“Now I’m reading Penny Morrill’s book, which is nice after-the-fact,” Faget said.
That book, by the way, is William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance, published in 2002.
And it’s no exaggeration to refer to Spratling’s work in Taxco as a renaissance, for he not only worked as a designer and silversmith, he also revitalized the Mexican silver industry in the early 1930s.
Spratling was born on Sept. 22, 1900, in Sonyea, N.Y. He was the son of epileptologist William P. Spratling. Spratling’s father moved him, his brother David and sister Lucile to Alabama after the deaths of their mother and sister.
The elder Spratling’s boyhood home was known as Roamer’s Roost outside of Auburn, Ala., home to Auburn University, where Spratling would earn his bachelor’s degree in architecture. Upon graduation, he accepted a position as an instructor in Auburn’s architecture department, and in 1921, he was offered an associate professor position in the Tulane University School of Architecture.
He accepted that position and moved to New Orleans, where he also became an active participant in the Arts and Crafts Club and a teacher in the New Orleans Art School.
In the following years, Spratling published articles in Scribner’s Magazine, Journal of the AIA and Architecture Record. A colony of artists and writers had settled into the French Quarter during that time, and Spratling became a part of it.
His list of friends reads much like a literary who’s who list: Natalie Scott, Sherwood Anderson, Oliver La Farge, Frans Blom, John Dos Passos and William Faulkner.
Faulkner, in fact, roomed with Spratling for a time, and together they wrote and published Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles in 1926. Faulkner provided the text for this small book and Spratling the drawings depicting the literary colony’s residents of that time.
Then it was to Mexico in 1926, where Spratling was a guest lecturer on colonial architecture at the National University of Mexico’s summer school. He began spending his summers there and finally made a permanent move in 1929.
Spratling was quickly welcomed into Mexico’s artistic circles, where his activities included promoting the art of Diego Rivera in New York and working on drawings for a home expansion for U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow, who told Spratling about Taxco.
Taxco was the site of centuries-old silver mines but had never been considered a location where jewelry and objects of silver were designed and made. Spratling’s mission was to re-establish a silver industry in Taxco that would benefit its people.
He began designing works primarily based on pre-Columbian and traditional motifs and hired local goldsmiths to produce the designs. He established his workshop, Taller de las Delicias, which is the basis for the Newcomb exhibit’s title.
Spratling’s story doesn’t stop there. He created a plan for development of native crafts in Alaska in 1946 at the request of the U.S. Department of Interior, and he is known today in Mexico as “The Father of Mexican Silver.”
Spratling died on Aug. 7, 1967, in an automobile accident outside of Taxco, but his ideas still thrive through his work, particularly his drawings.
“Going through all of those drawings was overwhelming, because he was so on fire and productive,” Faget said. “And he used whatever was available to draw on. It could be a napkin or a bill of sale.”
She paused. She realized that she’s working with only part of the story of a man’s life that was amplified by his creativity. But she can relate.
“Do we have anything in common?” she asked. “I think so.”
In the designs, the approach to the work and the fact that there are always possibilities beyond the finished product.
Especially in the drawings.