By Gordon Fuglie
The sinuous, serpentine shapes and fundamental forms of Randy Stromsoe's metal work bear out his ongoing curiosity about pewter, silver and gold and what these alloys and elements can become in the hands of a seasoned craftsman. For nearly forty years, the Cambria artist has wrought his materials with lathe and hammer - and a plethora of tools too numerous to mention, fashioning functional objects of great elegance and authority. Stromsoe's smithery has ranged from the sacred to the profane, spanning liturgical chalices and domestic table settings, as well as jewelry.
The sheer beauty of his work makes its users and viewers forget that silver and gold are commodities, precious metals bought and sold by speculators as a hedge against economic slumps. A realist, Stromsoe does not hesitate putting his artistry in an economic context. He told me that when he started out as a metalworker, silver sold for $2.25 an ounce. In the Autumn of 2010 it has been pushing $25, and it has been worse. Stromsoe recalls silver soaring to $50 per ounce. When material costs rise, the patronage of a silver smith is restricted to those at the top economic brackets, and he laments the decline of middle class patrons and the ensuing narrowing of taste. Typically for Stromsoe, a high percentage of his work comes from commissions.
In the recent past, crafted art, or craft, as it is known within the 'functional art community," was ghetto-ized by the more theoretically minded contemporary art world. Painters, photographers, and so-called new media artists (and their allied critics) liked to think that they were the ones doing the heavy lifting with "real ideas" or current issues in art. How could a potter, weaver, jewelry artist, etc. be on board when they were concerned about kilns, looms, and precious metals? It wasn't long, however, before a bumptious postmodernism arrived to blow most of these condescending notions to smithereens. If you looked at art history, the postmodernists asserted, there was a rage of expressions and media that constituted thoughtful artistic practice. Thus craft re-entered the arena of contemporary art.
Stromsoe's commissions for the Roman Catholic liturgy are one example of craft married to profound meaning. Among his timeless silver chalices produced for various churches, one mesmerizing example simultaneously carries the mystery of the Real Presence in Holy Communion with its basic function as a cup commonly shared by the religious community. Chalices, in their harmonic configuration, also testify to a Catholic philosophy of beauty.
By contrast, Stromsoe's teapots are often vehicles for modernist design principles, such as the Arts and Crafts movement and those later introduced by Germany's Bauhaus school in the 1930s. In Orb, executed in pewter and ebony, the forms are elemental, clean - following Bauhaus simplicity. But Stromsoe also blends in elements of Futurism, which sought to convey movement, and the streamlined machine sensibility of American Art Deco. These styles - Bauhaus, Futurism, Art Deco, were the "cutting edge" in the US and Europe from 1910 to the 1930s, and Stromsoe has adeptly achieved in Orb a postmodern blend of the three.
Stromsoe's apprenticeship was practical. Like an aspiring teenage medieval craftsman, he entered the studio/shop of a master silver smith - in his case, Porter Blanchard (1886-1973). Blanchard's work was originally influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which stressed integrity of materials and workmanship, shunning superflous ornament to achieve unnecessary decorative effects. "I strive for simpler, finer lines and plainer surfaces," he said. Stromsoe's oeuvre shows his debt to Blanchard in its formal simplicity and honoring the essence of the metal he is crafting. But the high volume output of Blanchard's 1070s shop, filling flatware orders for elite department stores, proved too stressful for the young journeyman. In 1979 Stromsoe moved to Cambria to set up a small studio where he has since worked. Within a year of working on the Central Coast, he had his first significant commission, marking his master status.
In the forty years as a craftsman, Stromsoe's metal work has been selected for the permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution's holdings of decorative arts and crafts; the White House Collection of American Craft; and the Oakland Museum. In addition, the State Department has commissioned his silver vessels as official gifts to heads of state and royalty worldwide. Through the month of December his artistry will be on view at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1130 Broad Street, SLO, 93401 (www.sloma.org, 805-543-8562); for more information on Randy Stromsoe, see www.randystromsoe.com.