A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.
Art Smith was one of the most admired mid-century jewelry designers, bringing sophistication and drama to large-scale works made for everyday-wear. As virtually the only prominent African-American jewelry designer of the era, Smith kept a studio and showroom (with only two assistants) in the bohemian Greenwich Village for thirty-three years.
Arthur "Art" Smith was born in Cuba in 1917 to Jamaican parents and the family permanently settled in Brooklyn in 1920. Smith studied commercial art and sculpture at Cooper Union under a scholarship, graduating in 1940. He took an evening jewelry course with Winifred Mason, an African-American jewelry designer (regarded as the first, to work on a commercial scale) who became a major influence and mentor to Smith. Instead of gold and silver, she worked primarily in copper and used motifs from West Indian culture and folk art.
Smith apprenticed under Mason at her shop and studio in Greenwich Village for several years and in 1946, Smith opened his own shop. Early years were difficult for Smith, as an openly gay black man, and his shop was the target of vandalism and break-ins. Despite these hardships, he quickly made a name for himself in the downtown bohemian arts community with his stunning, sensual jewelry, that was sensitive to the movement of the body. He was close to and made works for luminaries such as Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. He also created commissions for modern dance companies run by choreographers including Talley Beatty and Claude Marchant.
By the mid-1950s, Smith's designs were carried by Bloomingdale's and boutiques across the country and they regularly appeared in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. During this time, he was creating smaller works, on a larger production scale, such as stylish earrings, cufflinks and rings in sterling silver and gold that incorporated attractive stones.
In 1970, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York (now the Museum of Arts and Design) held a retrospective celebrating Smith's work. Due to declining health after a heart attack, Smith was less produgious in the later part of his life; his shop closed in 1979 and he passed away in 1982. He was honored with another retrospective at the Jamaica Arts Center, Queens in 1990, curated by the African-American artist and filmmaker Camille Billops, and the Brooklyn Museum held the show From the Village to Vogue in 2008, highlighting Smith's momentous contribution to the medium.
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