BY CYNTHIA BAUGHMAN
Several years ago curator Nicolasa Chávez was in Trujillo, Spain, conducting research and shopping for her exhibition, New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate y Más, which opened at the Museum of International Folk Art in December. The museum’s collections were rich in Valencian lusterware and Spanish mayólica, but there were gaps in the story that Chávez wanted to tell, and thanks to the International Folk Art Foundation, she had a budget for making judicious acquisitions for the museum. “Many of our early settling families came from Trujillo, in the Extremadura province, but we didn’t have many pieces from that region and we were short on copper pieces from Spain,” said Chávez. And so, while in a shop that sold local olive oil products, reproduction ceramics, and antiques, Chávez was excited to spot a clutch of beautiful hammered-copper pieces from the nineteenth century: a large water pot with a swinging handle, a graceful pitcher, and a two-handled frying pan with an intricate design. She bought them and arranged with the dealer for shipping.
When the package arrived from Spain, the museum staff was shocked. The three copper pots had been tossed into a box without padding and had knocked against each other throughout their long journey from Trujillo to Santa Fe. All were severely dented.
Dismayed, Chávez called in Senior Conservator Maureen Russell to ask if the vessels could be repaired. Russell, who specializes in objects and sculpture, wanted advice from an expert in metalwork and called Ivan Barnett at Patina Gallery on Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe to ask for names of local metalsmiths who might be able to advise her. Patina recommended master metalsmith Michael Jerry. After retiring as Professor Emeritus from a distinguished career heading the metalwork department at Syracuse University, Jerry moved to Santa Fe, where he now works out of a studio in the home he shares with his wife, Terri. Russell contacted him, hoping that he would be able to tell her if there was hope for the damaged vessels.
Michael Jerry’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Yale University, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and other museums and collections. His vessels, jewelry, and decorative objects are masterpieces of sleek, exciting, geometric, and organic design. The top edge of his own copper cooking pot (in the Met’s collection) is curved and scalloped, and the forged-steel handle extends outwards with rootlike curls and twists. A pewter tea set rises from the table with the architectural angles and loft of a city skyline. A stylized, heart-shaped bracelet latches with an intricate mechanism. These shining masterpieces of modernism do not appear to live within even shouting distance of the rustic copper pots from Trujillo.
“Michael came in,” said Chávez, “this amazing artist, whose father was an artist and museum director, and he understood our distress, and he also understood our budget issues.”
“And he said he would restore them,” said Russell. “Just like that. As a volunteer. He said he thought it would be a fun project. It was Thursday of Folk Art Market weekend and on Monday he came back with the pots, and they were perfectly restored. You would never know that they had been damaged.”
How did he do it?
The damage to those vessels, Jerry explained, presented some challenges. As is common with copper cooking pots even today, they were lined with tin, and that made heating the vessel problematic: tin melts at low heat, and so if he used a high heat to soften the copper, the vessels might need re-tinning. Furthermore, heat could change the color of the copper. “I did not want to loose the old patina,” said Jerry.
“It’s a huge deal to not affect a patina,” said Russell. “That takes tremendous skill.”
It was also important to preserve the original hammer marks and textured design.
Jerry used a five-hundred-year-old technique that employs a tool called a snarling iron that he had made himself from a towel rack. He inserted the iron into the pot and struck the exposed end with a heavy hammer. Vibrations from the struck end moved down the iron to work on the vessel from the inside out, delicately returning the metal to its original position. The precision of this technique enabled Jerry to restore the original texture and patterns of the hand-hammered copper pieces. Today they are on display in the Spanish Hearth section of New World Cuisine, wearing their one hundred plus years handsomely and showing no signs of their recent rough passage across the Atlantic.
Michael Jerry’s work is on view at his website, michaeljerry.com, and at his studio. New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate y Más, is on view at the Museum of International Folk Art through January 5, 2014.
Cynthia Baughman edits El Palacio.