Shake it up

Sep 8, 2004 at 12:00 am

He’s one of Detroit’s most respected artists, with his work in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts. He’s also an internationally known collector of folk art, and a distinguished teacher: From 1970 to 1990 he was head of Cranbrook Art Academy’s sculpture department.

Now, Michael Hall (who lives in Hamtramck), has moved into another cultural sphere — one that fits nicely on the kitchen table.

The Novelty Salt-and-Pepper Shaker Club of America unveiled its 2004 commemorative set at the group’s annual convention in Novi in July; the set, titled “Shaker Wonderland,” was designed by Hall, in collaboration with his spouse, artist Pat Glascock, and ceramist Jerry Berta of Rockford, Mich. The convention drew collectors from 30 states. According to John Ragan, president of the Michigan chapter, which hosted this year’s event, the set was a hit. “There’s only a few left,” he says.

“Shaker Wonderland” is what’s known as a “kisser,” a set in which the two shaker pieces are designed to touch. (Other types include “nodders,” containing elements that rock back and forth, and “nesters,” designed so that one piece fits inside the other.) The pepper in the Hall/Glascock kisser is a boy dressed in University of Michigan blue; the salt is a girl wearing Michigan State green. He’s holding his hands behind his back; she’s leaning over to steal a smooch.

“She’s the aggressor,” Hall notes with a smile.

The shakers come on a square tray, about 6 inches across, decorated with skis and tennis rackets, symbols of Michigan’s year-round recreation. The tray is divided into upper and lower sections, representing the state’s two peninsulas. A snowman on the upper level doubles as a handle for the set; the shakers are on the lower.

“It’s a move back to the basics,” Hall says of his first attempt at shaker design. “Two cute shakers and a tray.”

According to Hall, the set’s cheery illustrational style refers to the work of Sorcha Boru, a California-based potter in the 1940s famous for her ceramics and salt-and-pepper shakers.

“We wanted the West Coast look because Pat and I are both from there,” he says.

The prototype for “Shaker Wonderland” was produced at Berta’s studio near Grand Rapids; the sets were manufactured in Hong Kong. It was 18 months from initial design to finished product.

Hall and Glascock volunteered to do the design on behalf of the Novelty Salt-and-Pepper Shaker Club’s Michigan chapter, which they’ve been members of since 1992. Berta was brought in for his ceramics expertise. According to Hall, clubs usually hire professionals to do the annual commemoratives because they don’t have the know-how themselves. (They also probably don’t have members whose résumés include showing at the Whitney and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York).

Tabletop icons

Glascock began collecting “S&Ps” (as enthusiasts call them) after she inherited several sets from her grandmother 15 years ago. Hall got the bug from Glascock after they married in 1991.

“Not only are they cool; they’re everywhere,” he says. “They were something you could buy at an antique mall, which isn’t a place where you find a lot of art, and then go out into the parking lot and high five one another for scoring.”

S&Ps are an illuminating if humble part of American popular culture, emblems of the people, places, things and ideas of the nation reproduced in miniature. There are S&Ps to commemorate virtually every tourist trap, S&Ps of historical figures, cartoon characters, celebrities and every imaginable animal, fruit and vegetable. There are promotional S&Ps — beer bottles, soap boxes and other products — and even naughty ones: a dealer at the convention had a set consisting of a reclining cheesecake girlie whose bare breasts are removable S&Ps.

Glascock and Hall’s collection of about 2,000 S&Ps is modest by club standards. (One couple, Jo Ann and Fred Rose of Coldwater, Mich., have more than 25,000.)

Their collection is arranged in rows along with duck decoys, Tikis and other trinkets of Americana, reflecting Hall’s long-held belief in the artist as a collector of culture. His fascination with folk art has driven his own artwork, from his 1970s welded-steel sculptures inspired by the barns, fences and factories of the Midwest, to his recent painted and folded sheet metal constructions based on Kachina dolls (representations of Hopi and Zuni tribal gods and goddesses).

Patrons of Hall’s art include connoisseurs like Gilbert and Lila Silverman of Bloomfield Hills, whom ARTnews recently named as being among the world’s top 200 art collectors. But his venture into the world of S&Ps has opened up a new realm of collectors: Royal Oak residents Sara and Ron Nickerson, a hydraulics supply company sales rep and a truck driver/maintenance man, respectively, own “Shaker Wonderland.”

The artist wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hall says, “This is a full-spectrum art production thing we’re involved in here.”

Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]