Precious mettle 

At times the mineral-blue, eye-searing flames from an arc welder illuminate the room or apocalyptic showers of sparks spray from a whining grinder. The artist, clad in the protective armor of industrial-grade denim, stands combatively over his sketch.

When you walk into a metalsmith's studio, you can envision, almost comically, Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, a powerful craftsman battling the Earth's minerals. But metalsmiths are also divine alchemists with an inherent knowledge of culture and history. Perhaps no other one I've met exudes this more than Cranbrook Art Academy's artist-in-residence Gary Griffin. He's the classic metalsmith — a hybrid of decorative and ornamental artist, industrial fabricator, philosopher and shop worker. He's also, by the evidence, a great teacher.

Sadly, for his students, after 22 years at Cranbrook, Griffin has decided to retire from teaching and move to a home and studio he and his wife have built in New Mexico, to pursue his own practice. In response, Cranbrook's Network Gallery has installed an exhibition celebrating his lontenure as head of metalsmithing. Curated by former student and alumnus Ben Warely, the show is a straight-up testimonial to the influence of Griffin's masterful craftsmanship and teaching technique.

Sixty of the 121 alumni who Griffin has mentored since 1985 have contributed work to this notable event; and all paid to have their work shipped to the Cranbook Museum. And one thing is certain: While none of their work looks anything remotely like his, there's no question he's been the model for them. Though the students' work is mind-bending and anything but traditional, it's suggestive of Griffin's methodical exploration of the creative process.

In talking to him over the years about his art and teaching, I've found that Griffin uses language in a surprisingly felicitous and philosophical way. While he seems unflappable in manner (he grew up in Texas, so he's got a no-nonsense, hard-working ethic) there's this other side to him. On one occasion, as he was preparing to make a weld while fabricating one of his gates, he gracefully paused to remember a quote from a poet about the inevitability of "finding one's voice through the voice of others." Another time, as he surveyed an arabesque shape, he distinguished, without malice, decorative or ornamental metalsmiths, who have inherited their knowledge, from the more dramatic contemporary metal sculptors — the Richard Serras of the "high" art world. Moments later, he humorously quoted fellow Texan and novelist Larry McMurtry: "After all, if you're going to work in a genre, you should know something about it."

There's always an intriguing collection of books and articles in Griffin's studio that exemplifies his curiosity and the breadth of his knowledge. As for depth, it's in his work. In Cranbrook's Silverman Gallery, scale models of his gates suggest a craftsmanship more akin to jewelry-making than ironwork (remarkably, so do his finished pieces), but the designs are as innovative and modernist as they are wrought from the classical tradition. "Acanthus Rojo Gates" (2006) is an assemblage of interwoven abstract cloud-like forms inspired by the tantalizing, asymmetrical shape of bisected acanthus leaves on a Corinthian column.

Griffin's unique approach to art-making has greatly influenced his students. His assistant, Kai Wolter, probably wouldn't have gone to graduate school if he couldn't have worked directly with him. "It was more about how he thought than what he thought that made me come to Cranbrook," Wolter says. Wolter's own wonderful hammered and folded organic copper forms have an outrageous morphology that calls to mind Francis Bacon's painting process, but I would bet the work has an origin story similar to Griffin's "Acanthus Rojo Gates."

There's no question Griffin's students have absorbed a lot — not only about what he knows, but how he expresses it. Maya Kini, a rising second-year metalsmith student reflects upon her teacher's departure in a letter of appreciation she wrote him: "I think the most valuable thing that I will take away from my time studying with you is the art of crafting an oral argument. I have been constantly amazed at the care you put into presenting your thoughts to us at shop meetings and the subtle yet effective ways you take ingredients and combine them to probe our ways of viewing our surroundings."

Without fail, the art displayed in this tribute reflects Griffin's originality, as well as the subtle influence he's had on students by fostering an environment of experimentation and discovery. His legacy as a teacher is a reminder of the seminal role that teachers play in both preserving our artistic models and reinventing them, as we invent ourselves.


Critical Mass: Metalsmithing at Cranbrook Under Gary Griffin runs through Oct. 15 at Cranbrook Art Museum's Network Gallery, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3323.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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