Conducted by Colleen Terrell on March 9 and 10, 2018 at Manhattan, Kansas
Elliott Pujol in his studio on the campus of Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. March 10, 2018. Photo by Colleen Terrell.
Pujol has long been recognized as an artist and a craftsman. In 1971, he was selected as one of “Fifty Outstanding Craftsmen of the United States” by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Penland School of Crafts. In 1974, he was invited to represent the American delegation of metalsmiths to the World Crafts Council in Toronto, Canada. ln 1997, he was one of fifteen metalsmiths invited to exhibit in “American Masters of Hollowware in the Late Twentieth Century,” organized for tour by the Georgia Museum of Art. In 2005, he was named that year’s Master Metalsmith by the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2010, he received the Kansas Governor's Arts Award for his work as a master metalsmith and Kansas artist. Pujol's work and techniques are featured in textbooks and art journals; he has served local and State arts associations; and he has juried many exhibitions.
In this interview, Pujol describes his graduate education in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his approach to metal work, the value of professional networking, and his lifelong involvement in academia—the freedoms and constraints inherent in his faculty position as well as the relationship between his teaching and his art.
Interview duration: 2 hours and 46 minutes. Transcript length: 33 pages.
Elliott Pujol (EP): Good morning.
CT: Maybe we could begin at the beginning, and you could talk a little bit about where you were born and when?
EP: Okay. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1943. I lived in Memphis, oh, probably, until I was in the second grade, and then we moved out into the country, a little town called White Haven, which was probably predominantly a Black community. I remember cotton fields out our front window; the farmers had mules at that time, I remember chain gangs, working on the roads with prisoners from the state pen. A big fat man sitting on top of the truck with a shotgun. It was—it was different.
CT: And this was in Tennessee.
EP: This was in Tennessee, back in the fifties. And then my father was offered a job in St. Louis, so we packed up—after building a brand-new home—packed up and moved to St. Louis, and the life there was in an apartment, which I had a little bit of adjusting to, people stacked on top of people. But I found a gang to join. [laughs.] We didn’t—we just fought with another gang. And we built a fort, out of railroad ties, hopped the train, rode the train, and built a tree house, incredible tree house, so that was probably junior high, about that time. I had been going to parochial schools, instead of public schools, and I don’t know what I did, but the nun—sister—had me sitting on the floor by her desk, and I would come home all dirty. And my mom said, “Why are your pants dirty?” And I said, “Well, I’m sitting on the floor.” And so, my mom took me out of private school and put me in public school. And that was an incredible awakening. The community we lived in in St. Louis was University City, and the school population was probably ninety percent Hebrew, and maybe ten percent Gentile. There were no conflicts; I had a lot of wonderful friends, but it did teach me competitiveness. And the wonderful thing about the public school is where I was introduced to art classes. We didn’t have art classes in parochial school. The school district was very wealthy, so the humanities were right up there with math and science and history, and you know. We had an incredible modern dance program, orchestra, musicals. I participated in choir, a capella choir, and finally enrolled in some art classes. I think it was probably my sophomore year. I had a ceramics class, Mr. Suits, was his name. I believe he was maybe a graduate student at Washington University, who taught at our school district. And then I took a jewelry class, with a lady by the name of Doyle, Catherine Doyle, and that’s—oh! Let me back up. Junior high, I had an enameling class, and really enjoyed enameling, pre-formed, pre-spun vessels, bowls, ash trays, whatever the catalogues offered, I enameled. [Searches file cabinets.]
CT: You’re looking for something.
EP: Yeah, well, I’ll find it later for you. But I still have an enameled bowl around here somewhere.
CT: That you made in junior high?
EP: Made in junior high. [Pulls out two small enameled pieces.]
CT: Is this it?
CT: Wow! That’s very neat. Both of these?
EP: Uh-huh. I think this was in high school, my junior year, and I hammered on it, textured it. And then I started making jewelry in high school, then graduation, I went off to—after I graduated—I went off to Europe for three months. Bought a Eurail Pass, was $350 for three months, rail travel throughout Europe.
CT: So what year was that? Do you know?
EP: Um, ’63?
EP: ’63, I believe. And that was an education that I would recommend to anyone, is traveling to a foreign country. Just experiencing the culture, the foods, the music, the art, was an incredible experience.
CT: Where did you go?
EP: I landed in London, well, I was going to take a boat over, but there was a strike, on the docks of New York City, so I had to quick change and get a flight—Pan Am, I believe it was—to London, and then I arrived there. I had an itinerary, with motels—hotels—already booked. That was a great five-dollar book that I purchased, Europe on Five Dollars a Day, because it listed all of the cheap hotels in every city. Amsterdam, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Germany.
EP: There were probably a few other countries in there.
CT: That sounds amazing.
EP: It was. It really was. Then I came back and was enrolled at Northeast Missouri State Teachers’ College, up in Kirksville, Missouri, and right away I knew I did not want to be there.
CT: Why had you chosen that school?
EP: It was a small school, and I think one of my instructors in high school grew up there, and went to school there, and talked a lot about it. So then my parents and I got in the car one weekend and drove to Kirksville and checked it out. And I lasted one year. My roommate was from Argentina. So, I think a lot of the American students at the time didn’t want to have a foreign roommate, and after traveling in Europe I didn’t have any trouble with foreigners, or people that didn’t speak your language. And then, the next year, I flopped around St. Louis and had odd jobs, and then—I don’t know who it was—but someone said, you ought to check out Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. And, so, again, another road trip. Carbondale felt very comfortable. I don’t know what it was about Carbondale, but it probably had about three thousand, or the town was about three thousand, and the university was, at that time, about twenty-three thousand. A lot of the students at Southern Illinois were from Chicago, because it was a cheap school. I think tuition—it was by credit hour—I think it was like ninety dollars a credit hour. So it was very inexpensive. And transportation to and from Carbondale was by train, once I enrolled and became a student there. I think it was four dollars and twenty-five cents, one way, from St. Louis to Carbondale. And my degree—my first degree—was in theater. I did a lot of stage work in high school, made the props and ran backstage for work. And then I met friends in the art department and started wandering around the art building, and became interested in metalsmithing.
CT: But, can we stop for a second? When you went to Southern Illinois University, did you know you wanted to major in theater?
EP: I just—I wanted to get a degree. It didn’t matter what it was in.
CT: But then how did you end up in theater?
EP: I first was majoring in radio and TV. And the reason I switched was something to do with the curriculum in radio and TV. I guess I didn’t find it as exciting as what I had done in high school, in theater, and so I switched majors probably at the end of my freshman year to theater. And in theater, part of our curriculum was to travel, for a whole semester, throughout the state, producing a children’s play, usually in the morning, or afternoon, at the local high school, or local gymnasium, or some place, and then we would do an adult performance at night for the community. And we would be gone for a week, two weeks at a time. We would book motels, and we had a budget. We were all given x number of dollars for food for a week or for two weeks, and it was a pretty rough life, traveling out of a suitcase and doing those performances. And probably my senior year is when I took a class, a metalsmithing class—metalsmithing and jewelry—studying with Brent Kington. One of the reasons I made that transition from theater is that I was producing a play, and I made a helmet, a crown, and—I don’t know, there might have been something else. I made those, and I had to enroll in a metalsmithing class at Carbondale in order to use the shop. Then I made those two to three objects plus all my classwork for the semester. And I finished up the theater degree, and then, to go to graduate school, you had to apply, and you had to present a portfolio. And my portfolio was not [laughs] your typical art portfolio, but I took it anyway.
CT: So, did you take Brent’s class for fun? Or was it a natural transition from your—
EP: I think it was a natural transition, and, you know, the Vietnam War was going on.
EP: And I did not want—I didn’t believe in the war, I didn’t want to go to war. So I wanted to stay in school as long as I could. So I got a graduate deferment that enabled me to continue in school and put off the military.
EP: So, since I felt like I had been successful in jewelry in high school, I enrolled in the art department.
CT: For your graduate degree.
EP: For the graduate degree.
CT: I’m so curious about this, because, I mean, had you been imagining that you would become an actor, and then all of a sudden you pivoted? Or was it not quite that sharp?
EP: Well, I had a lot of friends in art, and I think after talking with them, they convinced me that it’s a piece of cake, you can get into graduate school, you can get in the art department.
CT: Ah, okay. And you needed to stay in school—
EP: And I needed to stay in school. So, I guess, you know the art department saved me from going to Vietnam, probably.
EP: I even remember going to St. Louis for my physical. It was like four o’clock in the morning or something. A great big empty building, miles and miles of young men. Everybody had to strip down and they did a physical, and then they’d tell you you’ll get a letter, or you’ll get notified whether you’ll be drafted or not. And I got a letter saying I was not going to go into service, that I still could go to college. And the portfolio that I presented was costume design, scene design, lighting design, and the professors in art were looking at it like, “What’s this?” [Both laugh.] “This isn’t our usual portfolio!” But I think the thing, at that time, universities were expanding, and a big influx of baby boomers, so they really didn’t turn anyone away. Some of my colleagues in metalsmithing and jewelry had transferred from other schools and maybe were working in engineering. The wonderful thing about Brent is that if he saw potential, he would accept you no matter what your major was. So, that in itself was a wonderful learning experience, because, you know, there was an engineer, or a photographer—a former engineering major or photography major taking metalsmithing and jewelry and then ending up majoring in it. So we had all these influences from other areas that I think made it a lot more exciting.
CT: So Brent’s students in particular came from a wide range of disciplines.
EP: Yeah, yeah.
EP: And he even had, like, double majors. There’d be a potter, getting an MFA in ceramics and then getting an MFA in metalsmithing and jewelry. And my first year in the art department I was doing qualifying work—a whole year of courses that my committee selected for me to take, and after that first year they reviewed that work and then I was accepted into the program.
EP: And then I had x number of years to finish up the MFA. And I think, as soon as I got accepted, they gave me an assistantship—
CT: That’s great—
EP: And Brent handled the assistantships differently. He came in and lectured, and would show slides, for the first—and he gave the demonstrations. He presented the demonstrations. That was the first two weeks of class. And then he would give the class over to the graduate student. And then the graduate student was basically a babysitter and helped the students with their projects. And then Brent would come back at the due date and have a critique. And then he would present the next assignment, and be in class for a couple of weeks, and then leave the class to the assistant. So that was how I learned to teach, I guess. When I left Carbondale, or when I finished with my degree, it was like, what do you do? Well, most of us went into teaching, because every school needed an instructor. Metals programs were just beginning to appear on curricula. So, practically, I think everyone that I went to graduate school with, in metals, ended up being a teacher.
CT: And who was with you at Carbondale?
EP: The room that I worked in was Brent Kington, Mary Hu, Gary Noffke, myself. We were all crammed into this—basically, it was a closet. [laughs.] And then some of the other students, Richard Prillaman, Marci Zelmanoff, and Dickie Ladusa, Barbara Marter. And Dickie went on to teach at Lafayette, Louisiana, Richard Prillaman went to Memphis Academy of Art, Gary Noffke went to Stetson University in Florida. Mary Hu married a graduate student in math from China, and so I think she and her husband moved back to China, and it wasn’t until Mary came back into the United States—her husband passed away—in, I’m going to say 1972? And when she came back to the United States, I had Mary teach at Kansas State during one summer.
EP: And then from there I’m not sure if she got a job before Seattle, or if Seattle is where she took her first job. And one exciting thing that happened was that the Society of North American Goldsmiths [SNAG] was not formed until 1970.
CT: And when did you get your MFA?
EP: In 1970.
EP: And Brent, I think there were about eight professors from various universities got together during an exhibition at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and then they had a meeting, these professors, and they started the Society of North American Goldsmiths. I remember Brent was very frustrated at that conference, that first conference, because he wanted to include Mary Hu as one of the founding—as one of the members. And there was discussion, and several of the professors objected to having Mary, but somehow Brent duked it out and won.
CT: Do you know why they objected?
EP: Probably because she hadn’t taught—
EP: You know, this was ’71. And probably more remarkable, is I got in the show [Goldsmith '70 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art.] [laughs.]
CT: Congratulations! [laughs.]
EP: And there were seventy people in the exhibition, seventy artists accepted, and so I was really honored to be in that show. And then I want to mention something about Brent’s teaching. He seemed to be able to bring in—I don’t know, he must have had a good budget—a lot of guest artists. And my second semester at Carbondale, we had Phil Fike, Ronald Hayes Pearson, Olaf Skoogfors, I think that was it. That was plenty! [laughs.] And each one of them spent at least two days in the studio with us, showing their work, talking about their work, demonstrating some little trick or technique that they had perfected. So it was a wonderful experience getting taught by another professor and just the exposure of their work was phenomenal.
CT: And what kind of things were you drawn to? What were you working on in graduate school?
EP: I was still struggling with hammers—making hammers—and using a file, and learning a lot of technique. The objects that got into the Goldsmiths show were these humongous brass rings made out of tubing, all one piece of tubing. And they were chased and repousséd. I was learning about texture. Texture has always been important in my work. In fact, [laughs.] this goes back to theater. We all had to write the first couple chapters of a play, and I titled my play “Texture.” And I don’t know if it was from costumes, because we all had to spend some time in the costume shop. And so anyway. Textures are really big in my work. And, uh, what else can I say about that?
CT: Well, you had been talking about the rings that got into the SNAG show—
EP: Yeah, yeah. And then the other thing is that he would take us to the St. Louis Art Museum, and he must have known a curator there, because we would spend a whole day in the archives, down in the basement, looking at objects that Brent had previously selected for us to look at.
CT: Metal objects? Or all kinds of objects?
EP: The historical—we were all given white gloves to put on, and I’m not sure if they even put white coats on us. [Both laugh.] And had a big velvet tablecloth, and the curators would carry out these things and put them on the table, and then we were allowed to pick them up, open them up, inspect them, ask questions, so it was really a wonderful experience. I don’t know if they still do that or not, but it was a day well spent at the St. Louis Art Museum.
CT: And they were historical objects, as well as—?
Elliott Pujol, Sterling Chalice, 1974. Sterling silver, 7 1/2 x 5 in. Photo by Barbara T. Pujol. Collection of Barbara T. Pujol.
CT: In different materials?
EP: In gold, in silver, pewter. I don’t think there was any steel, any knives or anything like that. But St. Louis has a good art collection—a lot of American silver, and European silver.
CT: Wow, that sounds amazing.
EP: Yeah, yeah.
CT: So, I have to ask, because in our chronology we’re finishing up your graduate school here. What did your parents think of first theater and then art?
EP: [Pause.] I don’t think they—there weren’t any negative feelings. They were—they never went to college. So for me to get a degree, it was—they were very proud. [pause.] And I don’t think they came to any productions at Carbondale, but as soon as I would have an exhibition, and if the exhibition was in St. Louis, or some place they could drive to, they would go to that exhibition. So they were just—they were proud. You know, they were confused, like me. [Both laugh.] I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, even when I graduated with an MFA. I mean, the only thing I knew to do was to teach. I didn’t—as an art program, you’re not taught business, you’re not taught to sell your work. Or, a lot of artists trade one another. I’ve got an incredible art collection at home, of colleagues, and former students. So, dealing with the public, and trying to make a living that way was just not in my books. I guess I had worked retail. My dad ran some paint stores in St. Louis, so I sold wallpaper, paint. My dad then set up picture framing, and mirrors—he added that to the paint store. And so, I have to admit that my dad was in retail, but you know, he’d come home, and things would have to be fixed. I got to carry the tools, and assist him. [laughs.] We—when we were little, it was probably junior high, he sold ceramic tile, little tiles. And so we would get these pre-made aluminum ashtrays and glue tile in them, and I found some decorative newel post and put tile in the lower areas and make a lamp out of it or something. So, dad did try to feed my interests in terms of making things—decorative things.
EP: Where else were we?
CT: So you said you received your MFA in 1970? Or ’71?
EP: I’d have to look it up; I don’t remember. I believe it was 1970. I did that degree in the fall semester, and then they still needed me to teach, so I went to school for an extra semester after my MFA.
CT: Ah, okay.
EP: Taught. And then there was a job at New Paltz, New York, with Kurt Matzdorf, there was a job at the University of Georgia, there were jobs all over. And I applied for a job in Philadelphia at Tyler School of Art–Temple University and got the job.
CT: And so, before you went to Temple, this was the same year that you were named one of the “Fifty Outstanding Craftsmen of the United States” by the National Endowment for the Arts and Penland?
CT: How did that come about?
EP: In 1968 or ’69, Bob Ebendorf told me—well, I’ll come back to the blacksmithing conference. Bob Ebendorf told me there was a great place in North Carolina, a craft school called the Penland School of Crafts. He said, “You need to get out of Carbondale and go to Penland and check it out.” So I enrolled as a scholarship student at Penland—
CT: In the summer, between—?
EP: For a two-week class. And my instructor was Arline Fisch, from San Diego, California. Arline—I was still kind of floating in the jewelry, playing around with the tubing, and I was starting to fold metal in that period. She was a wonderful teacher, lots of slides. The next—she was supposed to teach the following summer, but she got a Fulbright, and she must have contacted me, or maybe the director of Penland School contacted me, and said, “Do you want to teach at Penland?” Whoopee! I couldn’t believe it. [laughs.] But you know what, I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to be a student with the students I was teaching. [Both laugh.] So, I think probably my first three or four years of teaching, I was probably terrible. Because I didn’t—I wasn’t organized, it took me three years to probably get organized, what I wanted to emphasize in a beginning class or advanced classes and so on and so on. But I taught that summer at Penland, and I must have impressed Bill Brown and the committee that reviewed the artists. And with that award came one week of being at Penland with those fifty artists. But—I didn’t go. [laughs.] It was my first year teaching with Stanley [Lechtzin], at Tyler, and I didn’t think that he would approve of me missing classes for a week. So I think I told him when it was over—or maybe during the review at the end of my first semester, or something—and he yelled at me. He said, “What?! You didn’t go down there and take part of that? That was part of the whole thing!” And so, you know, I missed a good event.
CT: Okay. Did that award impact your career in any other way?
EP: I think it was just another line on my vita. You know, I mean that’s what college, part of the academic thing is—is you know, how many exhibitions do you get in, what kind of awards did you win. That’s how I got—that’s how we were promoted, at Kansas State University.
CT: And so that process started in graduate school, you trained to—
EP: To send work out to exhibitions. In fact, the very first place that my work was sent to was—Brent brought in three or four big boxes and we all—all of the graduate students—had to select, I think maybe with his help, three or four pieces to go into the box, and then the box was shipped off to Emporia, Kansas. [laughs.]
CT: Of all places!
EP: [Laughs.] Of all places. Because there was a metal program at Emporia, Kansas, and Brent, growing up in Kansas, knew the instructor. I think they were classmates at KU [University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas], and so that was my first exhibition. And then there was a silver show. I had not worked in that much silver, so jewelry—let me say that in 1970 and the late sixties silver was probably seventy-five cents an ounce, gold was thirty-two dollars an ounce, so this silver show came up and Brent encouraged me to do a piece. So I—a classmate, Doris Jarowsky, from Milwaukee, was doing a silver piece, and slaving over it for months. And you know, I had this square foot of silver, and I cut it into a circle, and probably within two hours I was finished with my piece. And it was featured in American Craft magazine. The reason I was scratching my head about this exhibition and wasn’t really too hot on it was that all of the work that I had seen come from that exhibition was so perfected, very Scandinavian, highly polished, you know—you almost didn’t want to touch it. And a lot of that work came from New Paltz, New York, and from Hans Christensen, taught at The School for American Craftsmen up in New York, I think. Rochester.
Elliott Pujol, Melon Pot, 1971. Folded and oxidized sterling. Awarded Honorable Mention in 1971 Sterling Silver Design Competition sponsored by Sterling Silversmiths Guild of America. Photo by Barbara T. Pujol. Courtesy of Elliott Pujol.
CT: But you were deliberately going against the other aesthetic?
EP: Well, I didn’t—I, yeah, that’s why I was kind of wondering, why I am doing this? Is that I’m, you know, I’m not even going to get in, with this metal all folded and distorted. And I think the publicity—and, let’s see, it wasn’t called American Craft, it was called Craft Horizons. I think that exposure really probably helped a lot.
CT: And, so, by the time you applied to Tyler, and that was Stanley—?
CT: Lechtzin. By the time you applied you already had a vita with lots of shows and awards and—
EP: Right. I was in the Goldsmiths show, I was in the silver show, and there were some shows in Indiana, and then just sending our work to Emporia College. And there might have been some other exhibitions that I got in. Oh, yeah, the Copper show [Copper ’71, Museum of Contemporary Crafts]. That was pretty amazing. [laughs.] I was at home, and it was a major north-south highway that we lived on, but the farmhouse was probably a quarter of a mile off the road. It was a Saturday afternoon, and this car comes down the road that I didn’t recognize, and they asked if I was Elliott Pujol. I said yes. And they said, “We have a telegram for you.” And so I opened up the telegram—I still have the telegram, in fact—and it said, “Congratulations! You have won first place in the Copper Development Association’s Copper Exhibition in New York City. We will forward a thousand-dollar check for your prize, and you and your instructor are invited, everything’s paid for, to attend the exhibition in New York City on such-and-such a date.” And so I flew up to New York City. They had the exhibition in the American Crafts Museum, and one of the attendees was Aileen Webb, and she was President of the American Crafts Council at the time. And the winners from the other schools, and their instructors were all at this event, so it was quite an honor. And then the Copper Development Association, the president later came out to Kansas, and wanted me to write a book on—I think it was enameling, or something. And I did not have time to write a book, because I had just started a metal program at Kansas State. It was a fun time in New York City. I think I spent five days there.
CT: So then, when you started at Tyler, you weren’t the only metalsmith.
EP: No, no. I was Stanley’s first hire. And Stanley went to school with Brent, at Cranbrook. So Brent knew Stanley. I’m sure that helped a little bit. And then I had met Olaf Skoogfors; Brent invited him in as a guest artist. Olaf taught at what was called PCA—Philadelphia College of Art, down on Broad Street. An old building. Art department always got the worst buildings on campus, anywhere I went. [laughs.] So, and Philadelphia was exciting to me. You know, a museum, a wonderful museum, two hours away on the train to New York City. I spent a lot of Friday afternoons going up to New York City. And went up for exhibitions. I was in a show called Objects for Preparing Food and that was—the American Craft Museum, put that show on, and James Beard and Julia Child were at the opening. So—[laughs.]
EP: So, that was great.
CT: What did you have in that show?
EP: I had some knives in the show, I think. When I was in graduate school, Brent Kington was just starting out blacksmithing in his own personal work. And so we had a bunch of files that didn’t have any teeth on them; they were slick. [laughs.] And so Gary Noffke and I picked up a handful of files and started making knives, and left the texture—forged them, and then left some of the texture of the file imprint on the knife. And, you know, learned how to rivet handles and, you know, everything. And so that’s what I put in that show in New York City. [pause.] What else can I say? I discovered a blacksmith in Philadelphia called—his name was Samuel Yellin. And he had three hundred and fifty blacksmiths working for him at one time. And he was smart. He would hire Italian blacksmiths, German blacksmiths, Swedish blacksmiths, Irish blacksmiths, English. All of these different nationalities brought something to his shop, and I—Olaf Skoogfors took me down to meet his daughter and son-in-law at—Samuel Yellin passed away years before I came to Philadelphia, but his shop was still there, and they didn’t know what to do with it. But in that shop, there was art from, like I say, every nationality. He would get those blacksmiths to do little specialty things, what they liked to do, and then it became Mr. Yellin’s, and it was in his museum.
CT: So did you do much blacksmithing?
EP: I played with it. I did some jewelry, some chasing and repoussé. Some little pins, knives, choppers, cleavers, belt buckles, containers. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t drawn to it, the way a lot of my colleagues were. I don’t know if it was it had to be worked hot, or—but I didn’t work my chasing and repoussé hot, I just used real thin sheets of steel. I don’t know what—why I didn’t pursue it more.
CT: What did you prefer instead?
EP: Well, the academic game, like I say, is to get promoted, and get grants and so on. You have to be in a lot of exhibitions. And I found copper very cheap. It accepted texture incredibly well, and it colored beautifully using salts and chemicals. You can really color a piece of copper. So I think those were the reasons—those physical things were the reasons why I stayed with copper. And then finishing a piece of steel took different abrasives, and different—a whole different process. So that’s also probably another negative for steel. And I’ve worked in aluminum. I’ve worked in all the metals, because I’ve had to teach it: pewter, aluminum, copper, gold, silver. [pause.] Titanium.
CT: How long were you at Tyler?
EP: I was at Tyler for three years.
CT: And what you said earlier made it sound like you were still learning yourself, as you were teaching students.
EP: Oh, yeah.
CT: You were learning to—
EP: I think that that’s one of the most wonderful things about my job and my career is that I had the university to pay me a salary, and then [with] that salary I could afford some materials to make art. And the students were also my teachers, because I learned an incredible amount from students. I would demonstrate something to them, and say, “No, you can’t do that” or “Do it this way.” They would turn right around and disprove me and do it the opposite. And I just love that aspect. I enjoy—we had, we have a closed curriculum in art, because we didn’t have enough instructors usually to teach, to open classes. So I snuck engineering students, architect students into my beginning classes, because they brought something different to the class that the art students didn’t bring. So, you know, that was—every semester, I’d try to get at least two or three architect students. And it broadened their ideas of metal and design. Some of them really got tight and wanted to set diamonds and you know do jewelry and everything, really. But again, they brought a different style, different sense of design to the classroom. They were always worried about a grade, and I said, “Don’t worry about a grade, don’t worry about a grade.” So.
CT: And so I think I wanted to ask, because you had just been listing the different metals that you worked in, if your curiosity, or your ability to experiment in those different media, was related to the teaching?
EP: I think so. Yeah. [pause.] Ask it again.
CT: Was it more you wanting to try out the metals, or you needing to know how they would behave so you could teach the students?
EP: Well, I think, the metalsmiths that graduated early on, in the sixties and seventies, weren’t just comfortable with gold and silver. They wanted to work in steel. They wanted to work in iron. They wanted to work in copper, brass, other metals. And technology kicked in. Titanium was really hot back in the seventies and early eighties. It’s an aircraft product. It was first introduced in the California colleges, because the aircraft industry and all the scrapyards—Navy, out in that area. You know, their dads may have brought home a piece of aluminum, and so they’d take it into the jewelry studio and start playing with it. Aluminum, the anodizing process, that’s all technical. That was along that same period, maybe seventies into the eighties.
CT: Sounds very exhilarating.
EP: It is.
CT: Experimental, and—
EP: Yeah, yeah. Plastics started to be used. I would order boxes of small pieces of scrap plastic, and it was free to the students, so they’d incorporate it in their projects. You know, things like bone—which are carcinogenic—were probably replaced by plastic. You could add another color with plastic. That was the exciting thing about plastic, was color.
Elliott Pujol, Seagreen and Gold Bowl, 1996. Copper, 23k gold, 5 1/2 x 11 in. Photo by Photographics. Collection of Barbara T. Pujol.
CT: Which is why you liked copper so much.
EP: That’s why I like copper so much.
CT: So, I think saw you were invited to represent the American delegation of metalsmiths to the World Craft Council in 1974? Did you go?
CT: What was that like?
EP: Well, it was North and South America. It was the Americas—
EP: Yeah. So, there were people there from Mexico, from Bolivia, from Argentina, as well as international artists. I remember meeting people from Germany, and Sweden—jewelers. It was held at a university—I want to say York University—in Toronto. That may not be right. And a lot of people. We stayed in dorms at the university and used their lecture halls. So there were just a lot of lectures, a lot of slide presentations, as well as all the art there. And then, meeting people from other nationalities. It was a—I think about a week conference—and, it was wonderful. I remember getting on a plane, I think I left from Philadelphia, or flew into Philadelphia, and who gets on the plane? Stanley Lechtzin.
CT: So what happened after Tyler? You left Tyler and went to?
EP: Yeah, I was—back in the seventies and eighties, to get promoted and get a better salary you pretty much fell into a pattern of applying for a job at another school. And so, I think my beginning salary at Tyler was $9,000 a year. That was 1970.
EP: At Tyler—well, let me back up to graduate school. My last year in graduate school, Carbondale put on a blacksmithing conference. A gentleman by the name of Alex Bealer wrote a book that was very popular, called The Art of Blacksmithing. So Brent decided that we needed to do a blacksmithing conference. And it was announced in fall semester to all these different universities. And then in that spring, of 1970, we had—we were invaded—with all of these students, from Georgia, from Milwaukee, from all over the country, as well as some good ol’ boy blacksmithing. We did it out at a lake in Carbondale, outside of Carbondale, and Alex Bealer was the main presenter, and all of these professors came that had never done any forging. Bob Ebendorf had never done any hot forging. Oh, ah Richard Mawdsley—it just goes on and on, all of the different professors. Ron Pearson showed up, from Rhode Island. And it was three days of eat, drink, and sleep blacksmithing. And everyone stayed—the facilities were these little dorms, but no heating. They had showers in them, it was pretty primitive. And it got a lot of attention. I remember Lois Moran from the American Craft Council came out to the workshop from New York. There were several other people. I’m not sure if—maybe—I’m not sure if Paul Smith even showed up. And the students from Georgia brought an anvil, on the train. [laughs.] Boy, that was a sight. And they filmed it, there was a—there is a thirty-five-minute film on the conference. So that was basically the revival of blacksmithing today. Al Paley came to the second one, and I think he might have been a presenter at that one. But a lot of the—there are a lot of contemporary blacksmiths today, and again, I don’t think it would have happened unless it would have been that conference.
EP: It was pretty incredible.
CT: And, you had been talking about how, sort of automatically, you’d begun to send out applications to jobs, to move up, as a way to get promoted—
EP: Oh, so, and then this job came up in Kansas. And the way I looked at it, it’s pretty simplistic, but Kansas had produced a lot of artists. I don’t know why, ‘cause there’s nothing here in Kansas. [laughs.] Except beautiful sunsets. Big sky. Brent Kington graduated from KU. Bob Ebendorf graduated from KU. Richard Mawdsley graduated from Emporia State and KU. Woodworking—Wendell Castle graduated from KU. And I could go on and on of the number of people. And I thought, well, Kansas must have something going on. And I applied for the job, went through the interview. I told them I didn’t know, I’d have to check things out when I got back home. And then they—Kansas—they called me up and said, “Are you gonna take this job or not?” And I said, “Yeah, I guess I will.” But I need more money. See, they didn’t pay moving expenses. “We don’t pay moving expenses.” “I know you don’t! That’s why I need more money.” So they added a thousand dollars to my salary.
CT: Good job!
EP: Right. So, I was up to $10,000 by them. [laughs.] So, anyway, all this—doing these shows and everything, I was finally promoted to full professor within ten years of being here, because I hustled.
CT: Okay. And the blacksmithing conference that you were just describing, you were still a graduate student when that happened.
EP: And helped put that conference on. That was a lot of work. A lot of work. And it was heavy work, because of anvils and steel, and, you know—
EP: We had to round up coal. But then also at Tyler—and maybe this is a throwback to my theater days. After the conference at Carbondale, then, when I was at Tyler, I convinced Stanley that we needed to do a conference. So, we talked a little bit about the conference, and I put that on my second year, and it was called—I believe it was called—the First National Student Metal Invitational. And I got a little sponsorship from SNAG, some money, maybe three hundred dollars or something. And the presenters were Olaf Skoogfors from Philadelphia, a jeweler in Philadelphia by the name of Jonathan Stemper, and a silversmith from Rhode Island—I mean Rochester Institute of Technology, Hans Christensen. So the jeweler was a commercial jeweler, Hans was a professor and master silversmith, and Olaf was an instructor over at PCA. We packed the auditorium; we had a wonderful exhibition, and a catalogue—somehow Stanley got the university to pay for a catalogue. So, you know, that stayed with me when I moved to Kansas. There was an organization called the Kansas Artists Craftsmen Association, and they had a show—they sponsored a show every year, and it was all more or less a kind of a KU effort, by the instructors at KU. Well, they got tired of doing it, and they said, “We don’t want to do this anymore.” So the Topeka Public Library—Larry Peters, who was a graduate of Carbondale—picked up the show, and I think it’s in its fortieth year, maybe?
CT: The library picked up the show?
EP: Yeah. The Topeka Public Library. Topeka Public Library has an incredible art collection.
EP: Yeah. Ceramics is unbelievable, because that’s what Larry’s major was at Carbondale.
CT: Does the library have a gallery space?
EP: It has a gallery, a wonderful gallery. They have exhibitions year-round.
CT: And Larry sees that as an extension of the library’s—
EP: An extension of KU not wanting to do the show anymore.
EP: And I opened up my mouth at one of those meetings. I think the dues for the Kansas Artists Craftsmen Association were like five dollars a year. This is in 1973. And, so I opened my mouth, and I said, “You know, this is ridiculous. If this organization is going to go anywhere, then we need to increase the dues, and we need to have a newsletter.” And they said, “So, well you need to be president.” [laughs.]
CT: Way to go.
EP: So I was president, I don’t know how many times—a couple, at least a couple of terms of the Kansas Artists Craftsmen Association. So, my goal was to meet instructors at all of the other Kansas schools. The first one that we—the first conference that we had was here in Manhattan, Kansas. And then, from Manhattan, the next year Emporia State picked up the exhibition and the conference. Then the next year Pittsburgh State picked up the exhibition. So it rotated around the state, and I think it made for a stronger group of craftsmen. We got to go into their studios, they got to come in our studios. It was really a good exchange, good networking, for the craftsmen in Kansas.
CT: And I was going to ask, so, the importance of the conferences sponsored by different schools, the Kansas Artists Craftsmen Association, it is partly about networking in the sense that you’re getting professional opportunities, or is it also about an exchange of techniques and ideas and things like that?
EP: I think it’s probably both. I think it’s a vita booster for all the faculty.
CT: But it sounds like there was more to it than that.
EP: And then it was meeting and making friends—life-long friends—with other craftsmen, and exposing those other schools to all the techniques we were doing at KU or K-State or wherever. And then you got to meet the instructors from those schools. So it was very rewarding. And it’s—crafts have dwindled and numbers have dropped. They’re still doing the exhibition, and they’re still doing the workshops. So the numbers are smaller. I mean, before, we would have one hundred and fifty people show up. Now they have seventy-five people show up.
CT: But you were hired by K-State, right?
EP: Right. That was just an outside thing to do. You know.
CT: So KU had an established program.
EP: KU—I believe—is the first established jewelry and silversmithing program in the United States.
EP: They have that distinction. When I came, a guy by the name of Carlisle Smith was teaching at KU. And then he hired another person—I think there are three instructors at KU, and one instructor at K-State.
CT: So when you joined K-State, you were the only metalsmith on the faculty.
EP: Right. I started the program.
CT: Oh! And so what was the art department at K-State like at that time? What year was this?
EP: This was 1973.
EP: The art department was formed in like ’65. It was a mixture of home ec—had a program in fibers, printmaking, design, and the architect school had furniture, painting, drawing, design. So I don’t know how the heads got together, but some of the faculty—I know at least four faculty who left architecture and four faculty left human ecology or home ec [home economics] to form the art department.
EP: That was like in ’65. And when I came, there were probably twenty faculty members of art. It was a young faculty. A lot of them—at least a third—had graduated from Kansas schools, from Emporia, from Wichita, KU. So it was pretty heavily Kansas faculty. And then they—you know, and then I come in, and more people from other states and universities started teaching at K-State. Young faculty, a lot of energy. We were probably a real headache to the College of Arts and Science because we had no space. We had terrible facilities. So we complained a lot. We pushed a lot. And we had fun. You know, we started trying to make money for the department by having auctions, and like yard sales of art work. Then one of the banks in town sponsored us, and we’d have the auction at the bank, and our sales doubled. [laughs.] We had pig roasts. We did a lot of things together, the faculty. So, it was just a group that clicked, worked. We did The Big Heart in the Sky [from the Heart of America].
CT: What is that?
EP: That was a balloon project that Duane Noblett, Bob Clore, myself, and Gary Woodward. Bob Clore was—we were probably at a bar one night, and Bob was talking about his experience out in Colorado. And the college that he went to, the art history professor would take his class every Valentine’s Day out to a Valentine Lake in Colorado—I think around Boulder—and read poetry to them.
CT: The art history professor.
EP: The art history professor.
EP: So, I don’t know how we got it going, but we bought these big weather balloons, these big thirty-six-inch weather balloons. And this was the weekend before Valentine’s. We blew them up, and we had a room in the art building that was two stories tall. And so we tied these balloons together, about every three feet, and then—filled them with helium, first—and then tied them to the strings, and then they all floated up [to] the ceiling. And so—we had a string right in the middle—we pulled that string down, and it created the top of the heart. So, we ordered two cases of these balloons, and a bunch of cord—we went out to the hardware store and bought a bunch of cord—and got permission from the City of Manhattan to use their Industrial Park area, that had been undeveloped, and went and bought a bunch of fence posts. And then the printmaking instructor made a poster, whipped one out, and we took it around to all the businesses in town. And got news—I think we went on the radio and talked about this. And so on Valentine’s Day, we put all these posts in the ground, and tied—the string went around the posts, and then when the people started coming, we would hand them a balloon, and they would tie it onto the cable—to the string, to the big one. And I think we had about a hundred—at least a hundred and twenty balloons. And we—in Kansas, the wind just is so uncooperative.
EP: It started to get a little—a breeze. So we figured out what direction we were gonna have to move. Someone brought a cannon, and shot the cannon off, and that meant to raise the balloons. So all of these balloons go up, and then our sculptor instructor had the center cord. He pulled down on that, and we created this heart, in the sky. And it was very colorful. There were probably six thousand people on the hills and all around, enjoying this heart. And then we lowered it, and then everyone that had a balloon, then cut that balloon and it took off. We checked with the airport, and they said that we could not let all of those balloons go on one string at one time, because they—some airplane would suck them in. And so we lowered them—we had a little gimmick, we had plastic cards with a tile or something in it, that had Kansas red winter wheat in the little plastic bag with the postcard saying if you find this, plant the wheat and send the postcard back to us. And we got postcards from Arkansas, southern Missouri, Oklahoma, and it was just a fun thing to do.
CT: That’s very cool.
EP: So. What else. That’s probably back to my theater days.
CT: And, when you joined the department, was there much of a split between the fine arts and the crafts?
EP: No. We worked together. I don’t—it was probably one of the more unified art programs. You know, artists have egos. So, you know, the faculty all had egos. But, like I say, it was a young group, and we just all worked together.
EP: Produced a lot of good students. Many of them went on to graduate school.
CT: Well, so you built a metalsmithing program at K-State.
EP: Right. Correct.
CT: What was that like?
EP: Hard. My biggest problem is that the administration would not give me a graduate assistant. My graduate students had to teach design. In order for them to teach a beginning metals class, I had to teach design, and then they got to teach a beginning metals class. So, as a result, I did not have very many graduate students. You know, tuition’s expensive. And then out-of-state is even more expensive. So, but building the program—one thing I learned very early is, in Topeka, Kansas, there was a state Surplus Property. And it was with the federal Surplus Property. So, a lot of the equipment came from government-run craft programs on military bases. Polishing machines—I’ve got three or four polishing machines and polishing motors. Lapidary equipment. Saw blades. Anvils. You name it, and if it didn’t work, I could convert it and make it work. So I was very fortunate— ‘cause I had virtually no budget—very fortunate to find out about the state Surplus Property. And, you know, this is almost embarrassing. The beginning courses, when I first came here, were two-credit-hour courses. We were teaching four and five classes a semester. And then, for some reason, the administration felt that all art students needed to take silversmithing and jewelry. So, my classes were just packed. I probably had too many, actually, in a class. So then we worked through the curriculum and changed that, and that helped a lot. And then, finally, I don’t know how many administrators—art department heads—I had gone through, but eventually, I—my last ten years—I was able to have a graduate student, that would have an assistantship when they came in.
CT: Sounds like it would have been hard to find the time to do your own work, with that much teaching.
EP: Well, that was another thing. I had no studio. In 19—I believe it was ’88—I took my first sabbatical. And I went down to Penland and studied anodizing aluminum. But I didn’t have a studio. And so my wife, and, [pause] I think it was a former student, donated a hundred dollars a month for my studio. It was a big empty warehouse. No heat. And so I bought a kerosene heater to heat the place, and worked in that studio. At the end of that sabbatical, I’d knocked out a lot of work. I think I did about forty pieces during that sabbatical. And I was hot. So, I came back on campus and no studio. I’d always work with the students. I’d go over at night. Go home five o’clock, eat, come back seven o’clock, work until midnight, go home, get up and teach. That was my, pretty much, routine. Students, some students, would bother me, but I told them from the very beginning that if I’m working in the studio, do not bother me. But of course a lot of them would scare me, because something would fall, or something would happen. Anyway, so when I finished that sabbatical, I wrote a letter to the president, a “Dear John” letter, that I sent in a packet of exhibition catalogues that I’d been in, all these publications and newspaper articles, and said I’ve got a real good friend—told him that I had a real good friend in chemistry, which I did, because he was my patina go-to, has a wonderful studio to work in, and that since I’d been here, I had no studio to work in, I work with the students, that I need a studio. So two days later the president’s office calls me and says, “We’ll find you a studio!”
Elliott Pujol, Quilt, 1988. Copper and aluminum wall piece, 28 x 46 in. Photo by Edward Sturr. Collection of Duane and Susan Noblett.
EP: That was in ’89.
EP: So I got this studio in 1990. Twenty years after I’d been teaching, or more than that.
CT: So, may I ask, because that sounds less than ideal, what kept you in Kansas? Did you seek to move?
EP: [Laughs.] No. I had a young family, didn’t want to leave them or disrupt. In 1996, the year that we built our house, I applied for a job at Penland School, as director. I went down for the first interview, made it through that, then they had me come down for a final interview. It was, I think, mutual, after building a beautiful house, I thought then I was crazy to leave that house and go try to be a leader at Penland. So we stayed.
EP: And, I got a pay increase, ‘cause I went to the dean and said, “Hey, I’m going back down there, and this may be it. I need some help from you.” So he kicked in some money. Not a whole lot, but some money.
CT: Right. But once you’d first come to Manhattan, you’d started your family, then this is where you stayed.
EP: Yeah. But things like SummerVail and Penland kept me alive, ‘cause I got to get out, see a little bit of the country, and teach—do some teaching. Pay was never a great thing with SummerVail or Penland. I think my first teaching job at Penland was maybe $500 for two weeks. [laughs.]
CT: That’s not much.
EP: No. And SummerVail was pretty much about the same. Gas money there and back.
CT: And once you got tenure at K-State, once you were promoted to full professor, were there still expectations to keep producing?
EP: Oh yeah, sure. Yeah. Always. And then we had to set—the department, or the university—it was probably the state, wanted to know if we continued to do the kind of work that you did before you were promoted, but they wanted accountability. So then we ended up, and this I think really [pause.]—it really disturbed the faculty that we had to, I guess, be accountable, yet here we are, teaching more than the rest of the university, for two credit hours. You know, I think I finally said, you know, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with these two-credit-hour classes.
CT: So other classes were more than two credits?
EP: Oh, everything was three credit hours. And then professors only taught three classes, not four classes, or five classes.
EP: So, when that hit, that we had to be accountable, then we had to, you know, play a silly game of international shows count more than national shows, and local shows really don’t count for much, and yada yada yada, you know. So it was not a productive tool on the part of the administrators.
EP: But you know, I don’t know how they would do it otherwise, probably.
CT: Can you talk a little bit about how the expectations to produce, which in other disciplines would be expectations to publish, how did that interact with your creativity?
EP: Well, there were some shows that—there are invitational shows, there are competitive shows, I’m sure there’s something else in there. But there were shows that I wanted to enter, that I knew were coming up, some annual shows. So that was kind of a given. But most of the shows that I—my first twenty years—were competitive exhibitions. And then, once my work got around, I became more involved with invitational exhibitions, where oh, Sarah Perkins, down at Springfield, put together an invitational vessel show. It traveled the country, and they produced a catalogue. So there were—I was starting to get invited—still am invited—to a lot of exhibitions like that, where it’s a vessel, or a certain thing. And so, there was constantly sending work out. You know, that was another thing. I paid for the shipping. The university didn’t pay for it. And some of it, you know, got pretty expensive.
EP: There was a show in Mexico City. It’s when I first came here. And I sent some silver pieces down there. I went to the dean and asked for money to pay for the shipping, and no help.
CT: Huh. Did those considerations influence the kinds of things that you made?
EP: Well, size. You know, I would usually try to ship smaller things. And you know, sometimes I wouldn’t see the piece for two years—it’d be on exhibition that long. You’d get it back, and, “Oh! Yeah! I remember making that!”
CT: And I want to now, this might be a good chance to transition to talking about some of your work, specifically.
CT: Ready for a break?
EP: Well, we need to come back to SummerVail; we haven’t really talked about that.
CT: Yeah, we’ll come back to that. We’ll take a break here.
[End of March 9, 2018 session]
[Start of March 10, 2018 session]
CT: I’m Colleen Terrell, and I’m back with Elliott Pujol, interviewing for the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art, and Design Oral History Project. Today is March 10, 2018, and we are back in his studio at K-State in Manhattan, Kansas. Good afternoon.
EP: Good afternoon.
CT: You know, after we finished yesterday, you said you kept remembering things. And so I wanted to start by asking if there was anything you wanted to add to what we were talking about yesterday.
EP: Um, yes, let’s start—let’s go back to graduate school. I did some large wall pieces out of, oh, 22-gauge copper. And I used an unconventional method that I don’t think anyone had—maybe has done before. I used dynamite to form a three-foot by four-foot sheet—several three-foot by four-foot sheets of copper. I put found objects on the ground—cast iron, things from automobiles, springs from car seats—and then, on top of those found objects, I put the copper, which had been annealed, or softened, and then on top of the copper I put—this was quite a process of elimination, to finally come up with garbage bags filled with water. And then the dynamite went on top of the garbage bags full of water. So the explosion takes place, and you have instant water pressure pushing down on the soft, annealed copper, the copper then on top of the hard objects sitting on the ground. The first thing that I did in terms of the process of elimination was I used dirt, the first time. Well, that wasn’t uniform enough. And it had rocks and things in it that punctured holes in the copper. So, like I say, the final process was filling up garbage bags with water and putting that on top. After the impression—instant impression—I would take them back into the studio and clean them up, and maybe re-form some areas and put folds in the copper. And then they were mounted on the wall in several different ways. So that kind of caught a lot of people’s attention, and when I would show slides of my work, people were very excited about the dynamite explosion.
CT: So, this was in graduate school?
EP: This was in graduate school.
CT: And I feel like I have to ask, how did it occur to you to use dynamite in your work?
EP: Well, a classmate, Richard Prillaman, teaches—used to teach—at Memphis Academy, invited me to go with he and his brother up to his parents’ residence in Potomac, Illinois. I believe it’s Potomac. And remove trees from a pasture. The trees were already cut down and hauled away. Our job was to put dynamite under the tree root, the ball or the root of the tree, to blow that out of the ground, so that then they could plow and clean it up. And somewhere, I don’t know if it was the second or third one that we blew out of the ground, I noticed, I think it was a car license plate, was embedded in the bark of the tree. And I pulled that metal off, and looked on the other side, and it was like tree bark texture. And I thought, wow, instant chasing and repoussé. So Richard asked his dad to buy a case of dynamite; I think there’s forty sticks in a case of dynamite.
CT: And this was something that you could just do?
EP: Oh yeah, yeah. Farmers, ranchers, always had dynamite to remove things.
EP: And then he bought some primer cord, and then the blasting caps go on the priming cord. Then we had to measure the priming cord for so many seconds, so that we could remove ourselves from the explosion. [laughs.] So, what we did, I think we went with about fourteen inches of fuse, which gave us forty-five seconds, and we would jump in my truck and drive forward about, oh, quarter of a mile, and wait for the explosion to happen. And then back up, and do it all over again. So, I think I bought four sheets of copper, and then the forty sticks of dynamite. And, bought that, and then the next weekend, after we blew the trees out of the ground, we started the art experiment of these wall reliefs. And U.S. Steel—I don’t know, someone knew the president of U.S. Steel in Chicago, Illinois, and they wanted something for their boardroom with their product in it. And so they sent me a bunch of steel—angle iron, and different shapes, and I arranged that on the ground and did the explosion. But I then cut the steel into smaller pieces and riveted them to the copper so the steel was coming out the sides of the copper so they could see their important product. [laughs.]
CT: So is that in the U.S. Steel collection?
EP: Right, right. And then an extension of that is in 1989, I believe it was, when I had my sabbatical. I didn’t use dynamite, but I did some forming on aluminum sheet with a lot of textures and color. And I think I did four or five of those, and those were really satisfying. And then the other thing that I guess really helped me produce more work at the bench was tubing. I learned about brass overflow tubing—about a one-inch diameter, thin-wall brass tubing that’s usually in the back of a toilet tank. Today they’re all plastic. Anyway, I manipulated the large tube, and I used smaller tubes. And the other thing that I kind of chuckle to myself about was the product was already made. I just—all I had to do was think of a way to change that look, that slick round tube. So I cut various lengths of tubing, maybe four inches long, and then I would fill them with pitch, and used my chasing tools to texture them and help form them, and did a series of tubing rings. I think I did several tubing neck pieces with glass beads in between. And so, in teaching, that was kind of a natural element to add to a beginning class, is a hollow tube rivet. So I really enjoyed working with the tubing and seeing what I could do to transform it into something beautiful.
CT: And then the brass tubing, those rings are the ones that were in—
EP: In the Goldsmiths 1970 exhibition, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And I think I sent two of them. I may have sent all of them, but I think there were only maybe two that were in the exhibition.
CT: Okay. And how many of the dynamite pieces did you do?
EP: Oh, let’s see. The first one, the title on the first dynamite piece [laughs.] was Six Sticks and 30 Seconds. So that was a thirty-second fuse to get away from the six sticks. And then the other thing I learned about dynamite is it’s pretty powerful, it’s really packed in there. So I would take the dynamite, the paper, it’s like waxed paper, off of the dynamite, and crumble the dynamite into a newspaper, and made these three-foot-long charges, instead of a twelve-inch charge. It was just too much power in a small area. So I found a way to cover more surface area with a smaller charge by crumbling it up in the newspaper. Dynamite’s pretty inert by itself. It needs to be—it needs a spark, or an explosion to help the dynamite go off.
CT: I’m interested in the found objects that you used in those pieces.
CT: You were talking about the tubing as something ready-made that you were transforming. Have found objects always played a role in your work? Do they still?
Elliott Pujol, Colossus, 1980. Bronze bowl, 7 x 14 in. Photo by Barbara T. Pujol. Collection of Barbara T. Pujol.
EP: So, other things that I’ve done with the tubing—I’ve done a chalice, the bottom part, the handle of the chalice was a silver tube. What else did I—oh, a bell, I’ve used the tubing for a handle, of a bell. And that was a large tube, that was like a two-inch tube. So I’ve—I continue to use tubing wherever I can use it, or where it will apply itself. The flowers that I’ve made the last couple of years have tubing for the center of the flower; it’s kind of a focal point of the flower.
CT: And sometimes, when you’re playing, when you’re just having fun, you’ve transformed lawnmower blades into knives, you’ve transformed washers into bottle openers, um, you’ve used plastic straws in casting.
EP: Well, I think whatever works. [laughs.] That’s my philosophy in teaching: whatever works. You have to be judgmental, and probably a lot of it is process of elimination. I’m dealing with the x-generation yard art pieces right now, and I don’t know how to terminate the top of these figures, so I will probably go through a half a dozen different things before I come up with something that clicks and really works with what I have in process.
CT: Right. While, we’re talking about specific pieces, specific works, can you tell me about the truck?
EP: Oh yeah. The truck. I bought a 1960 Dodge truck, from a gentleman by the name of Mr. Brown—R. Brown, Robert Brown, in Carterville, Illinois. And I think paid $250 for this truck in 1970, so it was a ten-year-old truck. And moved to Philadelphia, and in the state of Pennsylvania they have a very strict auto inspection process. The truck had some rusted-out area up on the driver’s-side front wheel well, actually down that panel. And I don’t know if the guy that was inspecting it didn’t like me, or what, but he said, “I’ll pass you this time, but I’m not going to pass you next time until you get this rust taken care of.” So, I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any money. So I took a piece of copper and formed it around the area, and then pop-riveted it to the truck. And six months later, or whenever you have to get ’em inspected again, I took it back to the same guy, and he passed me. So, in the meantime, I had moved to Kansas, and I had some real thin copper that I had textured, and I thought, well, I’ll just add this to another rusted spot. So that’s when I started—what was the year, I think it was 1975—I started putting patches on the truck every summer. And thirty years later, I finally got it finished, and the museum on campus, the [Marianna Kistler] Beach Museum of Art, the curator—director, actually—asked me if they could have my truck for an exhibition, for a new addition on the building. And I said, oh, that’d be wonderful. And so he sent the technicians over to measure the truck to make sure it would fit in the elevator, the big freight elevator. And the next day I got a call from the director, saying that the truck is six inches too long, and it would not fit in the elevator. And I was really disappointed. And he said, “But, we’re going to rent a crane,” [laughs.] “and pick up the truck and put it in the museum.” So, I don’t know, a couple weeks later, I get the truck over to the museum, and they had a—oh, some big steel pieces that fit under the truck, with big cables that fit up to a center area, and picked the truck up, and in five minutes it was in the museum. And then the next exhibition of the truck was the Memphis Metal Museum. And I had to rent a trailer and take the truck down to Memphis, and got a lot of honking horns from big semis with their thumbs up [laughs.] going down the highway.
CT: Oh, it wasn’t covered, it was just sitting on a trailer.
EP: Yeah, yeah. Delivered the truck, and they—I went back two weeks later for the opening of the exhibition, and the truck—I couldn’t believe it—it was right at the front door of the museum. Oh! Let me back up. The Beach Museum wanted that truck for three months, and within the first month the director called me, and he said, “Elliott, can we keep the truck for a year?” [laughs.] So it was in the Beach Museum for a year. Then, at Memphis, it was there for probably two months. It was a big attraction. The Memphis Museum rents out their beautiful grounds for weddings, and every bride that got married wanted their picture inside of the copper truck.
CT: And you said, you know, thirty years and it was finished. What did “finished” mean?
EP: Well, it’s really not finished. What I would like to do is find someone that would like to purchase the truck, and then dig out, in the ground, probably an eighteen-inch hole the size of the truck, eighteen inches deep all the way around, and put the truck in that depression, and then put dirt around it, so it looks like the truck is dissolving into the ground. And then I have a sunroof on the truck that I—it didn’t come that way, I made a sunroof for the truck. And I would take the sunroof out of the top of the truck—the cab—and the motor out—or the transmission—and—I would like to plant a tree in it. Other people have suggested the American flag, but something needs to go right down inside of the center of the truck. And I haven’t found that person yet that wants to buy it. [Both laugh.]
CT: And then as you worked on the truck, when you would add copper pieces, those were shiny and copper-colored.
CT: And then over time the whole truck—
EP: Turned green. I had to do that. I have a patina that I developed. And I would brush the copper with vinegar. Vinegar is an acid, a mild acid, and it would clean off all the road dirt and anything—tree sap. And then I put this green patina on the truck. When it rains, the truck turns copper-colored brown. Then when it dries out, the sun comes out, or it dries up, it turns green again. So it’s constantly changing color with the atmosphere, which is kind of a nice feature. And I took that in a smaller scale and made a bunch of copper flowers for our yard. And it’s just delightful to watch them change when it rains.
CT: You mentioned earlier that color, as well as texture, has been an important part of your work. So copper has been important; aluminum, for a time of exploration. Do you want to talk about your patinas? Or the attraction of color, or what you were doing?
EP: Did a lot of research on patinas. Let’s say the particular patina that I invented or came up with, that works like a hundred percent, if I put that patina on a piece of copper, and put it on a piece of bronze, and a piece of brass, they’ll be three different shades of green or a blue-green. Because what that patina is doing, it’s corroding—attacking—the copper, the bronze, or the brass. And the alloy of each of those metals reacts differently to that particular patina. I have learned—when I moved, I had some patinas that I made in Philadelphia. And Philadelphia is a very humid city, with several rivers running through it. And then when I moved to Kansas, those patinas didn’t work. It was too dry here. It would evaporate before I could get out the door. So I started putting tents around my work that I wanted to patina to slow down the drying out process. I think I even used a humidifier on a large piece, to keep the humidity up. But eventually I just recalculated the formulas and got them to work in this dry area.
CT: And then, in 2005, you were named Master Metalsmith—
EP: Master Metalsmith by the Memphis Metal Museum. It was somewhat of a retrospective exhibition. I mean there was new work in there, but the truck had never been exhibited in Memphis, or anywhere—until about a year before, when it was exhibited in Manhattan. And I had to—there are collectors that had pieces, so I had to contact them and round up several pieces. But it was a wonderful time for me. I thought the show went off very well. Then in 2010 I was nominated as and got the award of Kansas Governor’s Artist. That’s probably the last big award that I’ve received.
CT: The thing I wanted to ask you about, so the catalogue, for the retrospective in Memphis, there’s a lovely quote from you about the importance of the vessel to you and to your work, and so I wondered if you would speak a little bit about the forms that you have chosen to work with?
EP: The vessel—I’m sure art history helped the foundation of the vessel. As a beginning student, one of our assignments was to form a little copper vessel. I guess I related that process to—I want to say throwing a pot. There’s a certain rhythm, and a constant repetition of—let’s say you’re making a cup or a bowl, you’re constantly pulling that clay up, it’s getting thinner. You’re doing the same thing to a piece of metal when you’re forming that metal. Every time that you planish it, you’re making that metal thinner, as well as bringing the sides up. And, maybe it’s the repetition. I don’t know what it is, but it’s you, the hammer, and the metal, and you definitely set up a cadence so that you don’t go crazy. And then the vessel, it’s like, it could hold air, it could hold secrets, it could hold anything. I then started doing mesh vessels that don’t hold anything; you can see through them. Those create shadows and react with the surface that they’re sitting on. So I think it’s maybe something sacred in that vessel that I keep drawing—am drawn back to that.
CT: You have vessels in the Wichita Art Museum, don’t you?
EP: Yes. They had an exhibition and it was for the blind, the visually impaired. And in that exhibition, they bought three or four pieces for the permanent collection. And those pieces that are for the visually impaired, the last time I was at the museum, they were out, in a room, explaining why they were placed there, and that you can touch them and feel them. And then, I don’t know what year it was—I’ve got the catalogue, several catalogues—of a similar show that was held at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired. And they had a similar exhibition of metal objects, and I believe there were maybe some sculptures. And they purchased a piece also, for their permanent collection. That piece, it was a mesh vessel—in the Wichita show it was a copper three-legged vessel.
CT: Did they buy those pieces specifically with blind visitors in mind?
EP: Right. Right.
CT: And what was it about them?
Elliott Pujol, Textural Copper Vessel, 1977. Copper, 6 x 7 in. Photo by Barbara T. Pujol. Courtesy of Elliott Pujol.
EP: It was I think mostly the texture. And they were a form—they could feel, you know, the contours of the vessel, the edges were folded over so they’re very tactile. And then the mesh piece, where the wires terminate at the top—there, some of the wires are joined together to form one wire, and some of them are balled up on the ends, so there’s a lot of texture going on, on that wire mesh piece. And can imagine that they’ve got a beautiful patina, with all the people touching them. [laughs.]
CT: And had that occurred to you before, that your work might be appealing for the blind?
EP: Well, it didn’t occur to me until these museums contacted me. And I thought, well that’s really interesting; I think I’ll partake and send some work to these exhibitions.
CT: Ah, so the Wichita Art Museum reached out to you and specifically asked for work for blind visitors?
EP: Not just me, but to artists in the craft field – ceramics, metals, fibers. So Wichita—I know because I saw the exhibition—had not just metal objects but a lot of other materials.
CT: This may be a complicated question—but what is your relationship to function? Functional work?
EP: Function. Well, it’s obvious that it’s important in some things. There’s no function in a mesh vessel, or a mesh basket or something. But that mesh vessel was important to make. And the knives I make, the choppers that I make, the bottle openers I make—those are all functional things. I don’t think of my work as necessarily functional. It’s crafted, but it’s also art. And, you know, I—artists are always, at least at the academic level, you’ll find art departments that the 2D people don’t talk to the 3D people. The 2D people, and painters especially, are superior to any of the art. That, you know, you just take things with a grain of salt. And I think crafts have—are dominating the art scene today. It just cycles. Things go around, and they’ll come back. But I don’t know how long the crafts are going to be in the spotlight, with all the technology that we have going on. Technology is just incredible. So, you know, that’s—robotics and things like that I think are probably the next move into art. Maybe solar pieces. Maybe wind pieces.
EP: I’m not against function. I think a lot of early crafts were all—everything tended to be functional, and maybe that was the focus of that program. But in a program today, you can’t have that attitude.
CT: Right. How do you identify yourself?
EP: Well, you know the word “metalsmith” came about in the seventies. And the highest of the smiths is the goldsmith. I don’t know if it’s because of the materials and the cost of that. At the bottom of the smiths is probably the blacksmith. But he’s probably the most important. [laughs.] He made the hammer that you use. He might have made the nails, and all—you know. So it starts probably with the blacksmith, should be at the top, maybe. Coppersmith. I’ve worked predominantly in copper. I guess I could call myself a coppersmith. But that sounds more like a trade.
CT: Like Paul Revere?
EP: Yeah. [laughs.] And so, I don’t know. I—I probably call myself an artist.
CT: I believe—you know, with your academic calendar, you said yesterday that getting out of Manhattan or away from K-State in the summers was valuable. You would go to SummerVail or Penland; one summer I believe you taught for the University of Georgia in Cortona [Italy]. Tell me a little about those experiences. Maybe pick one to start with.
EP: Well, the first one was Penland. I was a student, and then all of a sudden I was an instructor. Penland is very, very dear to me. I think that’s where I really realized that there are a group of people that are doing things very—they’re using their hands just like I am, working on their own projects, and there’s a camaraderie with the artists, that artists develop with one another. So Penland has always been dear to me. I’ve sent a lot of students to Penland, and I’ve taught lots of years at Penland. I think there it’s—you remove yourself from society, you’re on top of this mountain, and it’s [a] beautiful location, and you’re with a bunch of people that are all artists, that are interested in the visuals. And the way they run the program, I think it’s pretty well rehearsed by now. It’s hard to get to, the school. You’re isolated, you’re up on that mountain. There’s no TV, radio, well now everybody’s got their cell phones, but you may not get reception. [laughs.] And then, close to home, close to Kansas, I helped develop a program in Vail, Colorado, called SummerVail. I think it was about 1974, I was invited to go out to Colorado—Colorado Mountain College—and give a slide presentation to Linda Watson’s jewelry class. I met the director, Randy Milhoan; we had lunch. Randy Milhoan, Jim Cotter, and I think a guy by the name of Sparks. We all had lunch, and I told them about the conference that I did at Philadelphia, at Tyler School of Art, and told them about the blacksmithing conference. And I said, “You know, we could do a mini-conference on a weekend.” And so we all put our heads together, and the next year, I think it was 1975, we had the first metalsmithing conference in Vail, Colorado, and I think 150 people showed up. It was a great package deal because there were, I think ten of us, ten metalsmiths, and we were given a two-hour slot—two and a half hours to do some kind of demonstration. So I think I did tubing demonstration. Someone else did a soldering, or someone did a riveting demonstration. And then we would have lunch with—everybody would have lunch together, all of our meals were together. Then at night we would come back together and show slides. So it was a—you were so bombarded with art and ideas, techniques in three days. I mean, blew people away. And that went on for about fourteen years, I believe. Then the enameling society, I think was founded, maybe there at SummerVail, because the enamelists started doing weekend workshops. So there was a lot of energy, a beautiful environment, the other set of mountains—Penland was one set of mountains, and Vail was another set of mountains. So, and then, the nice thing about Vail was that a lot of people came from the west coast, and a lot of people came from the east coast and the Midwest. So it was a real melting pot of artists, and great to see art from the west coast, and ideas—it was just a wonderful happening and time, I guess.
CT: And the program gradually expanded beyond metal, right, to include other media?
EP: Well, during the—they had already had a summer program, SummerVail, or Colorado Mountain College. They were two-week classes. So what this did was—anyone that came to the weekend conference immediately wanted to sign up for a class. So it guaranteed students for the next year, the next summer.
CT: So the conference was separate from—
EP: from that one weekend.
EP: Right, right. And I remember meeting Ken Cory from Bellingham, Washington. A lot of artists from southern California and Washington state. In fact, I took a glass blowing class at SummerVail, and the instructor was from an island off the coast of Washington state. Lark Dalton I believe was his name. The other thing is that Penland School has done a wonderful job with a summer auction that they perform. It’s three days. All of the artists in that area, they open up their studios, and so there are a lot of buyers that come from New York and Miami, Chicago, and buy a lot of art and then take it back to their gallery, or might be for their own personal use.
CT: And you spent a summer in Italy?
EP: Oh, yeah. Cortona, Italy. That was unexpected. The University of Georgia asked me to teach a summer class, a jewelry class, and—another beautiful setting. Another set of mountains in Italy, though. Well actually it wasn’t mountainous, but the town was up on a hill, to protect the town. To eat and drink for two months in Italy was wonderful. Good set of students. Every weekend the art history program took us to another city to look at the art and enjoy different things, the architecture in another city as well. It was a very busy summer, very enjoyable. Always have memories of Cortona.
CT: And, I’m not entirely sure how to phrase the question, but you—you have enjoyed teaching. You’ve enjoyed being a teacher. Can you talk a little bit about that?
EP: Teaching is—it’s a funny thing. I think maybe I said earlier, that I feel that I gained as much from my students as maybe they gained from me. Always trying to help a student find his self or herself—it’s really hard to do. And I just, I have always felt that if a student is really interested in a certain project or a certain thing, then I want to help them improve and master whatever it is they’re trying to do. There are lots of failures. I think to be a good teacher, you have to be patient. I think to be a good artist, you have to be patient. And a lot of people are not patient with themselves. So there’s not much I can do to help them. [laughs.] But it’s—teaching, like I say, it’s been so, such a plus for me, because it, it gave me a salary. I met—in teaching, I’ve met some wonderful people. Still get communication with a lot of former students, and like I say, I’ve learned from those students. So it’s been an ideal job situation for me. Like I say, I can’t imagine trying to make a living. I don’t know that I would be good with the public. I’d probably want to just give it to ’em, rather than sell it to ’em. [laughs.]
CT: What have you done with the work that you’ve created for the shows that you needed to do for your academic role?
EP: Well, I have the biggest collection of Elliott Pujol’s work. [laughs.] And now I’m in the process of figuring out what to do with it. So there was a recent article in—is it American Craft magazine?—so I’m going to look into what they suggest doing about—you know, I have two rooms full of equipment. I probably have over two hundred hammers, all different—every hammer has a certain use. I’ve made a lot of those hammers. Anvils, stakes—you know, I’ve just got all kinds of stuff. What do you do with it? In my will, I have a thing in there to have my tools go to the Penland School of Crafts. Well, you know, that will I made up forty years ago. So today when I go to Penland I think, they don’t need any of my old rusty stuff. [laughs.] They’ve got so much, they don’t know what to do with [it]. So now I’ve got to rethink what’s going to happen to the anvils and the heavier pieces of equipment. Of course my children will—already have—art from me, and will get more, but there’s still a lot more to find out what to do with it, I guess.
CT: Right. And I wanted to go back just for a second to the conferences in the summers, because you took student to conferences. You took students to Repair Days, in Memphis.
EP: Yeah, that’s right. Networking. I really think it’s important that students get out and make contact in any way they can with other people in their area. So when there would be—well, Kansas Artist Craftsmen’s a good example of that, where I tried to develop that so that we went around to different colleges and met the students and the faculty there. So I did the same thing with conferences. I’ve taken students to SNAG conferences, to blacksmithing conferences, taken students to the Metal Museum. Every year, the Metal Museum has a fundraiser, it’s called Repair Days. This past year, we repaired $80,000 worth of junk—er, that’s what we made. Most of the things that we repaired were junk and probably should have been put in the dump. But it’s someone’s personal collection, and it’s something that they want fixed, and they cherish it, so we slave over that object and fix it.
CT: So the Museum offers this as a service to the community—
CT: And they can charge and raise money for it.
CT: What kinds of things did you repair?
EP: Oh, there’s two or three guys that all they do is sharpen knives and tin copper cookware. There’s several people that repair jewelry. There are people that repair statues. There are people that repair lawn mowers and garden furniture. You name it. I’ve repaired a piece that was made by Paul Revere.
EP: So what happens is one hundred fifty students and faculty show up from Purdue, from Indiana, from Michigan, from Illinois, Kansas, you name it. Texas. And a lot them, the first time there. And you can camp out. They provide all the food; you don’t have to pay for anything. It’s all on their dime, but they want you to work for them and have fun. There’s an auction also involved. A lot of the artists donate artwork to the auction. This year’s repairs was $80,000, and I don’t know how much the auction raised. So, I still have students that have graduated that go down to Memphis on their own. I’ll see them down there before I see them in Kansas, or wherever they live. So that’s kind of interesting, that the students want to keep up with that networking.
CT: So it’s like a reunion in Memphis.
EP: Yeah, it’s kind of like a reunion.
CT: Neat. And when did you retire from K-State?
EP: I retired in 2013, I believe it was. For medical reasons, but we had, the university had already hired someone to replace me, Dukno Yoon. And Dukno had been here for three years, so I really didn’t feel bad about retiring. It’s just, it was rather sudden. And I—you know what? I haven’t missed it—well, I have missed it. What I did was, actually, I did phased retirement. I taught three years—I was going to teach for five years, but I taught three years half-time, so I would just teach one semester. And so I kind of eased myself out of the program, and out of being around students. I still have my studio on campus. I feel very fortunate about that. So I’m still around the students, but I’m not teaching, you know, one on one.
CT: And what kind of work are you making now?
EP: I’m doing a lot of catch up. I mentioned earlier the yard art pieces, the y-generation. Oh, I’ve done more whimsical things. I made birdhouses for our property, copper birdhouses, with patina on them. And copper and brass and mesh flowers—perennials that grow year-round. Oh, I’ve had requests for urns for ashes of people that have passed away. That’s kind of a new one. And just enjoying life.
CT: Do you still show your work?
EP: I had work in a show in Paducah, Kentucky, a couple years ago. I send a piece to the Memphis—if I don’t go, I’ll send a piece to the Memphis auction, at the Metal Museum. Or Penland. I alternate, a lot of times, between the two schools. So, no, I haven’t really done any competitive exhibitions, I guess I should say. I’ve slowed down.
CT: It must be nice not to have the pressure to have to do it.
EP: Yeah, that’s part of it, I think. But there are still things that I want to do. You know, I’ve got plenty of metal, and definitely plenty of time. So who knows. [laughs.]
CT: That’s great. That’s a great place, I think, to say thank you so much for your time, and for sharing your story.
EP: Thank you.
[End of interview]