It's not every dog that gets to chomp breakfast out of a bowl made of 18-karat gold. But Sister did.
She was a black Labrador retriever, the fortunate pet of Gary Lee Noffke, 67, a metalsmith with talent and skill - and definite opinions on art and life in general. "I respect animals more than I do most people," the artist says by phone from his home in the woods south of Athens, Ga. "I don't think most people, including myself, deserve to have a bowl like that."
In 2001, Noffke retired after 30 years of teaching at the University of Georgia. He still makes art although his studio schedule has eased. But if anything, his reputation has grown. And it's about to get a significant boost.
On Saturday, "Attitude and Alchemy: The Metalwork of Gary Lee Noffke" opens at the Mint Museum Uptown. At 7 p.m. Thursday, he will give a free public talk at the museum.
This is a major retrospective, with about 130 pieces covering almost 50 years - bowls, spoons and jewelry made of silver and gold with Noffke's trademark expressive and richly worked surfaces.
Featured are the kind of functional works Noffke is known for, items made to be used as much as looked at. These pieces show his willingness to go against the grain, his sense of humor, and technical innovations such as how to hot-forge gold and silver.
The first solo exhibition at the new Mint Museum of Craft + Design, it's a perfect fit, bringing attention to an artist well-known in the field but not to a general audience, someone who lives in the region and has had an impact on metalsmithing.
"The Mint is an extremely prestigious institution, and they have chosen to acknowledge his contribution to the field and the aesthetic beauty of his work over those 50 years," says Kathryn Gremley, gallery manager at the Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville. "That they should choose to do so illustrates the skill and insight of both the institution and the artist."
The exhibit will include a photo of Sister, who died on New Year's Day 2006. Also on view from Noffke's studio will be tools, an anvil and a refrigerator with a decorated surface. Its absence has put him in a bind. "I've been drinking warm beer since that thing went away," he says.
Going his own way
The label on one piece in the show says it was made in 497 B.C. It's a poke in the ribs aimed at academics who like to fix things in time and categories and critics who spin theories.
White-haired and intense, Noffke believes art cannot be explained in words. "It's a mystery," he says. And besides, "People in the arts don't know anything more than people on the street."
Noffke has a deep respect for craft traditions, for tools and hard work, says Allie Farlowe, the Mint curator who put together the show and studied with him at Georgia. But he also rebels against conventions of what metalwork should look like - a smooth surface as opposed to one showing hammer marks.
It's a bit of a contradiction, but, he says, "I've managed to pull that off."
He began working with his hands as a child. Growing up in a working-class family in southern Illinois, he visited his grandfather's farm on weekends. He made his own toys: bows and arrows, slingshots, a whistle carved from a willow branch. As a 4-year-old, he had his own pocketknife.
In college he was a painter. Abstract Expressionism, the reigning style in the 1960s, touched him, the work and ideas of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. So-called action painters, they attacked canvases, leaving marks, drips and smears.
Noffke likewise is expressive and spontaneous when he works with metal, a more unyielding material than paint.
Anchored in the real
Before he begins he sees a piece in his mind "as clear as a bell" - how much material he will need, how big it will be and how thin. But as he works, he's loose. "I let it go a bit where it wants to go itself," he says. "I don't want to be in control of it. You can overwork a thing."
The surface of a masterwork in the show, an 18-karat gold goblet fashioned from a billet smaller than a hockey puck, gleams with embossed and incised numbers, letters, hearts, arrows, crosses, dollar signs - and more. Blow-up photographs will help viewers appreciate such detail.
Another piece looks like evidence of Noffke's sense of humor - a spoon with holes. Actually, it's a highly practical capers spoon, slim enough to fit into those narrow jars and with holes to drain the juice.
In his love of functional work, Noffke departs from current craft trends that look to abstract or conceptual art. "They're trying too hard to be artists," he says. His art is anchored in the real - a whiskey flask, cappuccino maker, wedding ring.
He made salad utensils out of repurposed silver forks and spoons that have been amalgamated and elongated. A stainless steel garden tool has a fork on one end and a trowel blade on other. Noffke used it in his own garden - and lost it more than once.
Making a statement
His work is also personal, not just in what he makes and how he makes it. Noffke finds meaning in making art for a particular person, such as a silver cup for his daughter, Sydney.
Noffke's work is in major collections - Bank of America and Ted Turner's - but he's not pushed to sell through galleries. He fears making something just to sell it. "I'm a very bad businessman," he says.
His art expresses what he thinks and feels. Like that bowl for Sister. Why should only kings and queens, the wealthy, have things made of gold? And why shouldn't such a precious material be used to make such a common object?
What he says about the dog's bowl could be said about all his work. "That bowl is a statement about values."