Event Review by Jessica Dunn
Dr. Edith Frampton of San Diego State University led, in conjunction with STRUCK BY MODERNISM curator Dave Hampton, a book club discussion at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park on November 9. The event was organized to relate the works of the blacksmith artist C. Carl Jennings with Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Great Expectations. Hampton confessed his surprise at being approached with the idea of a Dickens novel comparison, but the resulting discussion proved the combination to be very thought-provoking.
Taking place in the clean, modern setting of the Mingei, the event began with a brief introductory lecture from Dr. Frampton regarding issues and themes prevalent in Great Expectations that could possibly be related to the exhibition. The themes presented included such ideas as, roles and sentiments related to masculinity, the constitution of the title gentleman, social class divisions in Victorian Britain, rhythm and musicality in metalwork, and representations of masculinity and femininity. A series of prompts were paired with the lecture, which were pondered as the group viewed the many pieces of the STRUCK BY MODERNISM collection.
Hampton then gave an overview of Jennings’ life (1910-2003), which revealed that Jennings was very familiar with the idea of class divisions. As one of the last legitimate blacksmiths of the United States, post-WWI, Jennings had difficulty finding a demand for his skill in the job market. While making his living in the construction business, Jennings craved a more artistic outlet for his craft, but he did not have the means to embark on such an education. Fortune smiled on Jennings when he was given a groundskeeper job at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, which provided him the opportunity to audit and participate in classes to build his knowledge of design.
Hampton explained that Jennings’ humble disposition was juxtaposed with the attention he received for his modernized approach to metalwork. Reporters would come around to take photos of Jennings and glorify his work, but he never dressed up or submitted to staged photos. He just always wore his regular working gear to remain honest and true to his craft. This information generated excellent discussion with the book club in regards to the character Joe, a humble blacksmith in Great Expectations. It was pointed out that while in the company of a gentleman, Joe does not attempt to deny his working-class status as he conveys the pride he takes in the blacksmith’s craft.
The parallels between Jennings and Joe became even more apparent with the topic of masculinity. Being the tradesmen, the men were responsible for providing the financial support for their families, which was the common and accurate role for a male in the two different time periods and countries. Even more so, the physical labor the two men performed for their livelihoods was regarded as an exclusively male profession.
The group expanded the topic of masculinity into a discussion of the feminine influences on each blacksmith by bringing up their respective wives. Participants seemed to agree upon marital relationships as a difference between the character Joe and Jennings. The rhythmic musicality of metalwork and the potential sensuality of the art were other points of interest that introduced ambiguity and speculation into the already varied conversation.
The creative combination of 19th century British literature, modern American blacksmith-art and well-read participants resulted in an exemplary book club meeting. Not only was the discussion diverse, but it was a pleasure to witness the incredible amounts of analysis that were inspired by this well-crafted event.