Recommended Reading: Adornment: The Art of Barbara Natoli Witt
January 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
My first interview of the New Year is one that is long overdue. I met Barbara Natoli Witt, a creatively brilliant and effervescent artist and jewelry designer, in her hotel room when she was last in New York for a showing of her magnificent necklaces at the Museum of Art and Design in Columbus Circle. Although you won’t be able to view the exhibit any longer, you can and should order a copy of her book, Adornment, The Art of Barbara Natoli Witt, written by Lois Sherr Dubin.
Ms. Witt connected with me after reading my posts on John Tiffany’s book about his former boss and mentor, Eleanor Lambert. Ms. Lambert had been a great client and friend of Ms. Natoli Witt’s, and it’s easy to see why. Since the 1970s, Ms. Natoli Witt has been known for her bold beaded and macramé necklaces, which incorporate artifacts from Asian, Pre-Columbian, European and Asian provenance. In an era when so many jewelry, accessories and fashion designers toss cultural references about from season to season without really understanding them, it was refreshing to meet someone like Ms. Natoli Witt and to hear about her longstanding and ever-evolving knowledge of ancient cultures and history. Each of her necklaces tells a story, and carries great symbolic meaning.
Ms. Natoli Witt’s necklaces have been featured at the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the Oakland Museum of California, among other major museums, and have been worn on grand style-setters like Clare Booth Luce, Diana Vreeland and Magrit Biever Mondavi.
Adornment is a wonderful tour through Ms. Natoli Witt’s beautiful work, with explanations and anecdotes by Ms. Sherr Dubin, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing. The stories and symbolism behind each piece in the book are fascinating, and I’d encourage you to check it out, both for inspiration and education.
Thank you to Ms. Natoli Witt and Ms. Sherr Dubin for a lively and interesting discussion of art, commerce, history and literature.
TP: How did you become interested in the cultures whose artifacts you work with?
BNW: After art school here in New York at Cooper Union, I went out to California, to Berkeley, at a time when they had an extraordinarily good art history department. I basically just immersed myself in that. In California, there was a great interest in Pre-Columbian culture. I had an exhibit in San Francisco and a woman bought one of my necklaces. It turned out that she was a sculptor who lived part of the year in Italy and part of the year in LA. She asked the owner of the gallery if she came up with some bits and pieces if I would consider working with her. Her things ended up being Pre-Columbian pieces.
I made a plan to visit her in LA because she wanted to take me to see a friend who apparently had a wonderful collection of Pre-Columbian art. So we started this series of adventures where I would fly down to LA and visit this gallery, which still exists. The most wonderful part about this gallery was that the man who ran it had an enormous crush on my friend. After we all had tea, and he wanted to read her poems, he sent me out with a little empty box to find what I wanted. His father had actually gone on the digs in Mexico. In those years, that was perfectly OK. You went down or you underwrote a particular expedition and you would get particular things from it. The same thing was done, much earlier, in Egypt. Everything the gallery owner had was labeled and inventoried. So that’s how I started learning. Once you get into something like that, the amount of knowledge you gain is very important and instructive.
Besides the blood and guts and gore that Pre-Columbian art is known for, which I don’t use, there are wonderful portrayals of animals and people in spiritual combinations within the art form. That really spoke to me as an artist.
TP: Did this work cause you to be interested in other cultures?
BNW: Yes. I started realizing that the information was out there, and this was of course way before the internet, so I visited a lot of bookstores and went to a lot of lectures. In Los Angeles, I also got to know a woman named Mitzi Landau who had a great gallery. Her husband’s name was Felix and he was very well known in the modern art business. They had the first real modern art gallery in Los Angeles.
Later on, Mitzi and I often went to lectures at UCLA. At one point, she told me that an upcoming lecture would feature a woman named Marija Gimbutas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marija_Gimbutas), and that I might be interested in her work. We met Marija and I began reading her books. She’d lead a very interesting life growing up in Lithuania. She was interested in music and was sent out on summer holiday to record folk tunes and chords. What she discovered was that this went back to pre-history. That part of Europe was the last to be Christianized and it never really took. They had the last vestiges of the goddess culture, dating back to 30,000 B.C. So Marija wrote a number of books, but the one that I consult all the time is called The Language of the Goddess. Her work opened up a whole group of people to me. So there are all these pathways to inspiration and many of them come from people I meet.
TP: Your research/connections/knowledge in terms of symbolism is impressive at a time when in fashion and accessories; references to history/art are made so lightly/often.
BNW: It’s like getting a key and unlocking one door and then another. I had a bit of schooling in San Francisco from the Chinese dealers and I have a wonderful friend who still coaches me. Many of the Chinese symbols look very baroque. Much of it is basic human instinct. In this fantastic bookshop in Chicago, I picked up a book on symbolism that reads like a textbook. It explains that in certain cultures, you have this basic symbolism; then you have another level of communication in that you have the sound of the word. And that, especially in Chinese, that sound will have a similarity to another word with a different meaning. So suddenly you have this object, meaning what it originally meant plus what goes on within the language. So that is why when you put certain objects together in a carving, or a piece of art in the Chinese culture, you begin to put together a story.
TP: Are you always looking for elements/pieces for your work?
BNW: Buying outside of the United States can get you in a lot of trouble. I’ll often go and look and learn a lot. But if anything is going to be at all questionable in terms of importability, with the U.N. rules and so on, then I don’t buy. Instead I buy here at auction. It’s just not worth the hassle. Sometimes I’ll go to flea markets in Paris and find Tunisian and Moroccan pieces. There are also dealers here. Over the years, I’ve also put away things that I’ve felt needed to be attended to at leisure, and I’m now starting to use those and it’s turning out to be really intriguing.
TP: Do you put together shows for museums often?
BNW: I do a number of museum exhibitions and I want to do more. I’m actually hoping to do an exhibit that shows the pieces in the book. The book will turn out to be a really good catalogue of the symbolism of the pieces. Because it’s the symbolism that really hooks me.
TP: How did you and Lois meet?
Lois Sherr Dubin: I had done a book called The History of Beads for Harry Abrams, and when the book had just come out, a woman representing Barbara called me and said that it was too bad that Barbara’s work wasn’t in the book. So I met her in 1988, and I think I bought a necklace. That was the beginning of our 22-year friendship. I think Barbara’s work is as good as it is because she’s such an integrated human being. Out of 1500 necklaces, she and I worked together to select 200 for the book.
The way that Barbara has carved her career has been quite unique. She’s been very strong; she’s a risk-taker. She has opted not to follow the conventional route. Her jewelry has real meaning, not just a surface look. What resonated with me about Barbara’s work, among so many people doing jewelry, is that she really likes things to make sense, along with being sexy and being all that adornment is supposed to be.
TP: (To Barbara) Have your customers, over the years, been as interested in meaning as Lois is, or more interested in the look of your pieces?
BNW: They are women who are secure in their identities; they know who they are as people. I love being in a business that makes people happy (quote from book). My customers are often collectors of my work.
TP: Did you ever think, with jewelry being such a big business, about consulting for a big company?
BNW: Yes, and I decided it really wasn’t for me. My dad was a contractor, and did very well in his life, but he stayed true to himself. He said, “If you want to do what it is you love to do, you have to be small enough in your firm to still be able to do it. Or else you become a management person.”
TP: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Eleanor Lambert?
BNW: I first met Ms. Lambert through Nancy Holmes. Nancy was a writer and photographer who’d started out as a model (http://thesocietydiplomat.com/legendary/2010/10/1/nancy-holmes-soft-focus.html). Apparently, she was the first American woman to be hired as a runway model in Paris. She had discovered my work in Palm Springs. I began visiting her here in New York, and she was living then at what was the Mayfair Regent. I also loved the hotel and started staying there. The hotel’s restaurant and room service there of course was Le Cirque. So Nancy would invite all her pals to lunch there and then up to my suite for dessert. She told me, “I can make the introductions, but there’s only one woman in New York that can make them buy.” And that of course, was Eleanor.
So she sent me over to Eleanor’s office, and she looked over everything and liked the pieces. She asked me what I was doing that day, and then gave me a phone number she wanted me to call at a very precise time. She told me to make myself available to do whatever I was told on the phone. So I made the call, and afterwards made my way up to Park Avenue. I asked for Mrs. Agnelli, took a tiny elevator up, and when I got to the right floor, the doors closed behind me. The apartment was an entirely mirrored space. All of a sudden the wall opens and there she was. She bought many pieces and we developed a great client relationship. She made suggestions, as she herself had great elegance and a beautiful neck.
Eleanor was just an honest person. She never lied to you, she told it the way it was. I could see why everyone wanted to work with her. You had to show up on time, and with a good amount of work when you went to see her. It was part of the deal. She worked with young talent, often pro bono, telling them to save their money, put it into their businesses, and to pay her back when they became successful.
One day, after Eleanor had sold her business, I went up to have breakfast with her and she went to answer the phone. As she was walking by, she patted a large stack of papers, and said, “That’s a lease. My lawyer refuses to read it for me, but the truth is, I’m going back into business.” She had retired and I really didn’t know how old she was. As I walked into her library while she was on the phone, I looked around the room and saw a book about Noguchi. I knew that she had represented him. So I pulled it off the shelf. I then realized that the bust out in the hall (by him) was of her, and because it was a portrait, it gave her date of birth, which was 1903. So suddenly it popped into my mind, Good God, no wonder the lawyer doesn’t want to read the lease, this is a 90-year-old woman! As it had turned out, when she retired, and had sold the business, she hadn’t put any exclusionary clause in the deal because the new owners didn’t expect her to go back into the business. Well she went back into business, and the way I heard it, she had all of her clients back within two months.
TP: How did you meet Diana Vreeland?
BNW: I met Annette Reed, now Annette de la Renta, and she and her mother gave one of my necklaces to Diana Vreeland. It was a huge collar piece made with pieces of Pre-Columbian gold. It was very fragile, and I labeled it as such. She wore it one night, but didn’t like the way it looked and thought something was wrong with it, and sent it back to me. I waited for my jeweler to get back into town to re-set each piece of the necklace.
Mrs. Vreeland called me at 6am and asked where her necklace was. I told her I was waiting for the jeweler. She was impatient. I suggested sending everything I had to my publicist in New York to have them bring the jewelry over to her apartment. I told her that she could pick absolutely anything she wanted, and that she could wear whatever she chose while the other necklace was being repaired, or she could make an exchange.
So my publicist packed everything up and brought it to Mrs. Vreeland’s apartment. When she appeared, she was dripping in ivory. Mrs. Vreeland chose the one ivory piece in the collection and it was love at first sight. So after wearing it a lot, she made an exchange.