“I just make stuff,” says Gary Grossman, as humble as he is talented. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gary has traveled both the country and the globe, picking up artistic influences from other artists and cultures and assimilating new techniques and materials into his works of “wearable sculpture.” Today, Gary resides in Ribera, New Mexico, about 20 miles southwest of Las Vegas where he teaches at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU). Here his jewelry students are privy to his wealth of knowledge, picked up from both his travels and friendships with artists and educators the world over.
Gary’s foray into jewelry began in the late ‘60s at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. “I was in the industrial design program and I was really interested in casting,” he says. “We were casting gold at the time at $35 an ounce.” It was during this time that Gary’s relationship with Rio Grande began. While on a cross-country road trip, Gary made a stop in Albuquerque where he picked up supplies and visited the local pueblos. “I fell in love with the country here, but it took me a long time get here,” he says. Several adventures were in store before Gary would find his way back.
After finishing at Pratt with a degree in industrial design, Gary moved to Europe where escapades ensued, one of which included making jewelry out of bones on the island of Ios in Greece, “living in a cave,” he laughs. Next came a move to West Berlin where he got a job as a bronze finisher at the Hermann Noack foundry, the very foundry tasked with restoring the famous Brandenburg Gate.
Following his travels in Europe, Gary made his way back to the States where he landed at Keystone College in Pennsylvania. Here he worked as a studio assistant for Cliff Prokop in his foundry and sculpture studio. “We started casting iron in 1976 for the bicentennial,” recalls Gary, just one of many memories during his 18 years of teaching casting and jewelry at the college.
A move to the Northeast brought him to the Berkshire Botanical Garden and Education Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts as an artist-in-residence, all the while selling mostly commissioned pieces and showing his work in “little galleries here and there.” After stints in both Patagonia, Arizona and Corvallis, Oregon, Gary made his way back to Pennsylvania once more, opening a gallery, Silvery Moon, with several artist friends. “We had a jewelry studio in the gallery that people could watch us work,” says Gary. Furthering his gallery experience, Gary and several friends also opened the Artists for Art Gallery in Scranton, PA which is “still going strong with a lot of the original artists involved,” he says.
During his time in Pennsylvania, Gary continued honing his skills and adding to his repertoire by taking classes at Peters Valley, “right over the Pennsylvania/New Jersey line,” he says. There he studied titanium, photo etching, keum-boo and enameling from masters like Bill Sealy, Marianne Scherr, Tamika Kim and David Freda.
Relocating to Florida, and then moving in the complete opposite direction to Washington state, Gary become involved with the Seattle Metals Guild. Here he studied with Phil Baldwin, Mary Lee Hu, Charles Lewton-Brain and Megan Corwin among others.
Along with other educators including the late Nancy Warden, Gary and his peers “started passing the torch,” beginning the Washington State Jewelry and Metal Sculpture competition and exhibition for high school students. “My students won many times, first in state,” Gary recalls proudly. One student in particular, who later became a student of Nanz Aalund, even went on to win a Saul Bell Design Award in the category of Emerging Jewelry Artist, 18 Years of Age or Younger.
Retiring from teaching in Seattle in 2011, Gary finally found his way back to New Mexico, making the move with his partner Persephone and their two dogs, Gaea and Vulcan, the latter named after the Roman god of metalworking and the forge. Arriving in Ribera, “there were 2 things I wanted to do,” says Gary. “I wanted to study with a santero and study with a Pueblo master potter.” Working with a santero—a person who makes religious images—Gary learned to make a santo, or a wooden representation of a saint, which he later cast in iron and bronze with the help of David Lobdell, a fine arts professor at the college. Gary’s so-called retirement didn’t last long as he then agreed to join the staff at NMHU at David’s request.
“I think throughout your life, if you’re lucky, you come across people who impart things to you […] I’ve had these people and what it made me do is share with people,” says Gary. “That’s what teaching is to me. I just share what I’ve learned. And I’m always into learning more.” The perpetual student, Gary credits teachers Michael Jerry, Sydney Scherr and Donald Lanzer at Santa Fe Community College with influence on both his metal skills and teaching style. Today, with the upcoming semester at NMHU just around the corner, Gary plans to introduce glass bead-making to his curriculum that also covers enameling, working with titanium, photo silk-screen etching and more.
“What I try to instill in my students is the ‘wow factor,’” he says. “When people look at my stuff, I want them to go ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that.’ And I do the same with my students. I say, ‘Show me something I’ve never seen before.’”
As a maker of “stuff,” Gary is heavily influenced and inspired by the natural world around him. Along with his immense creative expertise, Gary is also a breeder of game birds, raising everything from quails to emus. “I’ve raised deer, bison; I love being around animals, especially birds, and I put a lot of that into my work,” he says.
With so many elements working together in his pieces, Gary enjoys pushing the boundaries of metal working. “I call myself a multidisciplinary artist because I always find things in one medium that I can transfer into others,” he states. Along with casted silver, Gary’s self-proclaimed “anthropomorphic” pieces often incorporate tufa stone and cuttlefish bones. “I don’t use a lots of precious metals, but when people buy my work they are buying the artwork and not the metal,” he says.
With plans to teach for another five years or so before attempting to retire once more, Gary is focused on passing down his wealth of knowledge to his students. “There’s a song by the singer songwriter Laurie Anderson that goes, ‘When my father died, it was like a library burned down,’ and I always think about that,” he says. He is thinking not of a personal legacy but rather “a legacy of what I’ve learned to be continued by others,” Gary says. “I just love all the processes and techniques and materials. It is just a joy and a real gift to be able to share that with other people.”