James Metcalf: US sculptor who led a community of artists and artisans in Mexico

 

From his long reign as grand seigneur of Santa Clara del Cobre, high in the Michoacá* mountains of Mexico, James "Jimmy" Metcalf could look back on an extraordinary life in which he knew "everyone" and did everything.

His was a life which echoes two Woody Allen films – Zelig, about a man who constantly reappears throughout 20th-century history; and Midnight in Paris, about an American enjoying the highest haute bohemia of a mythic Paris. Metcalf was the classic GI who came to Paris after the war to make art, as well as love; he conquered that city as he was later to dominate what was practically his own town in Mexico – albeit one ruled through expertise and generosity. For here Metcalf had almost single-handedly saved an indigenous industry – metalworking – and its ancient skills and traditions; he turned Santa Clara into a model of co-operation and sustainability.

Metcalf was born to artists. Both of his parents worked with stained-glass, notably on the windows of St John the Divine in New York. Metcalf himself began working with his hands at a very young age, being, providentially, already registered as a sculptor when at 18 he joined the "Blue Devils", the 88th Division of the US Army.

During the Second World War, Metcalf was involved in ferocious fighting at the Furto Pass, in northern Italy, and lost three fingers of his left hand. This not only assured a heroic presence at any cocktail party, but also guaranteed a handsome lifelong pension.

Metcalf then attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and whilst learning welding made and installed windows in churches and cathedrals all around the US. Already committed to the utopian ideals of William Morris, it was natural that Metcalf should enlist at the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London, where he studied metalwork with the last great European smith, Francis Adam, who had been official sword-maker to Emperor Franz Joseph himself. Typically, Metcalf also became close friends with both Eduardo Paolozzi and the late Richard Hamilton.

Starting in 1953, Metcalf spent much time in Deya, Mallorca, where resident guru Robert Graves became obsessed with him as a figure of masculine creativity, naming him Hephaestus: "If you want to know anything about metal, here is the man!" Graves also enlisted him to create the wood engravings for his book Adam's Rib.

Metcalf lived in Paris from 1956 to 1965, taking a studio on the Impasse Ronsin, a legendary row of ateliers ("that most distinguished site of modernism" according to the critic John Russell) where his immediate neighbour was Brancusi and fellow young artists included Niki de St Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, and designer-sculptors les Lalannes.

He willingly taught his fellow artists metalworking techniques, as he was to do throughout his life, and soon found himself at the centre of Paris society. With his striking good looks he was often confused with his friend, the budding actor Alain Delon, with whom he made the rounds of every boîte with fellow playboys Rubirosa and Ali Kahn. Thus Metcalf met everyone, from writers such as Harry Mathews and James Salter to an older generation of artists, including Duchamp, Man Ray, Magritte, Wilfredo Lam and William Copley.

On moving back to New York in 1965, where he worked on Spring Street in the then emergent SoHo, Metcalf already had an impressive track record as an exhibiting sculptor; but he soon tired of the contemporary art world, with its emphasis on individual success as judged by sales of work. He thus fled to Mexico.

He had been a rakish American war hero in Paris and was treated as such in cosmopolitan Mexico City, where he was befriended by such writers as Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Pellicer, even introducing Paz to Duchamp.

He also found a wife, possibly his third, the fabled Mexican actress Pilar Pellicer, one of three renowned beauties from that highly cultured family. One sister was Brando's girlfriend whilst the younger sister, Ana, was also eventually to become Metcalf's wife.

And it was with Ana that Metcalf found at last not only true love, but also a working partner, with whom he set about restoring the glories of Santa Clara. Here Metcalf worked, taught and inspired the local population, with the result that whilst his French was of impeccable old-fashioned sophistication (his aunt, after all, was headmistress of Switzerland's most exclusive finishing school, Le Rosey) his Spanish was pure peasant.

At Santa Clara he worked with the native artisans in their forges, where vestiges of a pre-Columbian technique survived, demonstrating what they could do with their technique of forging from a thick block of copper.

He won the commission to forge the Olympic Torch for the 1968 games in Mexico City, convincing officials that a forge akin to the Greek forge at the time of the very first Olympics was still alive in Mexico.

Metcalf and Pellicer directed a craft school within the Mexican technical education system for more than two decades, which became the jewel in the crown of Mexican popular arts. If life there was relatively isolated, certainly compared to the pan-international high-society of London, Mallorca and Paris, Santa Clara had soon become something of a pilgrimage destination for art historians, writers and researchers. Visitors paying homage over the years included Alain Robbe-Grillet and Seamus Heaney, W S Merwin, Alastair Reid and Graves himself. Laura Bush visited the town when her husband was governor of Texas and was so impressed that she later acquired a trove of Santa Clara silver for the White House collection.

Not least thanks to Roy Skodnick, the official biographer whose long work is now finally finished, there were two documentaries made on Metcalf and Santa Clara as well as a travelling exhibition and attendent catalogues.

Metcalf's adventure in Michoacá* might be titled "News from Somewhere", as opposed to Morris's News from Nowhere, for Santa Clara del Cobre is a real place, today bridged into this new century, fusing ancient arts with contemporary methods. And here Metcalf is buried, in the garden of the hilltop town he so transformed, amongst his own sculptures, a soldier at rest.

Adrian Dannatt

James Metcalf, artist and educator: born New York City 11 March 1925; married first Fran Baker (marriage dissolved), second Elizabeth Morss (marriage dissolved), third Pilar Pellicer (two sons, one daughter); died Santa Clara del Cobre 27 January 2012.

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