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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick