(Video and photos by Cliff Hollis)

Smithsonian catalogues papers, sketches, correspondence of ECU artist

July 9, 2015

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

Items in the Smithsonian collection include:

Biographical Material, 1920-2014, around 14 folders (awards, family papers, and miscellaneous items like pins, an NPR interview, and Bob’s high school graduation program)

Correspondence, 1965-2015, around 15 folders (business and personal letters as well as a collection of mail art)

Writings, circa 1945-2014, around 4 folders (writings by Bob as well as writings by others about him and writings by family members)

Teaching Files, 1974-2012, around 5 folders (student project proposals, letters of recommendation for students, and Bob’s application for the Belk Chair position at ECU)

Personal Business Records, circa 1963-2006, around 17 folders (inventories, invoices, planning documents for his retrospectives at SUNY-New Paltz in 1989 NC State in 2003)

Printed Material, 1949-2015, around 21 folders (news clippings, exhibition announcements, brochures, catalogs, posters)

Artwork, circa 1940s-1987, around 8 folders (mostly sketches, but also a piece of artwork from Bob’s childhood, a collage book, and some cut-paper art)

Sketchbooks, 1963-1966, much undated, around 5 folders (sketchbooks from his times in Norway for the Fulbright and the Tiffany Foundation)

Photographs, 1938-2012, around 40 folders (photographs of Bob, of his friends/family/colleagues/workshops, and of artwork)

An East Carolina University art professor has been recognized once again by the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, which is cataloguing his papers, photographs, sketches and letters.

It’s the third time that the Smithsonian has honored Bob Ebendorf, professor emeritus of metal design at ECU. In 2003 the Smithsonian held a 40-year retrospective exhibition of Ebendorf’s work. And in 2004, he was identified as one of 100 significant American artists and interviewed extensively for their Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America oral history project.

“He is one of the pioneer jewelry artists in the United States and that’s one of the reasons his records have a strong interest,” said Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian archives.  

Ebendorf, an internationally known master metalsmith and jewelry designer, incorporates cast-off objects into his works, making used things new again, while pairing unusual items from broken glass to bone in his one-of-a-kind designs. He often finds inspiration and materials on his daily walks between his home and ECU’s Jenkins Fine Arts Center.

The items being catalogued go back to the 1930s, including family photos and artwork from Ebendorf’s childhood in Topeka, Kansas, to letters of recommendation for his students, to a year’s worth of postcards he exchanged with the son of a family friend. Ebendorf estimated that more than 1,000 pieces would be permanently preserved.

“These papers finding their way to this mecca and all that’s there in the archives is a very humbling and celebratory moment,” Ebendorf said.

Savig met with Ebendorf in April at his home studio and at the Greenville Museum of Art, which at the time was hosting the show “Materials and Making: Celebrating the Artwork of Robert W. Ebendorf.”

“What interests me about Bob’s work is his irrepressible fascination with process,” Savig said. “This is evident in his papers as we can trace his evolving interest in materials and techniques.”

There are also biographical materials such as Ebendorf’s awards and his high school graduation program, writings by Ebendorf and his family members, teaching files, personal business records, print materials, artwork (mainly sketches but some cut-paper art and collages), sketchbooks from his times in Norway as a Fulbright Fellow and later through a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant, and about 40 folders full of photographs.    
Shown above is Ebendorf's artwork at the Greenville Museum of Art exhibit.

“What I think is great about Bob’s papers is the diversity of archival materials,” Savig said. “The collection is a wealth of correspondence, photographs, rare printed material and teaching notes. They offer great insight into Bob’s life and creative career as a jeweler and, more broadly, they will help researchers situate Bob and the craft of jewelry in the broader history of American art. We’re honored to preserve these materials and make them available to the public.”

The Smithsonian is developing a finding aid that will provide information on the contents of Ebendorf’s archival collections. Expected to be completed this summer, the collection will be open to researchers at the Smithsonian’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

In April, Ebendorf said a rush of emotions came as he was looking through a table full of items dating back to junior high school. He had to set boundaries to avoid getting caught up in reading every piece of paper, he said.

“I’m in the last quarter of my life,” Ebendorf said. “It’s emotional, but what a wonderful resting ground for them.”

Examples of Ebendorf’s work are in 29 museums around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Through the years, he has completed large commissions for corporations, temples, churches and private clientele.

In 1995, Ebendorf was awarded the American Craft Council Fellowship for his achievement in craft and commitment to the craft movement. He received the 2010 North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor.

And in 2014, Ebendorf received the Society of North American Goldsmiths Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the society to individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of contemporary jewelry and metalsmithing throughout their careers.

Ebendorf has taught undergraduate and graduate students for the past 17 years at ECU. He’s also helped raise funds for art scholarships at ECU; there is an endowed scholarship in his name. Before joining East Carolina, Ebendorf taught at the University of Georgia and State University of New York at New Paltz.

Ebendorf received his bachelor of fine arts in 1960 and a master of fine arts in 1962 from the University of Kansas.

Pictured below, ECU artist Bob Ebendorf and Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian archives, view Ebendorf's artwork on display at the Greenville Museum of Art.