Bill Farr, Handmade Fine Art Jeweler
I had the opportunity to interview Bill Farr — my Dad — about the highlights and important turning points in his career and I think you will find the story interesting…
In 1931, when a local printer in The Floyds, New Jersey gave an 8-year-old boy named Bill Farr some spare newsprint to draw on, I’m sure they had no idea what it would eventually lead to.
That act of depression-era kindness, however, was the starting point that ultimately resulted in a long and productive career in the arts.
In those depression days, materials, as well as education in the arts, were hard to come by. An aspiring artist like my Dad had to use whatever materials were available, had to be self taught, and most critically, had to be self-motivating. However as you’ll see, those things were not disadvantages, but qualities that would blossom and shape the future.
In those early days, Bill did a lot of pencil drawings — mostly animals — on the spare newsprint the printer provided. At the ripe age of 10, however, he “graduated” to painting when he bought a small painting kit with money he earned by selling magazines.
This lead to another entrepreneurial activity… painting Holiday greeting cards which he sold door-to-door in his neighborhood.
High School days found my Dad not only continuing his personal work, but during that time period, he also had his first “commercial” art experience which was painting giant signs for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.This, by the way, was a very large painting job.The billboards were as much as 80 feet long, and had to be painted from scaffolding 70 feet in the air!
After high school, Bill got his first “taste” of working with jewelry by taking a job at local jewelry shop.
While Bill didn’t learn a lot about the “art” of jewelry at this time, he did learn a lot about the craft of making and repairing. He still has, and uses, some of the tools he acquired during that time.
A chance (?) encounter that changed everything and shaped a life…
After a few other odd jobs, Bill landed a position at a company in New Jersey called Volupté.
This company made cosmetic and cigarette cases. Part of the manufacturing process used metal stencils to paint the covers of the cases and Bill’s main job was to cut the stencils. But he also created some stencil designs, and this caught the eye of his boss, Gene Matrachek.
Mr. Matrachek, pulled Bill aside and said, “You know, you’ve got a lot of art ability and you should go to school to develop it.”
Bill, of course, knew that going to school wasn’t an option and promptly replied, “There’s not a chance in hell I could go to school, I don’t have any money, and my parents don’t have any money.”
But there was a way, and Gene Matrachek knew it. He was a graduate of The Cooper Union — which today, as it was then, is one of the top art and architecture schools in the world — and this particular school is one that money can’t get you into… only talent. The Cooper Union (Manhattan, New York) only takes the best, but if you make the cut, it’s free.
Getting into The Cooper Union required a battery of tests and a rigorous application process, which Bill undertook.
Meanwhile, his days at Volupté were numbered. The entire stencil department got laid off when the space and metal working machinery was converted to making machine gun shells for the now-raging World War Two.
The good new was, Bill got approved for The Cooper Union, and in September 1942, he started night school while simultaneously working for Phelps Dodge making wire for the war.
This made for some long days… up around 5am to go to work, then off to school from 6-10pm,then back to New Jersey and home by midnight for a few hours of sleep before doing it again.
But this routine didn’t last long. In December of 1942, my Dad got his calling from the military, and for the next few years, it would be Merry Christmas in the U.S. Army Air Force.
Bill’s artistic abilities weren’t totally lost on the Army Air Force. Despite wanting to be a pilot, they sent him off to photography school at Lowry Field in Colorado.
This, in turn, opened the world of photography as an art form to my Dad.
Special note — Bill Farr is also a very accomplished photographer, and it’s from his teachings that I learned the fundamentals and got the “seeds” for what became my personal style of photography.
Bill was subsequently sent to Italy with a photo reoconniasance unit.
War came, war ended. And at war’s end in 1945, Bill Farr returned from duties in Italy, married Barbara Storm, went back to The Copper Union full time, and completed the 3-year program.
Since The Cooper Union didn’t offer a 4-year degree at the time, Bill’s next stop was the School of the Art institute in Chicago.
After a year, he was was awarded a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and began work on a Masters degree, but the time had come to concentrate on generating income!
The Art of Commerce
After a few art-related, but not-exactly-what-he-was-looking-for, jobs, Bill began work in the package design department at Montgomery Ward in downtown Chicago.
The year was 1955, and his career at Wards would take him through the next 30 years and to the top of his field in the world of design.
Ultimately, my Dad became the corporate design director for Montgomery Ward, which at the time, was a major force in retailing. If you’re old enough to remember Wards, you’ve seen work Bill Farr has either done personally, or presided over.
The commercial work was rewarding. In many ways, commercial art and design is the ultimate human endeavor because it combines problem solving and practical application with emotional and artistic sensibilities. Done right, you have products, stores, packages, support materials, and more, that not only have a practical use, but also touch the human spirit. Most of us may not consciously grasp the importance of “industrial design,” but we all know good design when we experience it, and we know the difference it can make in our lives!
During this time my Dad also designed an award winning family of typefaces called Inverserif. Since it has a “modern look” you will see it used on everything from technology products to the sides of trucks.
Meanwhile, back in the world of fine art
Throughout his long and celebrated commercial career ~ Bill Farr and his design team won many awards and they were well known and respected in the world of design ~ Bill continued to produce fine art.
His main focus during his working career at Wards was sculpture.
This included many free standing pieces, as well as some very innovative “sculptures” that are hung on the wall.
See the Bill Farr Painting and Sculpture Gallery for more examples.
Bill retired from formal work at Wards in 1985, but let me just say that I’ve never seen my Dad ~ or my Mom, Barb Farr, for that matter ~ not actively and simultaneously engaged in several interesting and productive projects.
For my Dad, since “retirement,” those projects included designing and building their house, which is a work of art on the outside and a museum on the inside. But the “main event” of the last few years ~ and what continues to be his work and passion today ~ is handmade fine art jewelry.
The Jewelry Years
Fair enough, but if you dig deeper into that statement, you’ll find an underlying philosophy, which my Dad will clearly tell you, “it’s not what you do, it’s how you think about what you do.”
That “thinking” is evident in everything Bill Farr does, and you will find some common threads throughout his life and art.
Because he grew up in the depression years, making creative use of available and “common” materials was a necessity for Bill to create art. Turning those “common and available” materials into high level fine art has been a recurring theme in Bill’s art.
This simple sculptural form is as elegant today as the day it was created many years ago.
But what I find particularly interesting about this piece, is that you can see the early elements of what would become themes in Bill’s wearable sculptures — flowing forms in wood, natural stone, silver, and an embellishment.
Creating splendor with common things
Rusted nails, fabrics, photos, plastics, and carved plywood are just a few of the “common” materials Bill has used to create interesting and compelling sculptural works.
In Bill’s vision, just about any material is fair game for inclusion in a work of art. Here he has used rusted nails and carved out plywood.
Sometimes Bill will build an entire sculpture around an object or an “incident.”
For example, a camera that fell into a stream became permanently encased in a tank of water and used as a sculpture base, the chromed axle of a Volkswagen Beetle (from a car accident) became integral part of a piece as did old wire spools…
As mentioned earlier, Bill learned much about jewelry making techniques while working for a jeweler after high school. He got started creating his own jewelry, however, while teaching art at a junior high school in the early 1950s.
Because his position gave him access to a kiln, many of these pieces used clay as an integral material, but you can clearly see the “roots” of what was to come in the piece made from ebony and silver…
“It’s not what you do, it’s how you think about what you do”…and the way Bill Farr “thinks” about his work causes him to take a different approach to jewelry.
Part of that approach was a conscious decision not to use precious gems like diamonds, rubies, or emeralds. The current fine art jewelry work of Bill Farr features exotic woods, silver, pearls, natural and semi precious stones, fabric, and of course amazing designs…
It all starts with a basic idea, perhaps based on a photo, stone, found object or even just the shape of frame. There are no plans, sketches (the ones you see in the store were made after the artwork was completed), or preconceived ideas. Each peice is a creative journey and by working on the piece and materials over time ~ sometimes months or even years ~ the ultimate form reveals itself. It is, therefor, not a process of production, but a process of discovery.
Because of this discovery process, each piece is completely unique, never to be repeated.
Many pieces also require the use of special techniques that Bill has developed over the years. You see, shaping wood to flow with elegance, fitting rock to silver while adding embellishments in the form of pearls, textures, even epoxy, are all difficult tasks that aren’t taught in “jewelry school.”
His latest fabric series has also required an extensive “learning curve” to make it all work aesthetically and physically.
But that’s all part of the fun of it, and in those ways, the jewelry of Bill Farr speaks to all of us who are willing to embark on an life long adventure of experimentation and learning!
As you will see in the galleries, the results of these processes are spectacular.
Within each work, you’ll find the sophistication and maturity that comes with a lifetime of work in the arts.
In the wearable sculptures, you’ll also find more than a hint of “practical” design, too. After all, these are quite wearable, and ultimately designed to be a celebration of the person wearing them.
Handmade Fine Art Jewelry by Bill Farr
Wearable Sculpture by Bill Farr
Even a quick look at the wearable creations of Bill Farr will tell you they are very unique items. Each is a one-of-a-kind handcrafted work of art in materials that include sterling silver, exotic woods, stones, gems, fabric, “found objects,” and more. What you won’t find here is a piece that exists solely because of the value of the materials.
Let me explain…
Jewelry, in many cases, tends to be evaluated by the cost of materials… how big and expensive the “rock” is in the setting, or how many gems are encrusted in some precious metal, rather than the level of artistic design.
Artistic design, however, is where the true value of art lies.
For example, a great painting that sells for millions has very little “materials value.” The dried paint, in fact, has almost no value since it can’t be reused. The entire value a great painting is in the artistry… the intangible insights it gives us, and the way it makes us feel.
The jewelry of Bill Farr is very much the same way.
Which is why we like to call it “wearable sculpture.”
Yes, some of the materials used ~ silver, stones, pearls, etc. ~ have significant value. But like any fine work of art, the real value is how they are used in the design of the artwork and the creative journey that resulted in the final piece.
And the creative process used is an important part of the “back story” on these pieces.
Bill Farr has a long history of creating fine art, including full-sized sculptures which you can see in his sculpture gallery. The handmade fine art jewelry ~ aka “wearable sculptures” ~ you see on this site are an extension and miniaturization of that sculptural process.
A Dual Function
You can wear these works of art.
And if you are able to acquire and wear one of these pieces, be prepared to attract some attention and receive lots of compliments.
This, by the way, has been thoroughly tested… wearing a piece of Bill Farr jewelry opens up conversations, spreads enthusiasm, and displays the love of life that is a part of every Bill Farr wearable sculpture.
But also keep in mind that these are museum-quality pieces and you may want to display them in a shadowbox hung on the wall or on a shelf when not in wearable use.
In any case, I hope you will explore and enjoy the Bill Farr galleries. If you are interested in acquiring a piece you can check availability and pricing at the Old Barn Emporium (coming soon).
Jeff Farr, curator, Art By Farr Galleries
Bill Farr died peacefully in his home on 3/5/2015. His artwork and life achievements remain.