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portrait of Woell

Fred Woell

"My interest in metal came by way of chance" ,

says Woell. He was initially more inclined to be a painter or sculptor. Woell had no interest in the crafts. However, while completing his BFA in art education at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he was required to take two semesters of crafts. Woell had a choice between ceramics or metals. He chose ceramics and liked it so much he enrolled in it for another semester. Don Frith, Woell's ceramics instructor, suggested that Woell take a metals class with Robert Von Nuemann, because he was considered one of the best in his field at the time. Woell liked Frith and valued his advice. As a result, he was introduced to metals and liked it better than ceramics and has never been away from working in metal since.

Woell credits Robert Von Neumann for getting him started in art metals. He also suggested that Woell pursue graduate work at University of Wisconsin at Madison under Arthur Vierthaler. Vierthaler was a very positive influence upon Woell as an artist and metalsmith. He encouraged Woell in a way that nurtured Woell's desire to express himself creatively without trying to make him into a metal's department image of excellence. Vierthaler gave him a lot of room to be himself and fail. Vierthaler saw that Woell worked hard, but did not push him to be a "jack of all techniques". Woell evolved as a unique artist and technically he learned what he needed to learn to seek and develop his ideas. Vierthaler became a friend as well as a teacher to Woell.

Much later Woell met John Cage after a performance lecture and even though the encounter was brief, he inspired Woell to try things that were not conservative in nature in his work. Cage's work in music was out on the edge was an inspiration to Woell to do the same.

Abraham Lincoln had a significant influence on Woell's life. He was born and raised in Lincoln country. He lived in Springfield, Illinois for a short time when he was young and visited Lincoln's home and tomb. He walked all of the "Lincoln Trails" as a boy scout which is a total of seventy-two miles across three states: Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. He read many books on Lincoln's life and was inspired by Lincoln's ethics and life. Woell has and still does use Lincoln's image in many of his pieces.

Another important influence on Woell was a show in New York City called "The Art of Personal Adornment". In that show he saw the work of a woman who had made jewelry out of junk. Woell already made one piece of jewelry out of his dad's old wrist watch case entitled "Lincoln for President". Seeing the show in New York encouraged Woell to do more jewelry with found objects and "junk". Woell brought some of his work to New York City hoping to find a gallery to sell it in (of which there were none). Woell was told by those he met that if he wanted to sell his work in New York galleries at the time he had to make it out of gold. He had been doing his pieces in cast silver. Woell recalls,

"The Scandinavian silver jewelry had hit the NYC market and it was in expense, nicely designed, and everyone was buying it and not contemporary American jewelry. That really made me mad to think that the metal you chose to create your jewelry in would determine whether it was acceptable in the marketplace, so I returned to the Midwest and decided to make my work out of materials that had NO value whatsoever. The first piece I made was 'FETISH'. It was made out of a piece of old paint encrusted wood with nail holes in it, that I peppered with staples, adding pieces of broken mirrors and torn US postage stamp of George Washington. I guess you might say the rest is history. I've been doing this kind of work ever since."

Getting old is another significant life experience for Woell. He realized at one point in his life that more of his life was over than he most likely has left. He began to realize that life is more about being imperfect and "chance", than it is predictable. To him, the same seemed to be true of his work. Most of what he completed was different from he had in his mind and a lot better made than he could make it. Now Woell feels his body's limits are governing how far he can take his work if he produces it himself. In many ways he feels this has been good for him since he now feels freer to be himself. Woell is having fun again as an artist and feeling more than ever how important art is in life's experience for everyone (for both artists and patrons of art).

As an educator Woell believes it is important to give students the basic skills in design, drawing and techniques, being careful not to make these the major points used to evaluate their creative accomplishments. Realizing we are each unique Woell believes that keeping that uniqueness alive means a teacher needs to be flexible and accept things in others that are not always to their liking. The most important thing Woell hopes for is to get a student to keep working after they leave school and hope they become sensitive to others when and if they teach themselves.

Woell is noted for being the first in the field to work with cast found objects and found objects in his metalwork for political and social commentary.