Los Angeles is a large city, with so many creatives and artists that, according to a recent cultural census, it is presently the greatest concentration of the arts in any city in history. Before this claim seems too dubious, consider that we’re discussing one half of one percent, which includes all the creative professions. That said, the Contemporary Art world where I work becomes suddenly small when an educator the likes of Joseph Gatto is vanished from our collective lives. While I never met the man, his impact could not be missed even in my corner of the city. Within a day of reading the LA Times article about his shooting death in his Silverlake home, people were compelled to seek solidarity in expressions of sadness, asking how we were effected, I quickly learned the man was deeply respected. He was the pivotal founder of the LA Arts High School and its concept, building the program from the ground up, something that has almost no precedent. No ordinary administrator, he was involved with his students throughout his life.
Returning to the article with questions left unanswered about what had happened or why, one detail stood out – the art educator had been a jeweler. Looking up his name quickly revealed a haunting affinity in my own life, working as I do in arts education, as I discovered he was also a devoted craftsperson in his spare time. I regretted instantly not being able to eventually meet him, but felt a connection across time, as creatives so often must resort to.
This discovery meant a lot to me for several reasons – you have all sorts of divisions in the art world, arguments composed mostly of presumptions about the implied audience, barriers comprised almost purely of imagination and fashion. And here at the root of the arts, seeking to shape the discourse where it begins – youth – towards creativity, is a man who comfortably located his own art form in a craft. What a relief, what permission! I have no further questions, regarding the validity of my own choice of creative outlet in the greater scheme of things.
He was a notoriously tough (that means honest) character – managing so many people while still giving a damn is no small accomplishment, but also in his jewelry there are plain, obvious elements of tenderness. Objects of beauty made as gifts, and a dense collection of commissions that were plainly sought by or meant for friends, given that they are all in his style.
The jewels also reveal a deep, spiritual relationship to history that I can relate to, and had even felt a little solitary in pursuing. There is proof of a broadness of character in his career, required to engage all the diverse leanings of students for their own sake – to respect the truths of another is no small or common ability – and to then compel them to move in their own given directions, under their own power.
Meanwhile, his choice of elements like Japanese Ojime beads and Ancient Egyptian scarabs is telling, they are all signatures of a kind. Gatto’s rings involve engraved and stamped bands that bear his marks and signatures, in his own hand, or with hieroglyphic cartouche, or Hiragana characters. They combine a modern design objective with emblems and tokens of signification from the distant past, selected from notably artistic cultures. All of this work was done in the intimate, private studio of a jeweler, where he must have worked to link himself to his role, to the significance of the teacher across time. At the same time, I think you can sense this is a private search, he is seeking to take the jewels to a personal, artistic level that is not especially focused on, or perhaps unburdened from, merchant success. There are no (obvious) engagement sets on his website, the bread and butter of a commercial jeweler, making the site more a mirror of discipline to his craft.
This points to an awareness of the kind of time-transcending place that being a teacher, and a creator, occupies, and that I think many of us in the field thrive upon. In other words, I would think he saw or at least explored in himself the path of becoming a master, not in the sense of an owner of others, but as mentor to them, what some distinguish by calling a “true” master. Curious that such opposed meanings cling to that one word, and add something poignant (and tragic) about the way he met his end. Any chump with a gun can be a master of property and death, but the true master works in the medium of life.
Additionally, for teachers, there is an acceptance that the need will always outweigh what one is able to do in their life – and what makes a teacher is a noble disregard for the odds, in favor of what must be done anyway, in whatever measure time allows.
He did enter competitions, seeking recognition for his artistry, and perhaps this underlined his life’s work, which exemplifies the lesson that recognition is not remotely the same thing as success. He provided recognition to others, and that provided them with strength, confidence, and insight. He did this for young people who were quite a ways away from being ready to measure up in terms of success or failure. At the same time, to my eye there are clues like the occasional appearance of a hummingbird photo among his jewels, little glass songbirds, tiny spots of inlay for color, the search for free association of materials, all of these point to a kind of conservation of energy through skill… humility isn’t quite the word but this is not bling, not grandiosity, the work is really an afterglow of a deep self-searching that is difficult to understand unless you’ve spent the requisite time, alone, facing your tools.
I was simply blown away by this discovery of his separate practice as a jeweler, and in this way, without having met him, he became a teacher for me as well. I extend my respect to Mr. Gatto for his work, and remember him by recording here that there are many, many others that have also been moved to self-empowerment through creation by him also.
There is an in-depth interview with him on Modern Silver’s page, but there is no direct link, you must search “Gatto” in order to find the article:
This is the artist’s website: