“En regardant de pres les travaux que nos anciens ont realises, j’arrive a connaitre qui ils sont et quel type d’homme ils etaient.”
— I can read their minds through the legacy of their work
Jean Wiart, September 2008
The ICA&CA joyously salutes its loyal long-term Latrobe Society member (and 1994 Arthur Ross Award winner), Jean Wiart, on the advent of Les Metalliers Champenois USA as a full-fledged American corporation, wholly owned by Jean and his equally visionary partner, Jean Paul Dorieux. We congratulate them and the extraordinary team of skilled artisans who have distinguished their labors here since 1986. Even a fleeting glimpse of their work reveals a poetic sensuality embodying peerless care and due pride.
That was the year Jean (accompanied by his beloved wife and spirited fellow traveler, Monique, with whom they raised their relocated family) and his French colleagues arrived from Reims with the commission to recreate the torch and gilded flame for the Statue of Liberty as the crowning component of the Statue’s ambitious centennial restoration. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s original vision of a gold gilt torch had never been realized –co-opted instead by what emerged as a faintly illuminated glass and copper lantern. As water destroyed its structural integrity, it was clear by 1984 that it made overdue sense to create the initial sculptural impulse. “Old Europe” to the rescue: At that juncture, there were no domestic metalworkers deemed up to this vital and, to say the least, high-visibility task. After all, it is nothing less than the symbolic beacon of America’s historic gateway as first donated by the French.
They set up shop in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, where the company thrives to this day and whose future shines as brightly as the torch itself. Here he was welcomed rapidly by the design community of New York and gradually beyond as a measure above all of a potent, if latent, regard and need for craft excellence. The tangible manifestation of trade skill ignited design imaginations far and wide.
How times have changed! Contemporary classicism’s overall resurgence in both design and execution makes it clear with LMC USA as worthy metaphor. This, I believe hopefully, is the case not only within precise trade categories, like metalwork, but also across professions as all those involved in the process of building relearn the essential connections between the mind and the hand—the design and the creation or construction itself. Only in this way can the promise exemplified by Jean and his LMC “companions” be fully enlivened. Only in this way can America continue to reconnect with manual skills as developed and improved over the course of an entire career. And this renewal need not in any way be limited by design vocabulary or polemics—for example, it strikes me as an essentially “green” enterprise with its links to organic materials and new technologies.
One reason I was particularly eager to contribute this profile to the Institute’s blog is the unabashed Francophilia that has characterized my upbringing and career, including two stints as a French resident. The ICA&CA has a well-established link with like-minded practitioners in Great Britain past and present, but far too few in France, where frankly the value of manual skill and artistry has, in my view, held up more robustly than in any developed nation today.
That is so largely as a function of the 1,800-year-old tradition of Les Compagnons, the system of trade-specific guilds across France within which Jean honed his métier and which still passes down the cumulative, prideful legacy of trades through long apprenticeships and many years of exacting labor. This system imparts a love of work and a lifelong pursuit of perfection. While Jean’s first exposure to metalwork came from his blacksmith father, Prosper Wiart, whose shop he later owned and operated, he left it in 1978 to train in repousse with the requisite compagnons. He describes, “It was a once-in-lifetime opportunity because it centered on the restoration of the magnificent 18th-century gates on the Place Stanislas in Nancy and took a full five years. In the end, I had become quite good at the technique. I had, I hope, relearned metalworking up to the level of my predecessors as is so fundamental to the transmission of skill. In any case, the door to America soon opened. ”
The enduring value of Les Compagnons as pedagogical method lies above all in its capacity to reaffirm the value of manual exactitude informed by a mental certitude built upon a long, patient appreciation of the trade materials’ innate properties (whether wood, stone, glass or metal to specify just a few among the nearly 100 different Compagnon trades still in force) and the time-tested possibilities of human manipulation of these materials.
This bond among “companions” is beginning to be understood and embraced anew not only among tradesmen themselves practicing in America at high levels of achievement but as also found institutionalized today at Charleston’s American College of the Building Arts (saluted at the 2008 Arthur Ross Awards ceremony in the category of education) and, since 1973, at La Foundation de Coubertin, an inter-disciplinary compagnonnage outside Paris (not surprisingly) which, like at ACBA, melds a liberal arts education with an apprentice-driven curriculum tied to elective trades. It is a guiding theme as well for New York’s Beaux Arts Alliance, where Jean serves as trustee and long time patron.
This is a trend the Institute not only embraces, but also relies upon innately as a cornerstone of the classical tradition with its blending of architecture and decoration, and the craft excellence that both require.
And as Jean himself points out with due irony: Despite the peerless craft tradition that he has helped bring back to America, there is no equivalent appreciation among the French design establishment and schools of architecture. He states, “The revival of classicism in design and architecture we are living through in New York and in other American places will inevitably be rediscovered in Paris 20 years from now. As companions we must always force ourselves to do better and we must always transmit to the next generation as was done for us,” he continued. The paradox is evident.
And so must the Institute persevere; Jean’s example and generosity allow us to strive towards that hopeful end.