Objects of Affection: Jewelry by Robert Ebendorf From the Porter • Price Collection

Robert W. Ebendorf (American, 1938−), various artists. ECU Charm Necklace, 2017,
silver, copper, brass, enamel, mixed media, found objects, 19 × 12 1/2 × 1 3/4 in.
Collection of The Mint Museum. Gift of Porter • Price Collection. 2022.49.7

Objects of Affection: Jewelry by Robert Ebendorf from the Porter • Price Collection

The story of how a twig necklace led to decades of friendship and a comprehensive collection of works

By Rebecca E. Elliot

You could say that the story of this exhibition starts with a necklace made from twigs. In 1996, Joe Price was working in San Francisco, where his partner (now husband) Ron Porter frequently visited him. They had become interested in contemporary craft during the 1980s through visits to New York and had begun exploring galleries and museums in the Bay Area.

At the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, California, Porter and Price saw The Opera Show, for which Cummins invited artists to interpret an opera of their choosing through jewelry. But instead of evoking a specific opera, Ebendorf presented Twig Necklace — a ruff of radiating twigs accented by gold spirals and pearls — provocatively suggesting that this adornment be worn to an opera.

For Ebendorf, this combination of precious and nonprecious materials was typical, but for Porter and Price — and the world at large — it was quite unusual. Porter and Price were fascinated, later describing it as “one of the defining moments of our experience with jewelry.” Yet, they did not purchase the necklace because they perceived it as needing to be worn by a woman to an event. It was only later that they would view jewelry as sculpture that could adorn a wall or simply be owned and admired.

Twig Necklace remained on their minds until two years later when Porter met Ebendorf at the Penland School of Craft Auction and asked about the necklace. He was delighted to learn that Ebendorf still had the necklace. Ebendorf was impressed by this collector who remembered his work from years ago. Not only did Porter and Price purchase the necklace soon after, but the conversation ignited a friendship that has lasted around 25 years and a collection of hundreds of pieces of jewelry. 

Building a collection

Prior to buying Twig Necklace, Porter and Price purchased a ring by Ebendorf from the Susan Cummins Gallery. After buying the necklace, they purchased other works by Ebendorf, but in the spring of 2009, their collecting of jewelry became more ambitious.

Twig Necklace by artist Robert Ebendorf

Robert Ebendorf (American, 1938- ), Twig Necklace, circa 1994, wood, pearl, 18k gold, steel, 14 1/8 X 13 1/4 x 1/2 in. Collection of The Mint Museum. Gift of Porter * Price Collection. 2019.93.28

At Ebendorf’s invitation, they visited the undergraduate and graduate jewelry and metal design programs at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina where Ebendorf taught from 1997 to 2016. After meeting Ebendorf’s faculty colleagues Linda Darty, Tim Lazure, and Mi-Sook Hur, and students (some of whom were setting up their thesis exhibitions), Porter and Price were impressed by the originality of the students’ work. After that visit, Porter and Price began collecting works by ECU faculty members and students, becoming an important source of friendship and support especially for the students and graduates at an early stage of their careers.

During that same trip in the spring of 2009, Porter and Price joined Ebendorf to view a retrospective of his work at the Imperial Arts Centre in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. This was the first time they had seen so many works from Ebendorf’s then 50-year career. They were blown away by his craftsmanship and range, which includes vessels, jewelry, drawings, and installations, extending from sleek, modernist silver objects of the 1950s and early 1960s to his innovative use of found 19th-century photographs on jewelry in the late 1960s, experiments with plastics and torn newspaper in the 1970s and 1980s, and provocative use of squirrel paws and crab claws in the 1990s. 

Porter and Price decided to build a comprehensive collection of Ebendorf’s work to include not only jewelry, objects, and drawings, but also archival materials such as exhibition catalogues and correspondence. As they built this collection (in addition to collections of contemporary ceramics, art in various media, and jewelry by artists not connected to ECU), Porter and Price became more involved with museums, including The Mint Museum. Their goal of preserving Ebendorf’s and the other ECU artists’ work to benefit artists, scholars, and the public aligned with the Mint’s goal of acquiring jewelry by regional, national, and international artists.

In 2019 the museum acquired the Porter • Price Collection as part gift, part purchase (with subsequent gifts in 2022 and 2024) along with the gift of the Robert W. Ebendorf Archive. The Porter • Price Collection comprises around 200 works by Ebendorf and approximately 100 objects by ECU faculty and graduates, while the archive comprises 13 cubic feet (about half the volume of a large refrigerator) of documents, audio-visual materials, and the hundreds of letters and collaged postcards exchanged between the artist and collectors.

Ebendorf gifted and sold works to Porter and Price that he had held back, such as his Colored Smoke Machine brooch (above) from his 1974 series of that name. This was inspired by the work of German jeweler Claus Bury, who was combining colored acrylic with gold on his own work of the time, and who visited Ebendorf that year when Ebendorf was a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The series title, and this brooch’s form, were inspired by Bury’s fanciful drawings of Ebendorf’s house with colored smoke coming from the chimney, which Bury explained changed color according to the occupant’s moods. The brooch thus speaks to Ebendorf’s experimentation with materials and his friendships with international artists and represents one of the many stories told through the objects in the exhibition.

The exhibition Objects of Affection celebrates the oeuvre of Ebendorf, the work of his colleagues and former students at ECU and the friendships among the artists and collectors. It traces Ebendorf’s career since his first jewelry in the 1950s, concentrating on his work in the 21st century, and shows how he influenced his field by approaching materials and people the same way — connecting what was previously unrelated to create a new and compelling whole. This he did as a jeweler, metalsmith, collage artist, professor, teacher of workshops, and friend and mentor to many.

Objects of Affection is generously presented by Bank of America. Individual sponsorship is kindly provided by Posey and Mark Mealy, Jeffrey and Staci Mills, Emily and Bill Oliver, Beth and Drew Quartapella, Ches and Chrys Riley, and Ann and Michael Tarwater. 

Rebecca E. Elliot is assistant curator of Craft, Design, and Fashion and curator of this exhibition.