In the summertime, art lovers who wander into the many galleries on the Maine coast, including the galleries in the tony town of Northeast Harbor, are accustomed to seeing the same kinds of images. Coastal scenes, landscapes and seascapes tend to prevail.
Political statements and serious issues, however, are a bit harder to come by in the summer season, which is one of the reasons jeweler Sam Shaw felt strongly about bringing a traveling show of so-called anti-war medals to Shaw Jewelers, his Main Street gallery.
The exhibit comprises 150 medals, most of which came from the traveling exhibit. Others came from a call Shaw put out to artists asking for contributions. The artists used a variety of materials and methods to produce their pieces, some of which are modeled after the traditional shape and design of war medals with pins, ribbons and the like.
Taken as a whole, however, the exhibit is a statement against war. Most of the medals directly address the war in Iraq.
The show, Shaw said, is a way for him to deal with his own frustrations and lack of support for the war.
“What I do best is I create beauty,” he said. “That’ s my contribution to this world. This [display] I find beautiful in its own way. I’ m expressing my feelings about what’ s going on as well as presenting these sometimes beautiful objects.”
The show, which will be on display until July 30, has traveled to England, Norway and Spain. It first was shown in 2003 at the Velvet da Vinci Gallery in San Francisco and most recently was shown at the Thomas Mann Gallery I/O in New Orleans.
Shaw has strong feelings about the current situation with U.S. troops in Iraq — he’ s firmly against the war, he said — and found the medals to be powerful when he saw them online for the first time.
“The pieces were so compelling that I really felt like I had to have this show,” said Shaw, a former president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths who has had his gallery space in town for more than 25 years. “It was the personal aspect of a lot of these pieces. A lot of these medals are extremely heartfelt, very personal and very much articulate peoples’ feelings about the atrocities and the mess we’ ve gotten ourselves into [in Iraq].”
The pieces in the exhibit are vastly different from most of the jewelry in Shaw’ s gallery and are far from traditional jewelry.
The artists who contributed to the exhibit used few precious gems in their pieces. Some artists used metal and ribbon for a more familiar war-medal look, but many chose different materials such as photographs, rubber bands and plastic. One medal, called “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” is a display of a vial of each of those materials. Another, called “Right Through the Heart,” incorporates a Vietnam War-era bayonet.
“What this show is, is a show of ideas, a show of emotions, a show of point of view,” Shaw said. “It’ s not about precious [stones].”
The artists’ ideas about what an anti-war medal is vary as much as the materials they chose. Some medals are definitive statements against the Bush administration. Others emphasize peace. Some blame large oil companies for what is perceived to be their role in the situation in the Middle East. One medal reminds observers of the losses mothers and children suffer in war. Another pin was inspired by the members of the artist’ s family who served in different wars.
There are narrative works and abstract pieces. The artists range from important names in the field to hobbyists.
Even the display method is different — while most of the jewelry pieces in Shaw’ s gallery are set inside glass cases, the medals have been attached to a piece of black fabric hanging on a wall.
Shaw said he didn’ t bring the medals to Northeast Harbor to stir things up. He wanted the anti-war medals in place this summer, rather, so the maximum number of visitors could see the pieces. The work is all for sale, but for Shaw it’ s as important for visitors to the gallery at least to see the medals and understand the message of the exhibit.
At least one summer visitor was caught off guard by the relatively dark display in a gallery on Main Street of this quiet, pretty town.
“[The exhibit is] not, like, pretty,” said Carlton DeWoody, a 27-year-old New York City resident and mixed-media artist who wandered into the gallery while Shaw and his staff were organizing the medals. “It’ s good to show something edgy in such a not-edgy place. And it’ s good to have a little reminder when you’ re walking through heaven on earth that it’ s not heaven everywhere.”
For more information, go to www.shawjewelry.com