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WHITE ROUGE PIN of eighteen karat gold and pearl; 4.4 x 1.4 centimeters, 2012. Photograph by Ralph Gabriner.



Ken Loeber



A crumpled sheet of fourteen karat gold, as if it were a worthless piece of paper about to be thrown into a trash bin, is set at the bottom of its almost brutal metallic surface with one very beautiful South Sea pearl—a survivor from its emergence from a home within the seas depths, to be cast into the lap of markets eager to use it for profit. Ungainly in some strange way, this pearl reorients the gold above it, marking a contrapuntal movement between surface and texture, between the realities of life with its coexistence of harshness and ineffable grace.

A breathtakingly elegant branch of Alaskan white coral (no human could replicate it?) has three eighteen karat gold leaf forms, so very carefully placed on the once living structure that it is almost painful to behold the attachment. The branch, a piece of nature’s creation, outshines the three leaves, but at the same time could not really be complete without them, at least in this particular artistic exercise. Another, a swirl of repeating circles in sterling silver and eighteen karat gold seemingly move before the eye in a celebratory dance, homage to the infinite unknowedness of the universe.

With a background in sculpture, Ken Loeber was trained and received both his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1970 and 1978. Over the years he became drawn more to jewelrymaking and is largely self-taught. His mother passed on her jewelry equipment and he made his first pin at sixteen. Born in 1948, in 2002, at the age of fifty-four and after building a noted professional career in the contemporary craft movement, Loeber had a severe stroke which impaired his ability to speak and as well, lost the use of his right hand and arm. He is left-handed, but nevertheless had to laboriously reeducate himself in working methods that would now depend on one hand and the strength of one arm.

A recent exhibition, “Collection Focus: Ken Loeber,” which Wisconsin’s Racine Art Museum sponsors for those works of a single artist that have been donated or promised to its collection, demonstrates the efficacy of restraint as one artist’s primary force when creating. Over thirty pieces that range over his long career and show the development of his artistry provide a compelling study in the power and beauty to be found in the virtues of harmony and balance, and what can be achieved with a few, not many, elements. Certainly, not always a requirement, this deliberative conscious act of limitation is found in many enduring works of art, as it does so well with Loeber’s.


Carol Sauvion, Executive Director and creator of the PBS series Craft in America is a close friend of Ken Loeber and Dona Look, his wife and partner. She has known them from the 1980s when they began to show in Freehand, Sauvion’s craft gallery in Los Angeles. Regardful of their attachment as friends, I asked Sauvion to make a statement in tribute to the Racine Art Museum exhibition. “Ken Loeber and Dona Look are special artists. Since they met in high school, they have been together, making, thinking about and discussing their work, Ken as a master metalsmith and jeweler and Dona as one of America’s finest and most skilled basketweavers. Both artists have received honors bestowed on only the finest practitioners in their respective fields. Their partnership has included collaboration on the Loeber/Look line of production jewelry as well as a communion of spirit that supports and enhances the work they produce alone. They live in a very rural area of northern Wisconsin surrounded by birch forests and enriched by the beautiful vertical log cabin that Ken lovingly restored for them, their vegetable garden and a long pool in which to enjoy the fleeting warmth of the summer months.

“Life for Ken and Dona and their son Reid in a completely artistic environment was perfect until the day, when Ken suffered a massive stroke in the middle of the night and Reid kept him awake and alive while Dona summoned help. That event changed Ken, Dona and Reid’s life immeasurably. The aftermath of the stroke was difficult and a true artistic challenge for Ken, Dona and Reid. Almost as proof of the power of art to heal, Ken Loeber is a stronger, more expressive, deeper talent than ever he has been. Dona Look’s baskets are more refined, singular, personal, complex, and exquisite. Reid Look-Loeber follows in his parents footsteps armed with a knowledge of jewelry production and a thirst for travel and the arts.

“When Craft in America traveled to northern Wisconsin in 2006 to film Ken and Dona, Ken was struggling with ways to continue to make his jewelry. His brother-in-law engineered a special vice for him that allowed him to work with only one hand. A master metalsmith and solderer, Ken was exploring his creativity within his new physical parameters. I remember watching him painstakingly cutting out dozens of small squares of delicate, matte silver rectangles and soldering them into an oval shape to be made into a brooch. I asked about the rectangles. Ken said, ‘Those are my thoughts.’ The difficulty in expressing his ideas, rather than stopping him, presented a challenge and an opportunity. He found new ways of self-expression, which is perhaps the obligation of an artist. And Dona was there, demanding that Ken decide his future and supporting him in his decision to continue as an artist. This redoubled Dona’s commitment to her work.

BROOCH of eighteen karat gold and Alaskan white coral; 8.1 x 5.1 centimeters, 1998.


“Now Ken has been honored at the Racine Art Museum in his home state of Wisconsin, where his professional life is the subject of a retrospective. His work is strong, creative, innovative. His art and the art of Dona Look are essential contributions to American craft and American art. Art can save lives after all.”

In practicing one’s craft, Loeber is an exemplar of the requirement that dedication and persistence must drive the process. The heart of his work is centered in his due diligence to the act of making, that is of constructing something from nothing, of following the concrete steps necessary to advance his work. He has chosen not to render his pieces with too many possibilities or different elements, so there is a kind of Shaker severity to them. It is a reductive accomplishment in the best sense of the current terminology. Nonetheless, they are beautifully complete and have a serenity that casts a spell, somehow otherworldly and esoteric in their simplicity and essential nature.

Subtle, sensitive, Ken Loeber’s jewelry has been so extraordinarily resonant in just these ways over the many decades he has been working. “The moment,” author Henry Miller wrote, “one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Blessed with an exacting sense of observation, with the inspiration of nature as the core for creating, it has been a lodestar for Loeber over the many decades of his professional career and has helped him personally navigate through life’s troubled waters.







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