A discerning eye, a diva's fervor

Helen Drutt lifted craft out of obscurity into artistry.

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Helen Drutt's library includes a chandelier of broken dishes by German designer Ingo Maurer. Some detractors say she, too, has a shattering way about her.

Helen Drutt traces a pattern from guest to guest, rearranging, summoning, fretting, surrounding, interrupting. She is in all her disarmingly insecure yet self-possessed raconteuse glory at this Art Alliance opening, overseeing the fruits of her labor.

Her signature elements are all in place. The hat, the abrupt laugh, the angular features, the jaunty air, the expressive eyes behind outrageous glasses, the Breon O'Casey silver cuff bracelets, the bemused recognition by all present that this 78-year-old woman is yet again the one who made it happen.

Many in the art world credit Drutt and the eponymous Center City gallery she ran from 1974 to 2002 with lifting craft out of its hippie-macrame ghetto and into its rightful place, alongside painting and sculpture, in museums, collections, and university classes, by championing artists from all over the world.

She created shows of their works, cultivated buyers for their creations, swapped slides like baseball cards to build audience and community, and promoted reputations.

In 2007, after acquiring her 625-piece collection of jewelry, Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, wrote that the collection "forces us . . . to redefine ideas of sculpture, painting, decorative arts."

"How can a necklace be compared to a sculpture?" he asked. "It's heresy. That's the point."

Marzio wrote that Drutt was "a connoisseur, collector, dealer, detective, patron, and visionary," who had "shared her home with these artists, helped them financially when necessary, and encouraged them to forge ahead."

Elisabeth Agro, associate curator of American crafts and decorative art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Drutt, a "living archive" in the field, "coalesced craft in this city with her presence, her foresight, her interaction" with the artists, promoting them "in a way that had never been done before."

On this February night, Drutt is presiding over a book-signing and an opening reception for an exhibit, "Challenging the Chatelaine!" A chatelaine is a medieval belt that held the keys of the castle, and Drutt has commissioned art that reimagines the ornament, making it a statement of something individual and new. Artists from four continents have contributed to the show, which she has "organized and conceived" with the Designmuseo of Helsinki, Finland.

"Tell Marianne I said it's a wonderful show," ceramic artist Paula Winokur tells Drutt, speaking of Marianne Aav, Designmuseo's director.

It is a faux pas, and Drutt replies with diva bluntness and the self-aggrandizement that irks her critics. "It's my show, not Marianne's," she says, gathering her friend back into the fold.

Like Drutt, the exhibit operates on academic and artistic levels, pedantic and whimsical, inspired and eyebrow-raising. True to form, the artists are grateful and challenged, but maybe also a little exhausted by the task.

Jewelry artist Stanley Lechtzin, a self-described recluse dodging impromptu chatter, says his affection for Drutt is the only reason he is at the opening. "But it really has come to fruition in a really exciting way. . . . One never understands Helen. She's constantly evolving. She seems capable of always coming up with new challenges in her life and for those around her."

"She must be obeyed," jokes jewelry artist Sharon Church. "Who wants to say no to Helen?"

 

Whirlwind at home

Before such nights can happen - when the momentum gathers like a wave coming to shore - there are many days like the one in January.

Just back from Idaho, where her husband, Peter Stern, has a house, Drutt has returned to her two-rowhouse residence on Rittenhouse Street in Center City, a beautiful compound linked by a courtyard sculpture garden.

Amid the unique artwork and furniture, the books everywhere, the walls choreographed in Barnes-like cacophony, the endearingly out-of-place collection of snow globes and refrigerator magnets, Drutt is trying to unpack her suitcases.

She wears a black ribbed cap and matching black ribbed turtleneck, but such simple coherence is not evident anywhere else. Her nonsequitur world moves to a continual drumbeat of ever-more-involved and simultaneous quests. Traipsing up and down her narrow stairs, she ponders the next project, the latest insult, the definitive existential obsession, the just returning from Vienna, the leaving to lecture in Prague, the slides to organize, the always-remembered birthdays, the just-starting-chemo friend who needs to borrow hats, and all those coincidences of date and numbers that preoccupy her at odd times.

Stern is napping now. In the presence of her violin-playing, 80-year-old husband of about a year, director of the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., Drutt grows giddy and girlish. Expected any minute is a friend from England, a University of Pennsylvania architecture professor who, like many, stays with Drutt when in town.

Drutt's trusty assistant, Mihai Burlacu, tells her that some of her 1,200 holiday cards have come back, including one to actor Burt Young.

"We'll redo," says Drutt, an expert networker. Burt Young must be seasonally greeted.

And then it's on to the next complication.

On the phone is Jeff Guido, artistic director of the Clay Studio, an Old City gallery that promotes ceramics. He is organizing a show and a three-day gala tribute to Drutt ("Hats Off to Helen!") this weekend.

That show and the "Chatelaine" show both run to April 26, making Drutt the heart and brains of two major exhibits - one metals, one mud, as they say - in town for most of April.

Guido has proposed calling the Clay Studio exhibit "A Dealer's Eye."

Dealer. The word rankles Drutt, diminishes her achievement. Just because she has dealt, does that mean she's a dealer? Guido does not think acknowledging the business end of art is a bad thing.

Drutt offers an alternative: "A Passionate Observer."

Or, she muses, should it be "The Passionate Observer"? A or The?

Guido says A.

The difference rolls over in Drutt's mind. Hmmm. This debate will rage for days. At least her passion is not in dispute.

Stern wakes. Homa Farjadi is at the door, just in from England. Guido has picked up her exhibitions chronology. The suitcases remain unpacked.

Drutt's thoughts now turn to her early marriage to William Drutt and how much she has grown since then. As she hugs Farjadi, she tears up.

The Clay Studio show looms. The tribute will showcase artists she has dealt with over years in countless - strike that, she has counted them - exhibitions.

Drutt pauses.

"March 25 is my grandfather's 145th birthday," she observes.

And then she laughs, for even in the center of the Drutt tornado, she can appreciate the randomness of this synapse fire.

"The only reason I don't have a nervous breakdown," she says, "is because I say everything I think."

 

The dawning discernment

Gijs Bakker, a Dutch jewelry-maker who met Drutt in 1974, says the impulsiveness, the intuitiveness grounded in academia, give Drutt shrewd discernment.

"It is very seldom you meet somebody who has an eye like that for quality in art," he says. "She understands very quickly the meaning of the piece."

Drutt's breathless fervor has allowed her to pounce not only on objects, but also on the artists who made them. And on far-out concepts, like the 1998 exhibit inspired by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's penchant for brooches, "Brooching It Diplomatically."

"Her energy," says ceramic artist Bill Daley, "really made the transformation of craft in Philadelphia and in the United States."

David McFadden, the chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York (formerly the American Craft Museum), says: "She's been a real presence in jewelry and ceramics. Anyone who has a passing interest in those two fields has undoubtedly heard of Helen or met her."

But McFadden also gives voice to an impulse, common in Drutt detractors, not to give her all the credit she gives herself. "She was there on the scene in the right moment in time," he tacks on. "Timing is everything."

For Drutt, the timing was the early 1950s, when as a young mother she came across a handwoven placemat in Canada that rocked her world. "Blue and apricot," she remembers, "woven in a kind of subtle plaid."

Drutt, who was raised in Mount Airy, comes from people interested in the practical and the artistic. One of her grandfathers ran a men's clothing store at 10th and Bainbridge. Her father, a furrier, painted on the side. Her mother worked in the Naval Aviation Supply Depot.

Drutt began visiting studios in Bucks County and elsewhere, where GI Bill-liberated artists were flourishing. An early acquisition was a Lechtzin brooch, electroformed silver punctuated with a gray pearl.

"I screamed when I saw it, and I could not sleep," Drutt told Cindi Strauss, a curator in Houston. "The concept that a sculptural form could be worn empowered my brain."

"I began to see the difference between industrial-made objects and objects made by hand," she said. "Aesthetically, there was something that was within me that began to respond to the works in which I could identify the artist."

One day, walking down Spruce Street with Olaf Skoogfors, a jeweler, and Daniel Jackson, a woodworker and furniture-maker, she saw a "For rent" sign at 1625. In a serendipitous moment, she decided to open a gallery there.

"She was truly a gutsy person," says Drutt's son, Matthew. "I've had some of the bankers in town telling me, 'Your mother was possibly the worst risk in terms of a loan.' She'd walk in, make her case, and walk out with $10,000.

"My mother's never been financially fine since I've known her. She lives on the edge. She did not make a profit in her career and is not sitting on a giant portfolio. She just gave me a Nakashima side table that has been in the house since I was crawling. That side table's got to be worth $12,000. She paid $18 for it. She bought [her artists] when they were young and inexpensive."

It was that eye for young talent, that almost Platonic rapture with the objects of the world, that began to define her career.

"She couldn't believe people didn't take that stuff seriously," her son says. "The first pieces she bought, she sacrificed a coat."

Initially, Drutt thought she might become an artist herself. She studied at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, where she met Lechtzin and ceramic artist Rudolf Staffel. Staffel dissuaded her. "He said, 'Your hands will never do what your brain wants,' " Drutt recalls.

But if she lacked their talent, she did have a passion for connecting their art to the larger world. She carved a different path, in which the artists produced the work, but she produced their careers.

 

Backers and detractors

Drutt's emotional life can provide a surprisingly sentimental backdrop to the sharp arc of her ambition, achievement, and self-promotion.

"Her impulses to give and take care are a beautiful thing that are gifts to people," says singer-songwriter Ilene Weiss, Drutt's daughter from her first marriage, to accountant Larry Weiss.

With Weiss, Drutt moved to Plymouth Meeting, only to divorce five years later and return with her daughter to Center City.

Her second husband was William Drutt, an advertising executive with whom she had Matthew, in December 1962, and endured a tempestuous 12-year marriage.

Drutt is not eager to detail the pain of that marriage, yet keeps returning in conversation to her time with the man whose name paradoxically came to embody her professional identity, which flowered only after she divorced him. The point she does want to make is that she has grown from it and continues to grow even as she approaches 80.

In 1966, she cofounded the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen. Amateurs were not admitted. In 1973, the Philadelphia College of Art invited her to teach a course in the history of contemporary craft.

The next year she opened her gallery. Her friends pitched in, painting and setting up shows, hanging out on Saturday afternoons, when a Salon-like atmosphere reigned.

After a decade of being alone, Drutt met and married Morris English, a poet who ran the University of Pennsylvania Press. English, who died in 1983 after not quite two years of their marriage, was a soaring, brief love who gave her a new art to champion: poetry. She awards an annual poetry prize in his name, and hosts a reading at Storm King in Mountainville, N.Y.

"Her unconventionality appealed to him," said her stepdaughter, Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones magazine and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "I think the enthusiasm of her lovingness appealed to him. . . . Helen needed some grounding, and he needed some elevating."

The two women went through English's death together, establishing an enduring bond. "She's a fighter," Deirdre English continues. "She's a fierce person . . . elevating craft to being seen as art. It was a reclamation project: 'Attention must be paid!' "

Drutt likes reclamation projects, in people as well as in art. Her research assistant, Martha Flood, first worked for her as a maid. Drutt saw potential and now counts on Flood's encyclopedic familiarity with her vast library. To a new acquaintance, Drutt says, "I'm getting on the train, and I'll be thinking of you the entire way."

Ever the master cajoler, Drutt has her critics. Some find her insufferable, a diva grabbing attention from her artists, a chattering, buttonholing presence in her gallery to the point that some would wait to see an exhibit until she was out of town. ("She's very high-strung," says her brother, Stanley. "It's all about herself.")

Yet, in her vortex, others see a purpose:

"She's very clever," says jewelry artist Bakker. "She stimulates her clients to buy a piece and then to buy another piece to donate to a museum. That is very special."

Deirdre English says, "For a woman to be successful out of nothing as Helen has been, you have to have a strong ego, sense of purpose. I think Helen really shook things up."

 

Belle of her ball

The "Chatelaine" opening night starts off slow - a competing arts event has Drutt worried - but soon the Art Alliance's elegant rooms on Rittenhouse Square begin to fill.

Some of the friends and artists who arrive were also present the night before at another singular Drutt production: her mother's 104th birthday party. That bash featured getting Blossom Williams to blow out her candles (talk about setting the bar high), a wildly overestimated champagne order for the assisted-living crowd, and an impossibly lovely moment in which her mom sang along to Irving Berlin's "Always."

Now Drutt is again belle of her ball. The guests date to her beginnings in the art world and paint a picture of a woman who wasn't afraid to grab you by the sleeve time and time again, who switches back and forth from demanding matron of the arts to endearingly sentimental and loyal friend, who opens herself to life's nuances.

"I'm greedy," she explains as she considers the unlikelihood of even having a living mom at her age, not to mention being a newlywed.

In her marriage to Stern, Drutt has established a new outlet for her multi-burner activity and hospitality. "She is the Storm Queen," Deirdre English says.

Drutt offers a story in a still-creative life that keeps generating them. "One time, I was sitting with [Staffel] in the gallery, cleaning his pots," she recalls. "I told Matthew, 'The history of art will never tell you about this part.' "

But perhaps, with a little of her signature nudging and exec producing, her official obituary already commissioned to a noted European writer, that history will include Helen Williams (Weiss) Drutt English (Stern) of (two homes on) Rittenhouse Street.

 


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.