If you’ve ever wandered through a museum or gallery, perhaps you have noticed that you are drawn to a particular artist’s work. Is it the subject matter that attracts you, or perhaps the medium or the colors? In many cases, without even realizing it, the thing that catches your eye might actually be the frame, or better still, the way the frame relates to the art.
For many years, I have acquired the work of American artist Bill Ewing for projects and my personal collection. Bill’s work is refined and intense; it has depth, color, light, and soul. An added bonus to Bill’s exhibited work is that it is exquisitely framed, which means that when acquired for that special place, it is ready to be hung without the need for additional time and expense. But Bill’s work isn’t just beautifully framed; the frames are also a work of art. For many years, the artist called upon Buck’s County respected frame maker Carl Laughlin to border his work. During that time, Laughlin was also teaching and mentoring another frame maker, Bill’s wife, Mary Ewing. When Carl passed away, Mary took up the torch, and now partners with Bill not just in life, but also in work.
Bill and Mary have a unique collaboration. Each is the other’s biggest fan, and they are completely committed and supportive of each other’s art. Bill is the first to point out how important the frames are to his work, and Mary is in tune with Bill’s vision for each piece.
Depending upon the size of the paintings, the moldings are custom designed and milled in a variety of shapes and widths. Once an individual piece is ready to be framed, hand carving or other decorative touches may be added to enhance or distress the chosen molding. The choice is made to stain the frame, or maybe to apply a gold or other metal-leaf finish.
On a frame Mary made for a large portrait commission, she spent nearly 10 hours just on the carving. The portrait was to have a gilded frame, and once the carving was complete, many additional steps were taken to create the gesso (a white paint mixture used as a primer) and golden finish that would elevate the portrait to another level.
When speaking with artists and dealers alike, I discovered that collecting work by frame makers can be as important as the art itself. West Chester’s Strodes Mill Gallery, which carries a large selection of original art by several important, local artists, also carries frames at all price points from around the globe. The gallery has created original frames for art by Andrew Wyeth and also used stock moldings to frame everyday prints for your neighbor.
Another artist that Strodes Mill exhibits is Plein Air painter Jacalyn Beam, who believes there is a marriage between art and frame that is absolutely critical. Jacalyn turns to frame maker William Adair to find nuances in her work reflected in the frames he custom makes for each of her pieces. In the frame for her recent painting of the renowned Buckley’s Tavern, William etched pineapples from the tavern sign into the gesso on the frame itself.
The cost of framing adds to the price of every genre of artwork. Surprisingly, the cost of custom framing is not as much of a premium as one might think, considering that it may be as collectable as the art itself
So the next time you appreciate special piece of art, look closely at the original art that often frames it.
Camille Gracie, ASID, is certified by the National Council of Interior Design Qualification and holds professional status in the American Society of Interior Designers.