Avant garde artist, goldsmith, and painter, Peggy Ackerly (Marget Dorothea Ackerly) passed away September 4, 2011 at the age of 90. Throughout her long career, she was unapologetically focused on her art. Peggy first took up the brush, studying under Jacob Lawrence at the Atlanta School of Art, then Jack Levine in New York. She continued to paint throughout her life, and displayed her work in a number of shows in New York. However, another medium would provide her livelihood and primary artistic recognition. In 1943 she began an apprenticeship to surrealistic jeweler Sam Kramer in his Greenwich Village studio on West 8th Street. Kramer’s work could best be characterized as body sculpture. Much of his and Peggy’s work was large, and frequently incorporated an array of materials previously unseen in jewelry. Precious and semi-precious stones were set in juxtaposition to ivory, coral, shell, or a human glass eye. Gold and silver would be incorporated in the same piece. All aspects of a piece were painstakingly made by hand in the studio.
Peggy and her husband Bobby became close friends with Sam and his wife Carol, spreading their time between the studio in Greenwich Village, boating, maintaining a second shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and vacationing on Fire Island. Bobby, who had worked on developing radar at MIT during World War II, opened a boat yard in the East Rockaway harbor. Peggy and Bobby bought a 17th century Dutch mill house beside the marina in East Rockaway, where they would raise their daughter, Morgan. All of their lives revolved around the two very immersing communities: art and boating. Peggy worked with Kramer until his death in 1964, and continued to work with Carol Kramer in the studio until Peggy and Bobby separated and she left New York for Atlanta, where she had been raised and her mother still lived.
In 1968 she opened Goldbrick Jewelry on Roswell Road in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, where she would design and sell her creations up through her 81st year, in 2002. The work Peggy created in Atlanta was far more subdued than the wild, masculine, beatnik art that burst out of the Kramer studio. Her work became feminine and emphasized the beauty of the metal and stones. She gleaned the name of her studio shop from a facetious crack by her friend, Dick Monroe, a theater prop designer. To commemorate the naming of the her studio, Dick fabricated an enormous gold bullion from fiberglass for Peggy, which remained a permanent fixture in her shop. It may seem hard to imagine now, but very few women in 1960’s Atlanta had pierced ears. That was a bit of a problem, because Peggy designed her earrings to be attached with posts. To overcome this obstacle, Peggy pierced her customers ears for a modest fee. She frequently claimed that none of her customer’s ears had ever become infected from being pierced because she pierced them with a sharpened gold post which had been soldered properly (no lead solder) and she used hydrogen peroxide to prepare the ear. She ran her business with a confidence that made it appear effortless. Goldbrick was a small shop, with a pair of jeweler’s work benches and a few display cases. All of the jewelry on display was designed and made by Peggy. It was always a cheerful place with friends, artists, stone dealers, and customers dropping by to visit or talk about orders. Peggy loved visits to the point that breaking off a conversation with her was something of an acquired skill. While that may give you the impression that the name Goldbrick was more accurate than facetious, the constant stream of conversation was maintained while incessantly working, a lit Benson & Hedges cigarette dangling from her lips. By opening Goldbrick Jewelry, Peggy transplanted the concept Kramer had developed in Greenwich Village to Atlanta. It must be remembered that the Atlanta of 1965 was very dissimilar to the Atlanta of 2012. This concept was entirely new to the south, and she ran the business effectively. In 1972, Peggy bought a small brick duplex on 9th Street for $18,000, which would be her home until she could no longer live independently in the early 2000’s. She sold the duplex for $225,000.
A story that Peggy would be disappointed if I didn’t mention, took place sometime in the 1980’s or 90’s. My memory was that it was probably in the late 80’s, but a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Art thinks the incident occurred after the printing of Messengers of Modernism (Montreal, 1996). Regardless, one day, a couple of guys from Chicago visited Goldbrick. They explained to Peggy that they were very interested in the large body art pieces that she and the Kramers designed in the 1940’s and 50’s. They asked her to replicate a number of pieces she had designed at the Kramer Studio for them. Peggy was very excited that she was being asked to construct the large complicated pieces again, and readily complied. What the visitors didn’t mention, was that they had ordered a copy of Sam Kramer’s hallmark stamp from a toolmaker and intended to stamp the pieces with Kramer’s hallmark, and sell the art as originating from the Kramer Studio. By this time, jewelry designed in the Kramer Studio, which had always been considered art, was becoming quite valuable. This, of course, was a rather unusual art forgery scheme, in that, the orchestrators were paying the artist who had originally designed the work, to replicate the work, with the element of fraud being limited to the use of a forged hallmark. For Peggy’s obituary, I went to the FBI website to see how difficult it would be to search the archives for this case. The process seemed pretty daunting, so we are left in the dark for further details. However, when the FBI contacted Peggy after uncovering the fraud, she was more than flattered that her work had been forged and loved telling the story.
A jeweler’s hallmark consists of a symbol which identifies the artist who creates a piece. The symbol is cut into the end of a steel bar, which is struck with a hammer to leave the impression of the symbol in the jeweler’s work. It’s basically a signature. Traditionally, apprentices mark their work with the hallmark of the jeweler they work under. So, Peggy’s work between 1943 and when she left New York for Atlanta, around 1967, is marked with Kramer’s hallmark, which was a mushroom profile surrounded by a circle. When Peggy opened Goldbrick Jewelry in Atlanta in 1968, she adopted as her hallmark a capital “A” overlayed a capital “M”.
Most gold and silver work begins as a wax model that is subsequently cast in metal. Very few smiths work directly in gold or silver. Peggy worked directly in metal, sawing and beating gold and silver until it delivered her vision. Her knowledge of the properties of metal and gems was thorough. Her concepts of design, negative and positive space, were those of a true master. Whether setting stones in prongs or bezels, her work was beautifully executed. Although her designs were unquestionably abstract, she insisted that an artist must first master classical concepts before venturing into abstruse ideas.
Born on a family sheep ranch near Chugwater, Wyoming in 1921, Peggy was the epitome of the self reliant American. Her mother, Marget Dorothea Wallace of Philadelphia, an early proponent of women’s suffrage, ingrained in her the self confidence that enabled her to pursue her art and ignore the expectations of others.
Peggy is survived by her daughter, Morgan Ackerly; her sister-in-law, Mrs. G.R. Phillips Sr.; and numerous nieces and nephews.