Robert Ebendorf: Order and Beauty Out of Chaos

By the Archives

August 5, 2015

Graduate intern Kimberley Henze writes about the pleasures of making order out artists’ papers, and what delighted her in the Robert Ebendorf papers.

Photograph of Robert Ebendorf
Robert Ebendorf in his studio, circa 1982 / unidentified photographer. Robert Ebendorf papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  “My work has been and is about making order and beauty out of chaos.”

  —Robert Ebendorf in an interview with Bruce Pepich

While I wouldn’t say that I’m starting from absolute “chaos,” I can definitely connect to the idea of working toward order and its beauty. As a fellow with the Artists’ Studio Archives project at UNC-Chapel Hill—which empowers artists to build their own archives—I’m lucky enough to be spending my summer with the Collections Processing department at the Archives of American Art, researching and processing artists’ papers and bringing order to unprocessed manuscript materials. Because of my interest in helping artists mold their own archives, each time I work my way through a collection at the Archives, I’m searching for, and meditating on, especially powerful documents that eloquently encapsulate and illuminate an artist.

The Robert Ebendorf papers are chock-ull of these little dynamos. My favorite items are the collaged, embroidered, and illustrated correspondence and mail art postcards that Ebendorf exchanged with friends and family. Each piece is unique, personalized to its creator and recipient through a mix of material, markings, and messages.

Artwork by Robert Ebendorf, Lost Soul, Found Spirit, 1996 mixed media: paint on metal, pearls, squirrel's foot, glass, crab claws, metal and wood crucifixes, metal fountain pen tip, chicken's foot, metal, ink on paper under plexi in metal, on a metal chain 13 x 12 x 1 ¼ inches Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the artist in memory of Mr. Ronald H. Pearson 1996.61. Used with permission.
Robert Ebendorf, Lost Soul, Found Spirit, 1996 mixed media: paint on metal, pearls, squirrel's foot, glass, crab claws, metal and wood crucifixes, metal fountain pen tip, chicken's foot, metal, ink on paper under plexi in metal, on a metal chain 13" x 12" x 1 ¼" Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the artist in memory of Mr. Ronald H. Pearson 1996.61. Used with permission.
Ebendorf mail art to Bailey
Robert Ebendorf mail art to Louis Bailey, 2001 January 17 Robert Ebendorf papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Apart from being charismatic, this artful correspondence serves as an expression of Ebendorf as a creator and as a teacher. From an artistic perspective, the postcards illustrate Ebendorf’s eye for pastiche—incorporating precious and nonprecious materials with found objects to create a singular aesthetic. In an interview with Bruce Pepich of the Racine Art Museum published in Robert W. Ebendorf: The Work in Depth, Ebendorf discusses his method of collecting materials, describing himself as a “gatherer” working within an “aesthetic of making chaotic elements beautiful.” Ever aware of his eschewal of traditional boundaries of high and low, he comments, “I know I challenge people who want conventional beauty—I use broken glass and a found bone alongside pearls.”

What’s fascinating is how this aesthetic manifests as clearly in these postcards—inherently ephemeral, everyday objects—as it does in his jewelry. The postcards combine painting and drawing with a collage of printed materials and found objects, placed together on cardstock, food cartons, or foam board. The result is a provocative assortment of high and low, just like his renowned, museum-collected work.

Ebendorf mail art to Bailey Ebendorf mail art to Bailey Bailey mail art to Ebendorf
L to R: Robert Ebendorf mail art to Louis Bailey, 2000 or 2001?; Robert Ebendorf mail art to Louis Bailey, 2001; Louis Bailey mail art to Robert Ebendorf, between 2000 and 2003?; all Robert Ebendorf papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Additionally, the postcards illuminate Ebendorf’s dedication to teaching, mentoring, and community. Accounts from past students warmly recall the artist’s “inexhaustible and unwavering support through so many generations of makers.” This value is affirmed in other parts of his papers, where we see letters of recommendation and correspondence written to connect people, resources, and ideas. A particularly charming set of mail art can be found here between the artist and a colleague’s son, Louis, in which Ebendorf’s designs were inspired by the six-year-old’s colorings and echo their freedom and creativity.

Such an affirmative message to a young artist encourages creativity and budding individuality, and it’s this kind of correspondence, and the relationships it represents, that poignantly reflects Ebendorf’s commitment to education, community, and furthering the field. It rings of the assertion that art is a worthy endeavor, that every effort is valuable, and that every voice matters.

Plainly, there’s a lot said in the Robert Ebendorf papers and particularly in these mail art postcards, where the aesthetic and edifying values of an artist manifest eloquently in 4 x 6 inch documents. If that’s not making order and beauty out of chaos, I don’t know what is.

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Kimberley Henze was a collections processing intern at the Archives of American Art during the summer of 2015. Kim is a second year graduate student and Artists’ Studio Archives Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pursuing master’s degrees in art history and library science.