work by Wally Gilbert

Tipping Point: Wally Gilbert

by Helen Johnson

Helen Johnson asks successful makers what they consider to be their ‘Tipping Point’, the ‘big break’ that tipped the balance in their career

“A lot of people say there’s no difference between craft, fine art and applied art. I say there is a difference, not in quality or value, but in intent.”

In 2002, Craftsman magazine featured Wally Gilbert’s win of a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship to study advanced silversmithing at Canberra School of art, Australia. It proved a major tipping point in Wally’s career, leading him to residencies in printing, cast iron, and sculpture.
Since graduating from Chelsea School of Art in 1968, Wally has worked in various disciplines, including jewellery, sculpture, silversmithing, iron casting, and printmaking. He says that they are all part of the resolution of an inner conflict. He explains, “My father and grandfather both worked in the decorative arts � my Grandfather did the gates to Buckingham Palace. But when I was at art school, the concept had disappeared. I was torn between the pre-war decorative arts that I’d grown up with, and the modern concept of fine art. I felt like a survivor from another time, but I couldn’t resolve it because I didn’t understand it at the time.”

He adds, “A lot of people say there’s no difference between craft, fine art and applied art. I say there is a difference, not in quality or value, but in intent. So I call myself primarily a decorative, or applied artist. I have a pet theory that the Second World War demolished applied arts. It gave an opportunity for modernism to flourish, and a whole tradition died. Now we’re maybe finding our way back.”

Wally began his career making jewellery. He says, “You could do it in a bedsit, and it was exciting at that time because you could do anything: there were no rules, no precedents (that I was aware of). And it was easier to make a mark then, as there were fewer people doing it.”

Highlights of his jewellery career include a gallery-seeking trip to New York in the early 80s, and working for Louis Osman. He says, “Louis had an impact on everyone who worked for him. He didn’t influence me in style, but he made me realise I needed to get out and have more contact, and to be put under more pressure.” He adds, “I also designed some production jewellery, and I did make some money out of it, but I can’t think in terms of production. I’d love to be a good product designer, but I can only really do idiosyncratic things.”

During this time, he was also teaching, three days a week. This, he says, provided a financial buffer when, “In 1996, I thought I wouldn’t do jewellery any more, I’d try to become a silversmith.”

The silversmithing evolved from jewellery making. Now, he says, “I see myself as primarily a silversmith � if someone offers me a commission, I’ll take it, if it is within certain parameters. But it’s a skill intensive discipline, and I think that if you do things in silversmithing, you can do almost anything else.”

Joining the Association of British Designer Silversmiths, now ‘Contemporary British Silversmiths’ was an important step for Wally.

He continued to teach part time, however, and says, “In 2000, my son left university. I had no responsibilities, and thought now’s the time to jump.”

Leaving teaching gave Wally the freedom to take the Scholarship to Australia. He says, “I was resident in the gold and silver department at ANU in Canberra, but was also able to work in print, wood, ceramic and glass. I took advantage of those opportunities. It was a brilliant art college; I loved it, and met some really good people.”

One of these people told him of Kohler, an arts/industry programme organised by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, USA. The aim is for artists to use industrial technologies to extend their work.

Wally’s residency is at the Kohler Foundry, that makes plumbing fixtures. Kohler’s website states, “Kohler’s support of the arts stems� from the value of art in industry. This philosophy is underscored by the craftsmanship and artistic innovation that characterise the company’s plumbing products as ‘functional art’ used by people in their homes every day.”

Artists use the foundry’s facilities to explore their own projects.

Wally says, “I seized the opportunity. I had been looking at Victorian ironwork in the brilliant Australian sunlight. It’s the same with commissions. I was given a commission to make a ‘Gold cup like Thomas a Beckett might have had but in my style’. I’d never thought of making a gold cup, but I did it. Maybe that’s what distinguishes a decorative artist.”

While Wally may not have thought of cast iron before he began his travels, he enjoyed it so much that after his first trip to Kohler in 2004, he returned in 2008. He says, “Now I’d like to establish working with architectural cast iron, like I did with the silversmithing.”

In between his Kohler trips, Wally took more residencies, doing printmaking at Herefordshire College of Art, England, at Vermont Artists Studio, USA, and a Wingate scholarship casting bronze sculpture with friends, in Philadelphia, USA. So why so many residencies? Wally says, “About two years ago, I thought what I am I going to do? So I applied for the Wingate scholarship, the Vermont residency, and Kohler - and they all came up. And all help me make progress.’

He says, “The wonderful thing about a residency is that you’re exposed to ideas, people and working methods that challenge the ones you have. And everything’s found, except subsistence and the bills back home � and I’ve enough work to pay for that.”

Wally has relished the freedom to explore cast iron, print, and sculpture, that the residencies have given him. But, he says, “I literally have no plan. Ever since I took the ‘jump’ away from the security of paid teaching, I’ve jumped from opportunity to opportunity, as they open up in front of me and as necessity dictates.”

“As a jeweller, I used to make only what I wanted, without any external influence other than the material and practicality. Maybe the big tipping point for me was beginning to work to commission and seek residencies. Each separately directed me towards both seeking and responding to opportunities from outside of myself, breaking an approach isolated from external influences and direction.”

“Jumping is therefore a willingness to accept opportunity, and is a necessity when working to commission when a request to ‘do something’ with some sea shells might be followed by the opportunity to make the parapets for a bridge.”

“Also,” he concludes, “it’s fun.”

Contact Wally through his website,

Wally’s work can be seen in the UK at Mike Gell Gallery, 7 East St, Hereford HR1 2LW
T: 01432 278226

For more information about the John Michael Kohler arts/industry program, see ,a href="">

The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust gives grants to help craftspersons to further their careers.

See or

T: 020 7828 2268

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