In Remembrance: Fred Fenster

July 1, 2024

Fred Fenster portrait ca 1980

Fred Fenster, metalsmith, educator, consummate craftsman, mentor and friend, died at the age of 89 on June 24th, 2024. It is particularly fitting for SNAG to acknowledge Fred’s passing as he was a founding master of SNAG and, in 2015, the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fred was a first generation American, born to parents from Eastern Europe and raised in the Bronx, NY. He attended City College of New York, graduating with a B.S. in industrial arts, and he went on to teach industrial arts and shop in a high school in the Bronx. At the urging of his City College classmate, Alvin Pine, Fred moved to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1958 to study metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Art where Pine was already a student. At Cranbrook, Fred became proficient in raising and was introduced to pewter which became the subject of his MFA thesis. In 1962 Fred accepted a teaching position in jewelry and metalsmithing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he taught until retiring in 2005 as Professor Emeritus.

Fred was a dedicated and inspirational teacher, and students thrived in his classes. Many became lifelong friends and admirers, who credit Fred with having directed their life’s work and careers. Fred’s great pleasures were teaching, learning new things, and designing and creating jewelry and hollowware. He was primarily noted for his pewter and silver hollowware with an emphasis on Jewish ceremonial pieces (Judaica). At every opportunity, Fred taught workshops at Penland and Haystack as well as colleges, universities and art centers. Considering that many of the workshops focused on pewter, it’s likely that most people who work with pewter studied with Fred or one of his students.

Kiddush Cup ca 1995 Pewter, 9 3/4” x 5 ½” Collection of the National Museum of Sweden, Stockholm

Fred’s jewelry and hollowware pieces were always beautifully designed and executed. His unique style was particularly evident in his Kiddush cups where folds inside the cup created the shape of the Star of David, and the node and base were often constructed to reference the Star of David. Although Fred’s work is in major museum collections he was most pleased when the pieces were acquired by individuals to be used and enjoyed and passed down through generations.

Sterling silver choker ca 1980

Fred was a movie buff and avid reader who enjoyed learning the derivation of words. When he gave a demonstration in class, he held the students’ attention by telling stories on a variety of topics, making puns and switching dialect which was often based upon a foreign film he’d recently seen. Fred’s classes were very popular and the studio was busy seven days a week. Ours may have been the only metals studio with a chinning bar which Fred used, not only to stay fit, but also to occasionally challenge students to a contest of pull-ups. Fred had many endearing quirks: he always wore a leather apron, wore his glasses at the tip of his nose, had an OptiVisor perched atop his head and a pencil stub behind his ear. He enjoyed an onion bialy on the way to class in the morning, a chocolate almond ice cream cone at lunch, and orange juice was his beverage of choice.

Fred Fenster at the bench

Fred and I were friends for more than fifty years and teaching colleagues for thirty of those years. When I arrived at the UW-Madison in 1972, Fred welcomed me as an equal rather than taking the role of senior faculty. He was a brilliant teacher and we had the good fortune of complimenting one another’s talents and skills so that we were compatible and comfortable in sharing the program. In the years since we retired, we spoke on the phone and Fred continued to regale me with creative stories. I, and so many others, will miss him.

–Eleanor Moty, Tucson, Arizona

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