Curiosity as Longevity: The Life of Bob Ebendorf

By Brian D’Ambrosio

As a child, Santa Fe artist Robert “Bob” Ebendorf hauled a little red wagon through the alleyways of Topeka, Kan., scrounging for junk and trash with intense satisfaction.

Even though Kansas was designated as a “dry state” in the early to mid- 1940s, when Ebendorf rifled through what others had discarded, he found crates of empty alcohol bottles. Ebendorf was fascinated with their appearance, especially the more ornate ones, such as the heart-shaped amber glass bottles of Paul Masson sherry.

Ebendorf would load his wagon with used decanters, flasks, and containers, arriving back home with his pile of discoveries.

In support of his scavenging, Ebendorf’s father set aside a few shelves in the garage for the boy to exhibit his findings – the bottles displayed alongside damaged plates, twisted scraps of rusty metal, phonograph chips, and broken mirrors.

“I had a great feeling of pride,” Ebendorf said. “It was like my own exhibition, my own little world, and my own little museum.”

Ebendorf began making jewelry in high school. He attended the University of Kansas and obtained his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1960, with an emphasis in metal and jewelry design. He followed that with a master’s degree in fine arts in three-dimensional design.

Now at age 85, Ebendorf stands among the most admired artistic talents in the contemporary metals and jewelry field. Co-founder and former president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, his art is represented in diverse collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum in England; and the Yale University Art Gallery. He taught at East Carolina University from 1998 to 2016, serving as the Belk Distinguished Professor in the Arts for many years.

From childhood to adulthood, to middle age and beyond, curiosity guided Ebendorf. He recalls that one evening per week, he and his mother would make arts and crafts projects at a local church. There would be long tables of materials to pick from – string, plastic objects, brass, glitter, glue, postcards, fliers and circulars. This further infused in him the sense that the discarded could be lovingly salvaged and renewed, with just a little creativity and imagination.

“Sadly, many of us lose that childlike sense of curiosity as we become more impacted with professional responsibility, obtaining success, or maintaining relationships,” he said. “Our open turf of curiosity gets clouded by living in society.”

Over the years, the Smithsonian Institute acquired several pieces of Ebendorf’s goldsmithing jewelry. The Institute even invited him to participate in its Archives of American Art Oral History Program, which has been recording the life stories of artists, collectors, dealers, and others who have shaped the visual arts in the United States since 1958. It acquired Ebendorf’s personal correspondences with other American and European artists, as well as seven decades’ worth of drawings, some from as early as grade school and others created just days before being sent to the Smithsonian.

“They would have probably been dumped in the trash after I died,” Ebendorf said. “But someone from the Smithsonian said that the documents were important, the story and the footprint of those who have passionately followed the path of their pursuit. It was like seeing your body on the slab. Very humbling.”

Ebendorf’s work is unusual for its range of materials. For example, one particular brooch is made up of aluminum, found metal, sterling silver, a doll arm, and painted tin. From seashells, watch faces, dried snakeskin, and ruined toys, to shards, dyed cotton cord, sardine cans, and cracked panes, he has breathed layers of freshness into a host of timeworn bits and pieces.

“Chance is a big factor in the gathering process,” Ebendorf said. “Where did I walk? What Dumpster or flea market or used bookstore did I visit that day?… I celebrate that it puts fuel in my tank to travel a road less traveled.”

Ebendorf’s work can be seen at his gallery, Form & Concept at 435 S. Guadalupe St., in Santa Fe, or online.

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