Unearthing the Story of Emil Milan: A Research Project with Heart

Unearthing the Story of Emil Milan: A Research Project with Heart


Emil Milan with sculpture he has carved, ca. 1970's. photo: Morris Baker

The American Craft Council library contains books, catalogs, and unique files with information on thousands of artists from throughout the United States. However, in spite of our best efforts, it would be impossible to exhaustively capture the biography and work of every craftsperson, especially if they've been making under the radar. Woodworker and sculptor Emil Milan is one example of a highly revered artist with few accounts or files of his work in either the ACC collection or the world at large. It was with this discovery that three admirers of Milan's work, Norm Sartorius, Barry Gordon, and Phil Jurus, set out to learn more about this rural Pennsylvanian artist.

With the aid of a Craft Research Grant from the Center for Craft, Creativitiy and Design awarded in 2009, the trio has spent the past several years interviewing more than 200 people connected to Milan, including curators and collectors of his functional and sculptural wood objects. The outcome of their conversations and extensive research is a comprehensive and fascinating report of Milan's life and work, including images and reference to rare archival materials.

Eight of these reports were reproduced and given to the major repositories of American craft history - including the ACC library. To highlight this invaluable addition to our collection, we asked Sartorius, Gordon, and Jurus to answer a few questions about their project:

How did you become interested in the work of Emil Milan?

We consider Emil Milan to be our craft ancestor although each of us found Emil in a unique way.

Phil Jurus and his wife Sandye, lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s and met Emil at a local craft event. He was their first craft instructor and they subsequently became friends. After the Juruses moved to Maryland to start a long running craft gallery and jewelry workshop they had less frequent interaction with him but he remained a primary figure in their craft and personal histories.

Barry Gordon heard Emil's name repeatedly mentioned by visitors to his booth at the 1980s ACC Baltimore craft shows and finally sought him out, visiting for a memorable afternoon in April of 1983.

Norm Sartorius, who never met Emil, was introduced to craftwork through a woodworking apprenticeship with the Juruses in 1974. He initially learned about Emil and his work from them. His efforts to investigate Emil's story, beyond the experience of the Juruses, revealed an absence of documentation even in leading museums that included Emil's work in their permanent collections. In February of 2008 Norm decided to investigate Emil's biography and soon afterwards enlisted Phil and Barry.

With each of us nearing the end of our craft careers we've found that by investigating the life of Emil Milan we've also defined our own histories. We have been walking in Emil's path. Our research focused on an individual but our findings also applied to part of the larger woodworking world.

What was the best part of working on the project?

Our research amounted to a treasure hunt. From the beginning we each followed many leads and reported our successes (and failures) to each other enthusiastically. New information was immediately shared among us and the energy this generated drove much of our progress. This was exciting, meaningful work as confirmed by discussions with those who knew Emil. They voiced unanimous approval for the project and our mission to document his life and work. This undertaking brought the three of us together as friends and enriched our lives through the many interviews, phone calls, emails, and personal visits we had with fascinating people. We learned a lot about research, grant writing, time management, and the mid-century craft environment in which Emil lived and worked. Emil Milan was such a strong presence in our lives that he became a phantom friend and fourth member of our group. We were working on him but it seemed that we were also working with him! This was particularly emotional for Phil who had known Emil so well years ago. We agree that the most rewarding part of our project was furnishing our research reports to leading academic repositories of craft history (See list below). Our greatest satisfaction is that we have enabled an important craftsman to finally achieve long deserved recognition.

What were some of the greatest obstacles you had to overcome while working on the project?

We were not able to interview Emil nor to read his words or hear his voice. This meant that trying to understand his thinking and craft philosophy always involved interpreting from other sources. The frustration from the almost total lack of material in his voice was compounded by our inability to obtain a copy of a ca.1970 public television program about him. We regret that his sister, who could have provided a great deal of information and documentation, as well as insight, passed away a few years prior to the project. Rumors of a substantial cache of photo documentation never materialized and it was similarly disappointing when other promising leads did not develop.

This extensive research entailed considerable expense for travel, transcription, and photography. We initially shared costs but quickly realized that a more comprehensive study would require external funding. We applied for a craft research grant from the Center for Craft Creativity and Design and were fortunate to receive funds to accelerate and expand our work without further significant use of personal resources. Our labor, however, was not funded, and this "expense" at times taxed our personal lives considerably. Each of us had to balance the time demands of the project in the context of our already full lives.

Of all the information you learned about Emil Milan, what fact about his life did you find most interesting?

There were many. One is the role of the GI Bill in enabling him to pursue his art/craft education at the Art Students League of New York (ASL), spending four years in a dynamic and prestigious art school in one of the artistically richest cities of the world. It was fascinating to learn of the importance of the GI Bill for arts education as well as to increase our knowledge of the Art Students League.

The paradoxical experience of Emil's foray into the production craft business called Buckridge Contemporary Design and how this affected his decisions about where and how to live and work for the rest of his life. Emil withdrew from his early ambitions and successes to a rural and largely secluded life, apparently finding his satisfaction from teaching and a level of work that provided subsistence living.

Though he is known for his carved bowls, birds, and spoons, Emil was an accomplished carver of the human form. His sculptural talent was stimulated by his study at the ASL but he did not continue to focus on this work. His sculpture that survives is striking and little was known about it prior to our research.

What's next for you?

Having to meet the required grant deadline left parts of our work incomplete. Prominent among these is the processing of existing transcripts of interviews rich in content. These require review by us and the interviewees and the interviewees' approval before they can be added as a supplement to our report. The discovery of research resources is unpredictable. If new collections of Emil Milan's work surface we would seek to investigate and document. The same is true for photographs or articles. There are more than 4,000 emails and several hundred photographs that must be reviewed for missed information. We would also like to reorganize and improve our archive. Though the odds are against success, the possibility of obtaining a copy of the 1970 television program is so tantalizing that we'll undoubtedly be spending time on that quest.

The Emil Milan Research Project will never be complete. Questions will remain and only some answers will be found. The daily effort to investigate is over but this kind of project generates its own momentum. Just as Emil Milan could not have foreseen the attention he would receive 25 years after his death, none of us can know the eventual reach of our careers. Nor can we predict the ultimate impact of this research project.

Recipients of Emil Milan research project report, October 2011, are: The Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Museum of Arts & Design, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art Students League of New York, The Center for Art in Wood, The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, American Craft Council Library, Peters Valley Craft Center, and Susquehanna County Historical Society (PA).

Contact one of the above institutions or stop by the ACC library to view Sartorius, Gordon and Jurus's report, or check out the article, "Emil Milan: The (re)-introduction of a seminal American Woodworker," in the Winter 2010 issue of Woodwork magazine.

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