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 interview with

 part I

Joseph Gatto is more than an artist/craftsman, though he has been successful in many disciplines, including jewelry making, sculpture, drawing, and photography. He is a "teacher"—someone to whom you wish to listen, who creates within the context of history. Not only art history, or the study of forms and objects; he goes deeper than that. Through his words and certainly his art, he draws attention to events and actions having profound consequences for the world as a whole; the brutality of war, the effects of waste on our universe, and the loss of individuality created by the computer and cell-phone age.

He prefers to play down his intelligence, his talent, and his ingenuity, but when you listen to him and visually experience his work, it is impossible to deny that he possesses those gifts in abundance.

His Curriculum Vitae is huge. I can't begin to list all his accomplishments as an artist, teacher, and writer. He has taught jewelry making at California State University, Northridge; drawing at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena; and was dean of the Visual Arts Department at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He holds a master's degree in Design and Art Education from California State University, Los Angeles.

Gatto has earned numerous honors, again too many to mention here, but he received a distinguished teacher award from the city of Los Angeles in 2003, and went to the White House in 1988, 1989, and 1998 where he was the recipient of the National Distinguished Teacher Award.

His versatility as an artist and educator is evident in the eight books he has written on various art subjects, in addition to the many curriculum guides on jewelry, painting, drawing, and photography, written for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Below is an interview with Joseph Gatto, from early 2012. 

Marbeth Schon Joseph Gatto
Hello Joseph, it’s Marbeth. How are you?  Good, How 'you doing?

I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.  I’m very honored that you would do this.

Thank you.

I’m going to start with some basic questions about your background.

Where were you born?



I was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1934— December 22, 1934—makes me 77 years old.

Joseph Gatto in his studio, 2012

Joseph Gatto's workbench

My dad worked on construction during the advent of the WPA where, using a sledge hammer and chisels, he made large blocks of marble used for foundations for some of the civic buildings in Pueblo, Colorado.

Later, he went to work in the steelworks in Pueblo.  it wasn’t so much that I observed people working by hand, but that people were working very, very hard, my dad included, and so that work ethic kind of stays with you. Your parents are your first teachers.

And, during the war (World War II), my dad came out to California to enter the military.  That doesn’t mean anything.  It just meant that he filled  gunny sacks with sand and then hauled them off to open fields where the pilots would practice shooting targets on the ground— shooting those gunny sacks.  I can’t imagine eight hours a day, five or six days a week, filling gunny sacks.


"End War"
Sterling silver, porcelain doll, stamps

"The Cost of War"   Sterling silver, porcelain, doll fragments, pink ivory wood

You speak of your parents as people who grew the resources they used to better their lives.






We had a little garden where we grew some vegetables. It seemed like it took forever for water to reach the end of the rows when I watered those precious crops.

My brothers and I would go down to the railroad tracks which were “three giant steps” and "two Captain May I’s" from my front yard. There, we would follow the tracks and pick up coal that fell out of the coal cars. We used the coal to cook our food and to keep warm.

Often, we would find scraps of metal that we would carry home with us and sell to a guy who would come around the neighborhood with his horse and buggy.  It was not so much that he would weigh it with a scale, but rather pick it up and say, “Whoa, this is heavy, twenty cents.” It was a total of sixty cents split three ways.  I still remember those silver dimes pulled out of a small leather pouch.

I think people from that era, that grew up in WWII—I know even my parents had that work ethic—didn’t believe in throwing things away. They just didn’t.  It was that time.

 Not only were we all pulling together, but we were recycling.

I remember that the local newspaper would have little articles about who was killed during WWII.

I remember that, even then, I could read and one of my neighbors was killed in Iwo Jima and all my neighbors read about it, expressing, grief and sadness for the youths that would never return to their families and the poverty they left behind.


"War and Peace"
 Sterling silver, glass, turquoise, dyed coral, ebony wood, pink ivory wood,  faux coins

And what's significant about that, that shaped my way of thinking only many, many years later, is that we treated death as an individual event, and you contrast that with Hiroshima, when death was thought of  in terms of numbers, not individuals.  Death became collective thought, denying individuality and discouraging creativity. Collective thought and conformity and the mass culture influences our youth more than it has a right to.

Then, we treated death acknowledging the individual——you cannot have a democracy without individuals and you cannot have creativity without individuals.


"War and Peace Recto"
Sterling silver, glass, turquoise, dyed coral, ebony wood, pink ivory wood,  faux coins


When I do shows and engage the consumer in conversation, I look and listen very carefully to the people who have an understanding of design and creativity.  There are few people who understand how design influences our lives.  By the year 2020, seventy-five percent of Americans will be fifty-five and older and, as society ages, we will have to design for the aged or take care for them at considerable expense and in doing so, deny them their independence.

By "dumbing-down" education, creative thinking, and creative teaching, we encourage conformity and collective thought.  Our culture will not advance and relying on technology to solve problems that require creative thinking may not bear fruit.

I am always tempted to say, “Woe is me, woe is me,” when my things are not selling, "I think I’ll stop making jewelry."  And the reality is that I’ve got so many new creative directions that are coming and I really can’t stop.

Sterling silver, mother-of-pearl, porcelain fragments, chrysocolla, turquoise, ebony,  pink ivory, dyed coral,  micro mosaic fragments.

I do not want to compromise my creativity or negotiate for my dignity by denying my individuality and creativity to make a sale at a craft show.  The ideas for my jewelry come, and come, and come.  I am not going to inhibit the flow of creativity and creative problem solving in order to blend in with the crowd.

"Homage to Magritte"
Bakelite clock frame, ancient Roman bronze fragment of a hand, sterling silver, reused piano keys

Were you always interested in the arts, from the time you were a child?  Were there other artists in your family?





 My mom was an artist but poverty did not allow her to continue.  She was a pastel artist…she did a few little pastels but only one survived that I found several years after her death.

I remember this little pastel with no frame and it had never been sprayed and it was over one hundred years old and I actually touched it one time and the pastel came off on my palm and I said,
“Oh Boy!"

By this time, I had gone through college and so forth and I immediately sprayed it, put it on archival paper, and framed it.  I gave it to one of my daughters who was named after my mother.

my art career did not start until I was in middle school. Then, unlike today, art was required for all students in public schools.  That was a long time ago however.  Oh, for the good old days!

You said that you were sixteen when you did your first piece of jewelry. Right.

Actually, the counselors in high school programmed me into a non-college prep program.

I don’t know if I want to make a  big deal out of this, but it stays with you. I seem to recall that I was told that I was not college material.
What I did not understand, nor did my teachers, was that I was a visual learner.  The counselors also missed this completely.  I did not understand how to use wordssentence structureEnglish structure.  It kind of wounded me in a way.  I became non-communicative.  Today, a student who fits that profile would be labeled a “loaner”.

But, you were getting some attention already, because of your skills—you had innate artistic talent. I remember one thing that I did when I lived in Colorado, I must have been eight or nine years old.  My friends and I all had pocket knives and I carved a little totem. It might have been one or two feet tall, and I connected some small, carved birds to the base with very small nails.  But I did not think of it as art.

And so, perhaps, that bit of your background is part of the reason you still incorporate all kinds of materials into your work— other than the fact that you use antiquities.



When I was in junior high, there were class offerings geared for specific students.  They were called vocational classes.  I took a lot of print shop classes where I learned to run a small hand press.  I also took wood shop as did my brothers.  We were considered non-academic students.  It also might have been that the demands created by WWII on adults who were not combatants, forced schools to train students to do things and to make things by hand. The thinking was that we were never going to be caught short again with the implements of war being readily available on demand.  Or there were certain barriers in the schools that I attended.  We were sure that what they wanted to do was to train us and not educate us.

You started doing painting, sculpture, and photography before you did jewelry?  Is that right?



I went to Fairfax High School where I was still programmed into vocational classes, but I also discovered art there; painting, design, and jewelry. I took the jewelry classes with *Lois Franke and there were always things I could do with my hands, but I wanted more practical things to learn, like I would have loved to have taken Auto Shop so, when the time came, I could learn how to repair my own cars.  I continued with the vocational classes like print shop and it was then that I became aware of profiling and being labeled as a non-academic student.

Ring, c. 1950-51
Gold plated, c. 1962



Lois Franke must have seen some promise in you as an artist when she had you in  high school.





When I was in senior high school, Lois made me her assistant. She  asked me to cut and weigh silver, cut small pieces of wood for projects, and generally help students with soldering, etc.

It became a positive thing that I didn’t recognize until many, many years later.  I never had time to do my own work, so I considered that a negative. And, I cut all this silver, literally half by half, one by one this type of thing, and then I would weigh it. I wanted to start on something—I wanted to make something.

I still have a lot of that stuff I made in high school and I remember a lot of kids asking me if I wouldn’t make them one.


Tie tacks
Sterling silver, hardwoods

I went to work for  Will Rogers,  Jr. at a newspaper office in Beverly Hills when I was 17 years old.  My print shop teacher got me the job, and at that time I was running what they called a Fairchild machine.  It was a new engraving process where there was a scanner mounted on a cylinder on the one side of the engraver. It had an electric eye that scanned the lights and darks of the photograph that was mounted on a cylinder on the other side of the engraver.  The engraving was done by a stylus on plastic sheets.  The plastic sheets accepted the dot pattern created by the vibrating stylus that ultimately became the printing surface.  The sheet was then  prepared with a very high quality, double sided tape that was stuck onto the printing press.  It was a new technique and the way that small newspapers could afford more pictures for publication.

That was in1952-53. Fairchild used to sponsor a competition in the Western states for the best photographs printed in small newspapers.  What I did involved some skill, but it was certainly not brain surgery or even as complex as making a simple band ring.

I realized that I was getting on in years—eighteen.  And, at that time, if you didn’t have thirteen units of college you could be drafted. So I left my Will Rogers’ job and I went to junior college.  I used to literally close my eyes and open a catalogue and point to something on the page, open my eyes and say, “Oh, So I’ll take Latin!" Then, I'd close my eyes again, turn the page, and "I’ll take English Literature."  Then I close my eyes again, "Oh I’ll...... take this."

Tell me about how Lois Franke (Warren) helped to change your life.










 Marbeth, I'll really be honest with you, I don’t remember it exactly as it was a long time ago.  One night it was raining when I was at school and I was on my way home. I did not have a car, so I rushed to catch a bus.  I do not recall running into the woman and knocking her down, but I did run into a woman.  It was Lois Franke and this part is really not clear, but I seem to recall she asked me what I was doing and I said, “Oh I’m going to be a printer."

She was very disturbed byh that and I remember her taking me into the office and asking to see my records and, in my records, there was a form letter in my record jacket that said I didn’t have a high enough GPA and that I was on probation.  However, what was puzzling was that I had a 3.5 GPA. I thought that art and PE did not count towards my GPA and that was why I was on probation and subject to the military draft. I was ready to leave school.

I had received similar form letters in the mail and was prepared to be drafted into the military.

Lois literally demanded that I change my major while we were in the night school office and, again, it is not terribly clear, but she said if you are not a teacher in five years, I am going to come looking for you.

That may have been a deciding factor in my life.  

That was so interesting. I love that connection with Lois.  She’s a wonderful lady, an amazing lady.  I’ll ask her, too— what she remembers. Right!
How recently did you decide to concentrate on jewelry?  You said it wasn’t long ago.






After junior college and during my second year at CSULA (California State University, Los Angeles), I saw that many of my friends were trying to make it as artists and designers. I read someplace that only two percent of the population of artists make  a living selling their art.  I did not think I could pay my way through college or later earning a living as an artist so I would have to make a choice.  I made a decision, then and there, that I would be the best teacher that I could  possibly be. 

I also remember that when I worked at the market, a blind man would play his accordion for coins that would be dropped into his cup.  He disappeared one day, never to be seen again. I missed his music and talking to him, so I thought that I might dedicate my life to helping blind people. I thought possibly I could do that as a teacher or as a religious person, but I realized that I could not be dedicated to a religious life, so I deducted that teaching art was the most exciting thing I could ever want to do. 

"Pyx," c 1982
Sterling silver, red  photo filter, casting and stamps

It sounds like you made the very best decision.


Helping people was really the motivating factor in my decision to become a teacher. In order to become a teacher, applicants had to take a four part exam. 

I placed number six, but the first five people on the list were working so I was number one.

But sure enough, the first day I started teaching, I got drafted,  I went down to the Personnel Section of the LAUSD and reminded them that the military obligation was for two years, but the hiring list that had me ranked as number one was good for only one year. I was placed on a military leave of absence and was given assurances that I would not have to take the exam

So that’s what they did.

When I separated from the military, two years later, I used to bring a camera to class to take photographs of student work that I was to use later in my teaching.  One evening I had a few frames of film that I wanted to expose of moving automobile lights and city lights exposed from a moving vehicle. I pushed down the shutter and drove about five miles with it open and when the film was processed I recorded some really wild light patterns. My instructor asked me to send the images to Life magazine believing that they could be published.  Instead, the magazine kept them for about eight months but made their own exposures of a professional orchestra with tiny, flashlights tied to the wrists of the musicians while playing in total darkness.  So, even though my photographs were not published, there was one photograph of moving lights that I included in my portfolio that made a lasting impression on the interviewer who promptly hired me as a photography teacher.  I reminded her that I did not know photography, never taught it, and that I was afraid that I would end up doing something where my training would as a designer would be wasted.  The interviewer reminded me of the interrelationship of the arts and that I would be just fine with my knowledge of art, design and now photography.

I was hired and assigned to Granada Hills High School in 1961 and spent forty-six years teaching but was credited with fifty years.  The feat that I was most proud of is that I had not missed a day of school since the fourth grade.  And, that was a half day when I was out with the mumps.

In 1978, I was assigned to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as the liaison between the LAUSD and the museum. I coordinated school visitation programs, but the crown in the jewel was that I arranged for schools in the district to visit the King Tut Exhibition.  I was the person who gave away sixty-thousand tickets to students who experienced one of the most memorable museum visits ever accorded to students.

The museum opened at seven o’clock in the morning and while waiting for the school busses to arrive, I had the opportunity to view the entire King Tut Exhibition with just a few guards and me in the galleries.

That was in 1965, and I started collecting scarabs and, about the same time, started incorporating them in my jewelry.  I wanted to test the market for my jewelry using antiquities and precious metals and went to a rather important gallery in Pasadena, California.  I showed my jewelry and was curtly told that the gallery never paid more than twenty-two dollars for any jewelry, regardless of the metal, stone, or reputation of the artist.  I was reminded that the list for artists who wanted to show there was as long as the bus lines outside the gallery.  But the gallery buyer did suggest that I contact the Craft and Folk Museum.  That is where I met a wonderful friend of the crafts and craftsmen, Edith Wyle.  She immediately accepted my work and, within less than six months, I was on the roster of permanent craftsmen.  My biggest thrill was when the gallery reopened several years later, after a remodel. I exhibited one of my key images next to the work of another inspiring craftsman, *Sam Maloof.

n 1972-73 I devised  a technique where by a ring could be made larger or smaller by moving a bar up or down.  The technique was the result of attempting to reverse construction (for example) when  a ring with an antiquity, such as a scarab, did not fit a potential client.  Unless care was taken, scarabs could be easily chipped, lowering the value to the consumer and inhibiting sales at the galleries that carried my work. The bar at the top of the band could be adjusted up or down at least 25 times with out the metal becoming work hardened and breaking at the solder join.

Ring, c. 1973
14 kt gold, glazed Egyptian scarab, ebony inlays

I basically made an inside band to fit size specifications and then soldered an outside band in the shape of a ‘U’.  Two walls were soldered to the inside, outside bands and the finger holes cut out.  The outside band had a measureable depth of approximately 1.40 mm.  The design that was cut out of the outside band prior to soldering to the inside band was based on a dragon fly wing.  Ebony wood was cut and fit to the cut out shapes and held in place with epoxy.  About the same time that I completed the scarab ring, I made some wide band rings for  Sam and Alfreda Maloof.  Sam had given me some small pieces of ebony wood.  We both loved the grain, feel, and texture of the wood that is so dense it does not float in water

Ring, c. 1965
ancient Heretic Scarab.  Sterling silver, ebony wood, ancient glazed scarab

 "Well maybe the Craft and Folk Museum will take it."

Ring, c. 1972
14 kt gold, ancient, Egyptian scarab, ancient carnelian ring fragment with hieroglyphics, ebony wood, stamps


Ring, c. 2012
Sterling silver, ancient hard stone Egyptian scarab, ebony wood, turquoise, dyed coral.  2012


Ring, c. 1978
Adjustable 14 kt gold, ancient, blue glazed Egyptian scarab

The ring is based on the Colossi of Memnon and can be made larger or smaller up to one full size by pushing the band forward or backwards similar to notching a belt around the waist. The ring can be worn horizontally or vertically. 



Rings, c. 1953, 1962, 1968
Sterling & wood inlay

If you check the picture of the wood inlay rings, c. 1953, 1962, and 1968—three rings in a pyramid arrangement (above)—the top one is my wedding band.  The two bottom rings in the pyramid were earlier pieces. If you look carefully, you can see where the ebony wood was just force-fit into the openings that were cut into the band. The wood was driven in like a peg and then finished both outside and inside of the band.

To make gold chip wedding rings (below), I run  a piece of wire in a wavy form down the center of the band (no beginning or end).  I then ask the two involved to select five experiences that are to remain secret, not even I want to know. The five experiences are major ones that may or may not have brought the two together, male or female. If the primary color of gold is yellow, I make the five experiences out of white gold. I then make up to one-hundred chips of gold that fit like puzzle pieces and are soldered flat onto the band. I often sign the bands with the initials of the couple along with my hallmark and signature stamps. After I made the bands round and sized, I enrich the chips with stamps, punches, etc.

I made the wedding bands in the 1960s and only recently starting adding the time lines to the bands. I actually had a gay couple break out in tears when I explained the concept of the time line.

Wedding rings
  14 kt gold, lapis, stamps

The inlays that you do—I noticed the cuffs and bracelets on your site almost looked like they referenced that of Native American Craftsman, like Charles Loloma.

Sam (Maloof) owned a piece of Charles Loloma jewelry and he showed it to me—a bracelet—and Loloma was doing rectangular black things, and I did not want to emulate him, so I started carving into the wood with kind of flowing, curvilinear stuff and then I’d cut the stone to fit it.


They are beautiful!  That work must be so time consuming.









I started making inlay bracelets in the ‘60’s.  At that time, making a bracelet that had inlays other than rectangular stones was labor intensive, primarily because the epoxies were not as refined and some of the craftsmen relied on techniques that did not rely on adhesives. Then, the curing time took as much as forty-eight hours. It was easy to understand why the decades old techniques were favored. 

I wanted to make bracelets that did not rely on the techniques that were practiced at that time by craftsmen.  I wanted more of the flowing curves and contrasting materials so I tried to fully utilize inlaying and laminating.  I have found bracelets to be the catalyst for many ideas, trying materials in transition and the newer space age epoxies that make many of the designs possible. My bracelets utilize materials that are becoming extinct or rare and precious metals. I am also exploring different materials for the sides of the bracelets. 

Recently, I had an email from a person who wanted to donate the entire keyboard of a piano that he dismantled
the ebony wood and the ivory keys.  I carefully stripped the ivory off their wooden mounts and started laminating it to the sides of the bracelets. Sometimes I use ebony rivets as contrast. Can you imagine all the pianos that have fallen silent with the advent of the keyboard? And all of those precious materials ending up in a landfill?  I have dedicated all  my jewelry to  Earth, Sky, and Water, or Faith, Hope, and Charity.  Some times I dedicate my jewelry to my three children, Nicole, Michael and Mariann.

Bracelets, c 2011-12  Sterling silver, various inlays, laminates, stones, ivory, bone, dyed coral, ebony, pink ivory

Sterling silver, birth stone, various inlay and laminate materials that are becoming extinct or rare

"Earth, Sky, and Water"
  Sterling silver, pink ivory wood, ebony wood, ivory, ivory rivets

The contour of the bracelet represents the curvature of the earth.  Looking down on the bracelet as though from outer space, we see the deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, land masses, and the materials that are becoming extinct and rare.  We can see the areas that are being violated and the results of global warming.  My bracelets remind the consumer that the weight of the world is the responsibility of the wearer and as the designer and maker of the piece, I have taken it upon myself to keep our declining resources out of the landfill of the mind. 

Consumption need not be excessive.  Sound ecological practices can be beneficial to the planet.

Please go on to Interview with Joseph Gatto, Part II

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More of Joseph Gatto's work can be seen on his website

*Lois Franke Warren is an author and highly celebrated jeweler and teacher.  Please read "Lois Franke, In Her Own Words."

*Sam Maloof was a world renowned woodworker and furniture maker.  His work is in prestigious museums in the United States.  Please see:

*Art Smith was one of the most respected and influential American modernist jewelers of the mid 20th century.  Please see:

Photographs courtesy of Joseph Gatto

Interview with jeweler Joseph Gatto by Marbeth Schon.

Web Design by Marbeth Schon

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