Ruth Nivola is a European artist who was born in Germany but was trained in the art and craft in a variety of settings. She learned needlecrafts as a child in schools in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. She spent a winter studying body adornment at the Etruscan Museum in Rome. She got an education at an Art Academy in Italy. She set aside those studies for a little while when her family was young but then she eventually got into jewelry-making.
In fact, it was something she started doing while sitting beside her father’s deathbed. (source) In the 1970s she was doing interesting work crocheting metal-toned threads into wearable art pieces. She sews and weaves in addition to crocheting and uses all of those techniques to take the place of metalwork in many pieces. You can see that all of her varied arts education came together as she began to do this work. Nivola’s work with sculptural, artistic jewelry continued beyond the crochet fad of the 1970s.
Ruth Nivola in Hard Crochet
The first time I came across Ruth Nivola’s work was when I was flipping through Mark Dittrick’s Hard Crochet. Dittrick was showing how Nivola used a unique technique to create rigid “hard” crochet pieces for use in her jewelry. It’s hard to tell anything from the photo but the way that Dittrick describes it, Nivola would use metallic yarn and she would crochet it into thin, tight tubes. Then she would beat those tubes (presumably with something like a hammer) to flatten them and create the components that are then strung together to make a necklace like the one shown above. (Nivola perfected different ways of beating the yarn to make it work like metal, so in some references to her work you’ll see it described as something like “crocheted, whipped and hammered metallic yarns”).
Ruth Nivola in Crocheter’s Art
The next time I came across Ruth Nivola it was through her profile in The Crocheter’s Art by Del Feldman. I especially like the piece shown above, which is made of gold lame yarn and inset with Oriental silk, probably because it’s a little bit more delicate and flowy than what we see in Hard Crochet. It is a great example of how she started using fabrics in the place of jewels just like she was using thread in place of actual silver or gold. I only wish this image were in color in the book! I did find a color photo (below) of what appears to be the same necklace online at the Museum of Arts and Design but they say that this is a 1984 piece called Four Sun’s Festival and The Crocheter’s Art was published ten years prior to that so maybe it’s a different version of the same design?
In any case, Ruth does continue to have structured pieces in The Crocheter’s Art, like this bracelet which is also made with gold lame yarn but is adorned with antique metal shoe buttons:
One of the things that Feldman shares about Ruth Nivola is that she really enjoyed the way that each stitch had the potential to be such drudgery but with care and attention each stitch could also be new and interesting. Nivola really valued taking a craft that you’re skilled at and making “something out of nothing”.
Nivola Implements Many Craft Techniques
One of the things I’ve learned about Nivola as I’ve researched her work is that she is really skilled in a diverse range of different needleart and craft techniques. She has been known to use embroidery, applique, braiding, knotting and many other techniques in her jewelry. She continued to mix that with crochet, though. For example, take a look at this 1981 piece (above) titled Reflection of a Temple, which is primarily crocheted and then adorned with Indian silks. I love the more geometric design of this piece.
Timeless Pendulum, 1976-78, via The Drawing Room. This is a crocheted piece even though the unique way that Nivola works the yarn makes it hard to tell sometimes!
In 2006 there was an exhibit of her work at The Drawing Room. A press release for that exhibit describes her work beautifully:
“With gold and silver colored metallic yarns, she crochets the structure of each unique collar piece. Intriguing and unexpected compositions radiate from the crocheted collars like webs built by spiders. Thin yarns covered by sewn iridescent threads give way to tassels, and tiny bundles of tangerine, turquoise or fuchsia silk punctuate a strand with the pure color of gemstones to give focus and weight to her designs. Crocheted gold shell forms, pods of embroidered silk or bits of brocade dance and dangle from these marvelous feminine adornments.”
Nivola in New York
Solarium in the Nivola sculpture garden by Constantino Nivola (source); presumably that’s the Nivola’s children in there
Although Nivola is from Europe, her family moved to America to escape the Holocaust. They went to New York and by 1947 they had a home in East Hampton. I mention this because it was a very creative home that was actually fairly well known for its sculpture garden made by her artist husband Constantino Nivola. Nivola’s family sounds like a wonderfully creative family. Ruth actually authored a children’s book, called The Messy Rabbit, that was illustrated by her daughter Claire who has also illustrated many other books.
The sculpture garden sounds like an amazing place to raise a creative family! A 2001 article about the garden explains that Ruth wasn’t really happy living there anymore after Constantino passed away and at the time it was unclear what would happen to the garden. Ruth herself passed away in 2008. The 27 acre East Hampton property was sold to the town the following year with the intention of preserving it.