Ruth Nivola: Spinning Gold From Yarns

Patsy Southgate | June 19, 1997

Visitors hardly ever use the front door on Old Stone Highway in Springs. Following a flagstone path that leads past the 18th-century farmhouse through a bed of lily of the valley, they come in the back door, under a cedar tree.

The original coal stove dominates the spacious kitchen, where a red rocking chair draped with a fuchsia shawl accents the wide floorboards, painted a glowing yellow. Orange casseroles and a turquoise coffeepot rest on the stove, along with a big black wok.

Ruth Nivola, in a purple dress, completes the color spectrum - almost. On the dining table sit little dishes of green olives, dried cranberries, cherries, and a pale-ocher pƒt‚, of curried chicken wings that seems emblematic of the spirit of the place: mundane objects exalted by vivid color.

Even a vase of blossoms from the common snowball bush outside looks glamorous in this heightened setting.

Golden Filigrees

The widow of the sculptor and muralist Costantino Nivola, who died nine years ago, Mrs. Nivola is known for her extraordinary jewelry design. Not surprisingly, she uses humble materials to create exotic pieces.

"It would have been too difficult to go back to painting when my children went off to school," said the former art student. "So while my father was on his deathbed, for something to do as I kept him company, I started making jewelry, deriving my inspiration from nature and ethnic costumes and from drawings of musical instruments."

She had noticed silver and gold yarns in knitting shops, usually doomed to become "rather ugly evening sweaters," and decided to try turning them into something beautiful.

Experimenting during her bedside vigil, she discovered the yarns could be crocheted, knitted, whipped, and frayed into mesh-like filigrees - unique new methods of making jewelry.

Silks And Brocades

Her works, which have been displayed in museums and galleries here and abroad, are noted also for such techniques as curling, embroidering, appliqu‚ing, knotting, hammering, stuffing, shaping with tweezers, braiding, and tasseling.

"At first I tried to get real gold thread, and bought a spool from a supplier to the Pope in Rome," said Mrs. Nivola. "When I had it tested, it turned out to be fake."

"Then I discovered that by hammering I could stiffen the metallic yarns so they could be worked like real gold and silver into quite large pins and necklaces that were light but not fragile, and never tarnished."

Instead of setting them with gems, she used richly colored silks and brocades from around the world, particularly the Orient, as well as antique beads and buttons. The colors include "light green, different shades of pink, orange, red, two blues, and dark lilac."

"The Angel's Broom"

"Each piece took at least two months to make, often much longer. Now one would take me a year, with my bad eyesight and the arthritis in my fingers."

Her imposing jewels, some as wide as collarbones, others covering the chest like breastplates, evoke ancient ceremonial adornments perhaps excavated from a temple or a royal tomb.

"Tino loved naming them," she said. As she catalogues them for a show in Italy at the end of the year, the names live on: "Achilles' Harp," "The Angel's Broom," "The Offering," "The Lovers' Rope."

Mrs. Nivola began life as Ruth Guggenheim in Munich, Germany, and grew up in comparative luxury. Part of her father's family came from Baden-Baden which, according to genealogists, may make her a relative of Peggy Guggenheim et al., albeit a distant one.

Father Blacklisted

Her father, a physician and amateur religious scholar, met her mother, an art history student, at the University of Zurich.

Dr. Guggenheim belonged to a group of physicians who had agreed to charge wealthy patients enough to be able to treat poor ones for free. He was blacklisted by the Nazis for his "Communist" tendencies.

"Actually, he was a royalist who wanted the King back," his daughter said with a laugh.

With other Jews, the family fled Germany to Italy in 1933. There, like her mother, Mrs. Nivola met her future husband, who came from the island of Sardinia, at art school. They were married in 1938.

To America

That same year, Italy passed anti-Semitic laws. The Guggenheims escaped to Switzerland and applied for an American immigration permit. During a visit to Paris after bidding her parents farewell, Mr. Nivola learned that he was wanted by the Italian police for alleged anti-Fascist activities, and the younger couple, too, came to America.

"It was unbelievable," Mrs. Nivola said. "Like so many Jews, my mother had fled three times: first from the Russian Revolution - her family had been wealthy - then from Nazi Germany, and again from Italy."

"Yet these people never surrendered their high ethical and moral ideals, and showed amazing spirit. I remember when the anti-Semitic laws were announced in Italy, she filled the whole apartment with fresh flowers, just to counteract the horror."

Early Struggles

America in 1939 had not yet recovered from the Depression, and the young couple struggled in New York. Mrs. Nivola spoke a little English, her husband none at all. They worked side by side in factories, and she took jobs as a nursemaid. She stopped doing art; he persisted.

Mr. Nivola, who at the age of 25 had been the art director of Olivetti in Milan, peddled hand-painted Christmas cards to New York department stores to make ends meet. Eventually Bonwit Teller hired him in its advertising department, which led to his becoming art director at Interiors magazine.

This income enabled him to continue sculpting in various Greenwich Village studios, one of which he shared with a friend, the architect Le Corbusier, in town to help design the United Nations building.

Sculpture Garden

In 1947 the couple rented a cottage in East Hampton, and bought their then very rundown farmhouse a year later. When the house "pushed at" Tino, his widow said, he'd push back - removing walls and obstacles until the space felt comfortable.

Now a blend of the openness of modern architecture and the coziness of a cottage, the sparely furnished interior is dominated by a dramatic Le Corbusier mural that covers two walls with yellows, blues, greens, and black. Sardinian baskets share wall-space with paintings by cherished neighbors.

Outside, a sculpture garden displays such unusual works as cement walls etched by Mr. Nivola with a screwdriver in the style of ancient graffiti, large stone fruits he made for a playground, and a tombstone he designed for his in-laws' ashes - one of his series of softly undulating "Sardinian Widows."

Life After Tino

A parade of statues of friends and family by Claire Nivola Kiley, the couple's daughter, marches out of the woods, led by a regal likeness of her mother.

Ms. Kiley, who writes under her maiden name, has just published a children's book, "Elisabeth." It tells the true story of a beloved doll Mrs. Nivola left behind in Germany that miraculously turned up in a New York antiques shop, and now belongs to her granddaughter, Alycia.

A son, Pietro S. Nivola, works at the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The author of "Regulating Unfair Trade" and "The Extra Mile: Rethinking Energy Policy for Automatic Transportation," he's "a serious thinker," according to his mother.

Life after Tino keeps Mrs. Nivola busy with his estate, and with the museum his hometown, Orani, dedicated to him, to which she donated works.

"When I'm not traveling, I live here," she said. "This house, for me, is like my skin. All of Tino's spirit is here, too, so I am happy."