Sculptural Subversions

In studios and workshops throughout the Cambridge area, artists are exploring unusual media. FM investigates this burgeoning local art scene.

In studios and workshops throughout the Cambridge area, artists are exploring unusual media. FM investigates this burgeoning local art scene.

Whether crocheting giant forms out of plastic bags, welding rusted metals, or molding women out of materials found on the street, local artists are pushing the boundaries of sculpture through their use of unexpected materials. Madeleine I. Lord connects her interest in welding scrap metal to her desire for more affordable art materials.

“When I started cutting steel in ’83, I was painting with oil paints ... it cost a fortune,” Lord says. “So I figured out, okay, scrap steel is so much cheaper than paper and linen and paint. The first scrap site I went to was condemned by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. When I went back to get some more, it was gone.”

Chuckling over the phone, Lord comments on the difficulty of making art while working full-time and raising a family.

“People used to say, ‘What makes you do it?’ And I used to say, ‘Desperation and poverty,’” she says. “I was a single mom when my children were small, so I just put my art on the edges of my life, but I never stopped.”

Lord continues, “If you make art, you can’t stop; it’s just something you do, you make room for it. You cannot run away from who you are.”

Although Lord’s focus right now is on sculpture, she admits that she has not entirely forsaken her earlier interest in painting.

“I paint, still, from time to time,” she says. “But it’s a matter of subject matter. When you make art, you’re not saying, ‘I’m an artist.’ You’re saying, ‘I believe in something.’ You’re convinced that this is beauty, or this is important, or this needs to be said.”

For Lord, scrap metal invokes the possibility of change within this framework of belief.

“When you make art that is in itself visibly a transformation, it is a metaphor and a signal to others that they can take a moment that feels and looks lousy and turn it around to something else,” she says.

Ruth F. Rosner, another local artist, agrees on the power of alternative materials. The sculptures of women in her “Plastered and Wired” series incorporate materials that range from tree roots to stones to exhaust pipes.

“I use the found metal and stone and wood because I think what nature has done to them has made them more beautiful,” Rosner says. “These things that we think of as ruined, or decay, or debris are actually very strong, and made beautiful and passionate by what has happened to them.”

Jodi Colella is a biologist turned graphic designer turned sculptor—and current artist-in-residence at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass.—who takes a delicate approach to industrial materials. Her work incorporates knitting, crochet, and other traditional handwork techniques. While Colella’s tools may be traditional, her applications aren’t. “One of the big pieces I’ve done with aluminum [window] screens is Undercurrent. It’s cutwork embroidery with steel wire and appliqué,” she says. “People think it’s gossamer from far away, but when you get up and touch it, it hurts.”

Recently, she drew inspiration from an Irish lacemaking technique developed to spur household industry after the Irish Potato Famine. She calls that body of work “Hunger,” in reference to both the famine and the expressive yearning of the forms she creates.

“I’m not using small, ecru thread and making [lace motifs] two inches big to put together for wedding gowns,” Colella explains. “I’m using [these techniques] on huge, two-inch diameter thick cord with 12 gauge wire, so they’re as big as I am and they take shape, so they become these sort of biomorphic or anthropomorphic forms.”

Nontraditional media give Colella’s works unexpected shapes and inviting textures. Colella says of our contemporary society, “Everything is very detached. There’s no touch, except on your iPhone ... I find that people in the art world love what I do because they feel. They like touching, they like the tactility, that like that it invades their space.”

The contemporary art scene is shifting to make room for nontraditional media, giving artists working with unconventional materials new confidence. “You have license now—it’s changed so dramatically, Rosner says. “All these materials that I was at first very cautious about, thinking, can I do this? It’s just happening all over the place.”

Lord notes that new materials call for new techniques. Artists working with nontraditional media must often develop their skills without the benefit of a technical legacy to guide them, trusting their own sense of what is possible.  “I’m trying very often to weld kinds of steel together that are fragile or rusty or painted or greasy,” Lord says. “They don’t want to be welded; they misbehave. So in the process of making those choices, I have to learn to do a very, very delicate weld. I have to learn to stretch the technical side of all these tools.” “It takes a lot of strength to pick things up and move them,” Lord continues. “But the actual work is more like a dance. There’s a lot of stillness and balance. Yoga helps.”

Nontraditional media also present new intellectual challenges for artists. During our conversation, Colella does some quick calculations while she explains how to crochet a hyperbolic plane.

“There’s a lot of left brain stuff that you have to think about,” she says. “You have to be able to think spatially. You have to be able to problem-solve, you have to be able to do math.”

Despite the physical strain and the mental calisthenics involved, artists like Lord feel that the effort is not just worthwhile, but essential.

“When I have to make something really filled with anguish, the only remedy is to try to make [the work] as beautiful as possible,” Lord says. “Working hard for a beautiful line to tell a tough story is part of what I do.”

The stories she tells aren’t always heartwrenching, though. “My neighbors come over to my driveway all the time when I’m working, and laugh,” Lord says. “They pick up scraps off the driveway and off the pile, and they say, what the hell are you going to make out of this? And they come back later and find a Dachshund.”