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Metal Meets Its Match at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Metal Meets Its Match at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Susie Ganch, Falling in Love: 1999

Susie Ganch, Falling in Love: 1999, 2011–13, mixed media, collected detritus, and steel, 12 x 62 x 12 in.

David Hunter Hale, courtesy of the artist and Sienna Patti Contemporary

“Heavy Metal” is the catchy title of the latest installment of Women to Watch exhibition series at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The title also captures a sense of strength, which may or may not be physical; there’s not contesting the strength of vision, however, of the 20 artists in the show. In another sense, though, the name is, perhaps, not quite complete; then again, how to capture in a few words the huge range of work, from huge installations to delicate jewelry, in everything from precious metals to proletarian pewter?  

The show of more than 50 pieces, on view to September 16, was curated by NMWA’s Virginia Treanor and inspired by the museum’s collection of work by 18th- and 19th-century female silversmiths. Though notions that metal is too rough and tough of a medium for women to tackle, this show lays to rest any lingering (not to mention laughable) doubts. We talked to three artists in the show. Here are a few of their thoughts.

Paula Castillo grew up gathering scrap metal from around her neighborhood, and she still has a matter-of-factly intimate relationship with the material, often hand-welding hundreds of tiny pieces to make her sculptures; welding, she says, should be considered an essential life skill like learning to sew.

"Metal never stays the same. Like oxygen or water, it’s always being reframed and reused. It has that history embedded in it, whether it’s punch-outs from I-beams or boxes of baling wire."

Venetia Dale, who works primarily in pewter, has been honing her skills in the metal for about a decade. She’s heard it called "the Velveeta cheese" of metal, describing not only its material qualities (it melts easily, it’s gummy) but its low-metal-on-the-totem-pole status. But that small-d democratic history – its historic use as everyday dishes for the colonial common man, its modern-day use in kitschy souvenirs – is precisely what draws her too it.

"It’s easy to work with, accessible and affordable – all you need is a hot plate and a pot from Goodwill. I find I love that underdog quality." That, she says, and "the soft, gray quality. I’m so seduced by it. It’s beautiful."

Steeped in the world of jewelry, Susie Ganch’s work has evolved from the scale of finger, wrist, and neck to wall-sized pieces and work that refuses to stay politely on the wall, from precious metals to plastic coffee cup lids and beyond. It’s all in service to her unquenchable curiosity about materials and forms, and how they all fit together.

It began in an elective jewelry class she took as an undergrad; she was a geology major at the time, but not for long.

"When the the teacher turned on the torch to solder, it was like the light bulb went on: 'Ohhh – that’s how it’s done.' Hot connections are still my first love, but what working with metal really did was turn me into a problem-solver. Everything stems from hot and cold connections."