BY JUDY ARGINTEANU
The "Iron Maidens" exhibition — making its first U.S. stop at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery — showcases women's contributions to the neglected medium of cast-iron art.
Fine arts aficionados traditionally have considered cast iron the coarser, working-class cousin to more refined media such as oil painting and sculpture.
By necessity, cast iron remained ensconced in heavy industry until the 1960s, when technical advances allowed for smaller-scale studio work. Even then, when a few artists started experimenting, cast iron was often considered "humble" or "process-oriented," says artist Tamsie Ringler, an assistant professor of sculpture at St. Catherine University, who's been working in cast iron for 20 years.
Ringler hopes that "Iron Maidens," an international touring exhibition currently on display at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, will shift the stereotype of cast iron as a functional or decorative "craft" to a fine art of its own.
Anyone who's ever been to an iron pour has glimpsed the physical, collaborative, sometimes spiritual nature of that process. In fact, the process is part of what drew Ringler and her exhibition collaborators — a respected group of artists, all women, from the United States and the United Kingdom — to the medium.
Ringler was instrumental in bringing "Iron Maidens" to the United States and to St. Catherine, the first U.S. venue for the show. The exhibition opened in Wales in 2009 and traveled around the U.K. before reaching these shores.
It runs through October 30 at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, goes next to Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and is proposed for exhibition at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan in March 2012.
Blending feminine and masculine
Transportation costs prevented the artists from including large-scale works in the U.S. exhibition. Otherwise, the aesthetic of each piece varies widely — from Sarah Clover's delicate pair of worn work gloves, looking soft as leather but with every crease and wrinkle fixed in metal, to Kate Hobby's yarn and knitting needles, a traditionally "feminine" occupation rendered in the once all-male domain of cast-iron, and Alison Lochhead's rough-hewn figural abstractions that appear almost pulled from the earth.
"What's great about this show is that we have different women from two continents whose work may seem very different but who all share a love of iron as a material," Ringler says.
Exhibition artist Deborah LaGrasse has been working with cast iron for more than 30 years. "I like the price," she says with a laugh. Iron is a bargain compared with steel or bronze. It holds a more elemental appeal as well. "I love the way that it rusts and changes oxidizes. I like the coloration. Iron is the most common element in the Earth, and it's in our bodies. It's part of our makeup, part of our world and universe."
Cast iron's transformational possibilities also attract artists. "When you're working with it, when it's melting and re-forming, it undergoes a physical transition," Ringler says.
Gallery Director Kathleen Daniels '73 calls "Iron Maidens" a groundbreaking exhibition for St. Kate's. Although the gallery hosted a "women in metal" show in the late 1990s, that exhibit dealt more with traditional fine-arts metals such as bronze.
Both LaGrasse and Ringler say they have been welcomed into the community of iron-casting artists. But the medium itself — whether due to its industrial roots
Daniels is delighted that "Iron Maidens" continues the theme of gallery exhibitions that feature women willing to take risks, for the sake of the art. "These