Above: Vessel, or bowl, was created by Anthony Robinson in 1984. The bowl is made of forged stainless steel.
Memphis, the “Volunteer State’s” largest city, may be known as the Home of the Blues, but it also is home to the Metal Museum.
April 2014 - Its director, Carissa Hussong, says the 35-year-old museum is the only institution in the U.S. dedicated solely to advancing the art and craft associated with fine metalwork. Exhibitions and collections mix with varied activities including apprenticeships, artist residencies, conservation, restoration, onsite fabrication and special events like Repair Days.
“We recognize there are few venues for metal artists,” says Hussong. Showcasing master metalsmiths may be the museum’s prime directive, but raising public awareness has been equally important. “Through our programs we’re connecting the public with metals,” she says. “We help them learn about the skill and time that goes into high quality metal work. This summer we will unveil a multi-platform display for our smithy and foundry that will feature didactic panels and video demonstrations highlighting different techniques. Individuals will also be able to pick up and handle pieces that have been forged and cast from different materials.”
The display pieces will give visitors a tactile tutorial on metals like the difference in weight between cast iron and aluminum and the grain-like structure of wrought iron versus mild steel.
“Most people don’t realize the preparation and time that goes into finishing a cast piece for example,” Hussong says. “Interactive displays and demonstrations help visitors understand the difference between ‘wrought iron’ furniture you buy at Wal-Mart and that of a handmade piece.”
Hussong says that as a not-for-profit, the museum has adapted to changing economies with relevant, innovative ideas, while remaining true to its roots. “Our contemporary displays cover work from the 1960s to the present,” she says. “But we also recognize the early 1900s and the crafts renewal renaissance that inspired artists to return to earlier metalworking methods. Take blacksmithing for example. It has evolved into more of a fine art then a building tool. Modern practices and new developments like 3-D printing continue to impact metalworking and replace tasks once performed by hand.”
The museum strikes a balance in the tug-of-war between advancing technology and handcrafted items by preserving metalworking skill sets in the realm of fine arts. The concept for the museum was first introduced in 1975 by the Memphis Chapter at the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association conference. The following year, a charter and bylaws were filed with the State and the museum took shape on 3.2 acres near the Mississippi River. Once part of a United States Marine Hospital, museum grounds include three historic buildings that have since been turned into galleries, housing for visiting artists and a library. For the first three decades, it was led by blacksmith and artist James Wallace. As the museum’s first director, he helped establish the Schering-Plough Smithy, the Lawler Foundry, a conservation laboratory and the library.
These additions created a dynamic learning environment for emerging artists and museum professionals through its blacksmith and museum apprenticeship programs, along with three- to 12-month artist residencies and general internships. The apprenticeship gives metalsmiths the opportunity to hone their skills and gain experience in other areas. “It’s a two-year program,” says Hussong. “They live on the grounds, receive a stipend for the work they do for the museum but have the opportunity to focus on their own projects. They get a feel for what it would be like to try and make a living off their craft, learning to budget, design and schedule projects and other practical skills.” Artist residencies provide a supportive environment for metalsmiths who are given full access to the museum’s facility.
Memberships help the museum thrive financially, but commissions, restoration services, classes and community events also draw visitors and income. In addition to introductory welding, beginner and intermediate blacksmithing classes are offered. “We start participants with hooks and scrolls and other simple techniques,” Hussong says.
One of its most popular events is Repair Days held in October over a 4-day weekend. Metalsmiths and volunteers tackle everything from knife sharpening and copper pot re-tinning to dent removal and bend straightening, welding bronze, steel, aluminum and cast iron, soldering and casting of missing parts. The museum also gives an annual award for the best repair. “Last year we gave the award to a group of students from the Center For Creative Studies,” says Hussong. “They were given a pair of eagles sculpted from lead. The pieces were filled with bondo. They had to remove that, and then make repairs to the interior and exterior structure.”
Events like Repair Days and Forging On The River also can give visitors a rudimentary knowledge about the metal their item is made of. “Repairs can be tricky,” Hussong says. “People often don’t know what alloy their item is made from. They sometimes are disappointed to learn that the item they thought was bronze is actually spelter.”
A simple test can help visitors tell the difference between the two. If scratching the bottom of the item with another piece of metal reveals a copper color, it’s bronze. Silvery gray indicates spelter. “We also try to educate visitors by prompting them to think about things like, ‘How did blacksmithing change the way people worked? What impact did welding have? How did these and other methods translate to fabrication and how the things people use every day are made?’”
Open Tuesday through Sunday, the museum is anything but static. In addition to its weekend demonstrations, exhibitions of featured metal artists and events, examples of the artistry fostered by the institution, can be found throughout the city from the mild and stainless steel Martin Luther King, Jr. gate at a local golf course to a weathervane for the Memphis Zoo. The next time you visit, if the cab driver asks to take you to Graceland, you might just suggest the Metal Museum instead.