5 Questions with Beverly Penn

The fifth installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series, Heavy Metal, is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition showcases contemporary artists working in metal, including those who create sculpture, jewelry, and conceptual forms. Heavy Metal engages with the fluidity between “fine” art, design, and craft, whose traditional definitions are rooted in gender discrimination.

Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018

Artist: Beverly Penn
Nominating committee: Texas State Committee / Consulting curator: Virginia Treanor, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Beverly Penn; Photo: Christopher Zaleski

1. What do you like best about working with metal?

Metal adds permanence and intractability to an otherwise susceptible and transitory entity. In essence and in form the bronze replaces each unique plant, like a non-natural double. I cast weeds into bronze to create an enduring replica that pays homage to the original—like a memorial. The notion of a memorial is significant in these times of irreversible climate change and extinction, yet a memorial also links us to desire, so it is also hopeful.

2. How do your works on view in Heavy Metal fit into your larger body of work?

My larger body of work includes three related explorations. The “Timeline” series documents a single plant through an annual growth cycle, from bud to seed, by fixing specimens in a vertical sequence to slotted glass rods. The “Weed” series explores a group of plants with which humans have had to contend for places over millennia. The “Nativesseries reveals a sense of unity with nature.

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

My psyche (soul, brain, eyes, hands) and my torch. One imagines and the other makes.

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Beverly Penn, Eight Months Time: Snowcap Hawthorne, 2017; Bronze, glass, brass, and steel, 40 x 10 x 6 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Lisa Sette Gallery, and William Campbell Contemporary Art; Photo by Christopher Zaleski

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Beverly Penn, Maelstrom, 2011; Bronze, 108 x 108 x 6 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Lisa Sette Gallery, and William Campbell Contemporary Art; Photo by Christopher Zaleski

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Beverly Penn, Fata Morgana, 2014; Bronze, 90 x 8 x 27 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Lisa Sette Gallery, and William Campbell Contemporary Art; Photo by Christopher Zaleski

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and influence?

I am inspired and perplexed by the kingdom of plants with which we share this planet—especially the natives, invasives, and other stoic upstarts that persist without our stewardship. I am also inspired by Moorish architecture, Islamic art, and Victorian design. I am influenced by historians E. H. Gombrich, Oleg Grabar, and Christian Norberg-Schultz; the writing of Michael Pollen, Lucy Lippard, Ann Patchett, and Zadie Smith; the gardens and fantasies of Martha Schwartz and Antoni Gaudi; the music of Keith Jarrett, Aretha Franklin, and Nick Drake; as well as many artists.

5. What is the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I was moved by Do Ho Suh’s recent solo exhibition, which featured drawings, videos, and sculptural fabric “Specimen” series. Made from glowing transparent polyester, these “specimens” were replicas of domestic appliances and fixtures. The installation was a dreamlike replica of the artist’s New York apartment and studio made from luminous, transparent fabric. Wandering through the ephemeral likeness of this ghostly maze of corridors and rooms was a physical and psychological exchange of one reality for another.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

Casting, Construction, and Catharsis: Metalwork Processes

Metalwork has been considered a masculine practice due to the laborious, physical processes involved in manipulating metal. Despite this stereotype, women have long been artists and manufacturers in this dynamic medium. NMWA’s fifth Women to Watch exhibition, Heavy Metal, spotlights contemporary women artists who work with metal. These artists employ fascinating, diverse processes in the creation of their works.

Beverly Penn, Maelstrom, 2011; Bronze, 108 x 108 x 6 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Lisa Sette Gallery, and William Campbell Contemporary Art; Photo by Christopher Zaleski

While many of the featured artists manipulate scrap and recycled metal to make their works, others cast with liquid metal to create new objects. Beverly Penn’s intriguing, detailed bronze sculptures of invasive plants, such as Maelstrom (2011), are cast directly from the plants themselves. Penn calls this method “lost plant casting,” a play on the ancient metalworking method of lost wax casting. It also references the fact that plants burn away in the casting process. In this sense, the resulting sculpture is like a memorial to the plant, immortalized in metal.

Leila Khoury, Summer House, 2015; Steel and concrete, 12 x 48 x 1 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Other Heavy Metal artists find the process of creation to be a deeply personal or cathartic one. Leila Khoury’s steel and concrete works respond to the horrors of the ongoing Syrian civil war, which began during her time in art school. Khoury, of Syrian descent, created Palmyra (2015) in the aftermath of the destruction of the ancient city, attempting to create an image of the place from her own memories.

Khoury’s sculpture Summer House (2015) references her childhood memories of visiting her grandparents’ home in Syria. The structure recalls a row of windows, which Khoury filled with cement to symbolize that she may never return there. She describes the process of making as a way of grieving.

Holly Laws, Three Eastern Bluebirds, 2017; Copper, steel, mahogany, found ironing board, and plywood pedestal, 50 1/2 x 60 x 28 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Holly Laws’s Three Eastern Bluebirds (2017), made from cast bronze, a found ironing board, and plywood pedestal, is a response to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For Laws, this work served as her own “personal art therapy.” She meticulously cast 144 bird feathers for Three Eastern Bluebirds. Artists such as Laws reclaim meticulous handwork and other craft techniques, which have traditionally not been considered high art.

Alice Hope also used repetitive handwork to create her untitled 2016 sculpture. Hope patiently strung together thousands of crimson Budweiser beer can tabs—which the artist refers to as “found color”—into a massive spiral form.

The variance and vibrancy of the works in Heavy Metal testifies to the intriguing and often innovative methods that these women artists apply to metal.

Visit the museum to see Heavy Metal, on view through September 16, 2018. Hear from more of the featured artists through the online Heavy Metal Audio Guide.

—Nana Gongadze is the summer 2018 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.