Strength. Endurance. Heat. Value. Metal brings a lot of qualities to mind, but when you’re talking metal art, the possibilities expand: irony, vulnerability, metaphor. Tacoma gets to see all those qualities this month — and the artists who explore them — in Metal-Urge, the third incarnation of a citywide celebration of metal arts that includes gallery shows, classes, a symposium and a free community festival this Sunday in Tollefson Plaza.
From jewelry to sculpture, practical to poetic, local to international, the art spans some 22 venues, including all four major museums. As with previous Metal-Urges in 2000 and 2009, this one coincides with a metal arts exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum (“Protective Ornament: Contemporary Amulets to Armor”).
The festival this Sunday at Tollefson Plaza includes swordfighting, blacksmithing, an iron pour, hands-on metal crafts, live music on metal percussion, and three new sculptures in the plaza’s pools, as well as food trucks and other activities. Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Seattle Metals Guild will meet for its annual symposium in the Washington State History Museum, with lectures by historians, artists and writers.
But maybe none emphasizes so much the intersection between the artistic and the highly practical as “Made in Metal” at Two Ravens Studio and Art Foundry. The one-room show, sandwiched in a display gallery between the bronze foundry’s molding and casting rooms, mixes regional artists like Mary Coss and Saign Charlestein with Tacoma craftsmen who work in those fascinating industrial buildings in the warehouse district: Tacoma Tin and Bulb, Fireworks Forge and Two Ravens Studio itself. Metal has for millennia been both decoration and function, and “Made in Metal” does a great job juxtaposing the two within and among the artists’ work.
Charlestein is a perfect example of this. A Hollywood prop maker whose metalwork and armor have been seen in films like “Spiderman 2” and “Star Trek” (2008), Charlestein knows his history and can emulate Corinthian breastplates as well as Celtic knotwork or Samurai masks. His hammer-and-chisel technique is not only ancient and authentic, it’s highly skilled, producing subtle brown-patinaed indentations in bronze shields and sharp lines in copper masks that are hard to believe are hand-made. But in his miniature helmets at Two Ravens, there’s a more ethereal, mythic quality — between the green copper patina and the empty eyeholes is a curve that suggests a head rather than a helmet, hinting at a presence even in the harsh metal.
On the other side of the room is a different juxtaposition. Mary Coss’ worn, crumpled-yet-strong bronze corsets and bras speak of women’s suffrage protests, of broken ribs and sagging breasts, of female vanity and endurance and emotion all mixed. (Coss will also have three of her “torsos” with gracefully tall bronze skeleton-skirts in the Tollefson Plaza pools this week.) Behind these skin-like beatings of bronze, though, is the work of signmaker Josh Higgins of Tacoma Tin and Bulb: the words “Metal-Urge,” welded in gray tin and outlined in electric bulbs with a brash, retro feel to them — a very masculine background to Coss’ female torsos.
Other artists cross the aesthetic-practical boundary in other ways. Justin Hahn, worker at Two Ravens Studio, moves away from his sad figurines made of post-casting plastic waste and into sculpting people out of welded bronze, the metal ribs creating an exoskeleton which a family and their dogs inhabit. Joe Michaels of nearby Fireworks Forge weld and forge steel into a delicate spray of roses and a rickety vintage jeep.
Jeremy Holcomb, meanwhile, makes use of metal’s irony, casting an immaculately detailed bonsai tree, its rust patches adding wabi-sabi, an aestheic of transcience and imperfection. Travis Conn (a swordfighter who makes his own weapons and who will be demonstrating at Sunday’s festival) goes beyond ominous masks with skin-like texture to “Ghost Tree,” a vase with branches like human figures absorbed into the metal.
“Made in Metal” is up through Nov. 20; other Metal-Urge shows continue through Nov. 30.