Copper in the Arts

July 2010

The Metal Museum: Providing the Tools for a New Generation of Coppersmiths

By Michael Cervin

Pillow Block Pillow Block #2, by Joe Muench

Photograph courtesy of The Metal Museum

When one thinks of Memphis, the first thought usually to come to mind is Elvis and Graceland. But Memphis is also home to the Metal Museum, an organization founded exclusively for preservation, promotion, and creation of fine metalwork. Housed in three historic brick colonial buildings this secret spot has over three acres devoted to metals of all types including copper, brass and bronze work, steel, pewter and much more. The campus buildings include a new library with resource materials about metalsmithing, the Schering-Plough Smithy, and the Lawler Foundry.

The only museum of its kind in the nation, The Metal Museum's primary mission is to preserve and advance the art and craft of fine metalwork in the United States. The Metal Museum is also a resource to artists, offering restoration and consulting services, metal working classes, internship opportunities, artists-in-residence and apprentice programs.

"Metalsmithing is an art form that's dying in terms of it being a trade, but it's certainly thriving in the arts and crafts community," says executive director of the museum Carissa Hussong.

And that sense of community is ideally expressed in Memphis where all aspects and types of metals; from ecclesiastic and ritual objects to architectural and public art pieces, jewelry and even a copper still are on display in both permanent and rotating exhibits.

At work in the studio. Forging metal at the Metal Museum

Photograph courtesy of the Metal Museum

One of the reasons Hussong believes that the trade of metalsmithing is disappearing is the cost of production, among other factors.

"But it's also a lack of education on the public's part," she adds. "Technologies have made it easier to mass produce items and people no longer recognize the difference between a factory produced object as opposed to a hand crafted object." Simply put, she believes, since people are not exposed to fine metal works on a daily basis they have lost the ability to discern true craftsmanship.

"We are trying to promote that idea of hand crafting," she says. "Sometimes education can be as simple as picking up something you bought at Home Depot in one hand and holding something created by hand in the other. There's a value to the weight, the rigidity, the detail and ornamentation, and we encourage people to stop and look at it as opposed to always looking for a deal."

The museum has become a public confluence for metals of all types, but many of their artists work with copper or bronze. In fact one of the most popular classes you can take at the museum is making your own copper weather vane.

"We teach a two day class on crafting copper weather vanes," she says. "You don't even need to have any experience and you can leave with a beautiful object. It's important for people to have that experience and understand how the metal actually works."

Copper Swing This swing at the Memphis Botanical Gardens was designed by Bill Price to look like a butterfly cocoon.

Photograph by Nathan Berry

In the weather vane class, students turn copper into a three-dimensional image by die-forming and hand hammering the metal. Another class teaches the public how to enamel on copper sheets, creating a variety of colors. The museum also offers blacksmithing and casting classes, where students attend a bronze pour at the campus foundry.

As for the exhibit pieces, many are made on site specifically for the museum and are one-of-a-kind. Bill Price, a local artist, created a copper cocoon swing which was displayed on the grounds and now has a permanent home at the Memphis Botanic Garden.

The museum offers simple repairs to metal works year round, but once a year, metalsmiths around the country gather to work, socialize, share and fix damaged metalwork at the annual Repair Day. This highly anticipated event, the only one of it's kind in the country, draws 75 to 125 metalsmiths and 100 volunteers.

"It's a big party here," Hussong says. "It's educational for students as they can work alongside a master metalsmith whom they may have only read about."

The public brings their items for repair, such as re-tinning copper cookware or fixing an antique bronze lamp and they are charged a small fee. The proceeds then support the museum. The next Repair Day is scheduled for October 1 to 3.

"The museum has a lot of soul and spirit to it," Hussong says of the unique camaraderie that exists at the museum. "I've been amazed how welcoming, generous and supportive the metals community is here. People come here for inspiration, to play and have a good time, to see old friends and sometimes to heal and grow; many people come here to take their work to the next level which can be a great healing and exploratory process."

Dragon sculpture with patina. Dragon with copper scales.

Photograph by Nathan Berry

Though it may seem a niche museum to those who are within the trade, Hussong assures that is actually not the case. "What sets us apart is that we have a national following, over half of our visitors are from out of town and about 40 percent of our members are from outside this region," she says. One of her goals is to create a portion of the museum where guests can embrace, literally, the metals before them. "I would like to include an exhibit that is touchable and hands-on which talks about different metals and their characteristics and that provide an opportunity for people to really see the difference between factory produced and handmade objects."

Ultimately Hussong is up-beat about the future of metalsmithing and the place the museum holds in sustaining metals artists everywhere. "The hand crafted object is not going away, it may have a different place in society, but there is a still a love and commitment to it and people will continue to make beautiful objects," she states. "Where those objects end up and how society uses them will change over time but people find creative ways to use new materials, traditional techniques and contemporary advancements to craft new works. That mixing of media, technique and exploration will continue on forever."


The Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Dr., Memphis, TN, (877) 881-2326

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