"Conversations In Iron," which opens today at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, highlights the fact that, although few Memphians realize it, the institution is considered a Mecca for metalsmiths.
In fact, the roots of this three-man art exhibit are intertwined with the history of the museum itself.
James Wallace helped found the National Ornamental Metal Museum in the mid-1970s, turning a makeshift site into a 3-acre property that includes a smithy, foundry, lab, dormitory and library before retiring in 2007 to focus on his art.
Brent Kington, an emeritus professor of blacksmithing/metalsmithing at Southern Illinois University, served as Wallace's teacher and mentor, and helped midwife the transformation of contemporary blacksmithing into an accepted art form.
And Richard Quinnell, a pioneering British metalsmith, served as chief designer for the iconic Tenth Anniversary Gates that, today, mark the entrance to the National Ornamental Metal Museum.
Their work alternately showcases functionality, whimsy and wit -- elements that are thriving within the contemporary metal scene.
Several of the pieces that Wallace chose to include in the exhibit were literally ripped from his own home. Drawer pulls, a shelf bracket, and an elaborate flourish for a corner shower are on display, along with a fireplace screen and an end table that's bestowed with a permanent bouquet of soldered tools and the title "Major Tonnage."
Much of Wallace's work, such as the four "scrap boxes" on display, demonstrates his ability to combine memory and environment while creating beautiful art from discarded junk. One box, labeled "52 S. Front Street," might serve as a Pandora's Box that holds clues to Memphis' history as a cotton town, its role in the Civil War (the address is located right around the corner from General Washburn's Escape Alley), and the city's enduring cultural legacy.
Kington uses the same materials -- wood and metal -- to make feather-light kinetic sculptures that balance atop inverted bowl-shaped bases. His work plays with conflicting concepts of heft and grace, with a dollop of droll humor: One piece resembles an arched eyebrow; another, a droopy mustache. Think an earthier Alexander Calder, one who employs a monochromatic color scheme and droll shapes that, perched atop his hammered spires, shimmy and sway with the touch of a finger. Or, perhaps a blend of Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style, with a dash of Salvador Dali tossed in for good measure.
Quinnell's contributions to this "Conversation" -- his thoughtfully humorous and meticulously crafted "Wally Awards," which he's personally granted to deserving artists at annual Artist Blacksmith Association of North America conferences for the last 23 years -- serve as an exclamation point to the extenuating commentary about metalsmithing as a whole.
According to Leila Hamdan, registrar and collections manager for the National Ornamental Metal Museum, "wally" is British slang for a gherkin, and also an apt reference to James Wallace.
Among standouts like "Liberty Pickle," an image of the Statue of Liberty hoisting a pickle into the air, and a pickle blimp that zooms across St. Louis' Gateway Arch, there's "Wheelbarrow," a Wally Award given to New Hampshire metalsmith Dimitri Gerakaris in 1979. The diminutive, trophy-like piece depicts gherkin pickles in a wheelbarrow, referencing Gerakaris' winning garden gate. A pickle-handled pie server, engraved with the motto "Have a nice day," was likewise awarded to the metal museum's 2009 Master Metalsmith Elizabeth Brim for her 1992 food-themed work, "Road Kill Bouquets."
Hamdan notes that a side benefit of "Conversations in Iron" is that the museum acquired two new pieces, including a sled created by Wallace, for its permanent collection.
"We're actively collecting (artwork) that reflects our mission," Hamdan says. "Being able to cross-reference items gives our objects a history, and it allows (the museum) to preserve its own history."
p>"Conversations In Iron: Featuring Brent Kington, Richard Quinnell and James Wallace"
The exhibit opens Friday; a members-only reception is 4-6 p.m. Saturday at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive. Open through April 12. For more information, call 774-6380 or go to www. MetalMuseum. org.