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National Ornamental Metal Museum Promotes Metalwork as an Art Form


The National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis is devoted to the conservation and advancement of metalwork. It is a place where metal smiths become synonymous with artists and where metalwork as an art form finds its home. Elaine Lu narrates.

The National Ornamental Metal Museum is perched on a bluff overlooking the bending Mississippi River in the south of downtown Memphis. It is a great place to watch a sunset.

Museum director Jim Wallace has taken it all in over time. "It's like if you live in the most beautiful place in the world, and you have magnificent sunset everyday. After 10 years you wouldn't understand or appreciate your beautiful sunset."

The 58-year-old Wallace says it was his naiveness that got him into the director's position almost 30 years ago when he was a blacksmith in Colorado. He knew nothing about museums. His plan was to stay for a couple of years. But he has been working and living here even since, nursing the museum from its humble start to its present form.

The museum sits on a 1.2-hectare site where the U.S. Marine Hospital used to be. After it was abandoned, the city leased the property in 1978 at $1.00 a year to five local metal workers who wanted to establish a museum.

The stately forged steel and scrollwork Anniversary Gates in black finish and gold leaves trim are the work of nearly 200 metal smiths. The gates open to the museum's lush lawn decorated with metal artwork.

Mr. Wallace says that metal is almost indestructible. "One of the things about metal is it's such an ancient material man have been using metal in all different forms for years, iron as been more of the recent one in some aspects."

The museum boasts more than 3,000 items in its permanent collection. Some are as old as 500 years. The museum's collection ranges from silver jewelry and copper vases to wrought iron crucifixes. Wallace says iron is still the predominant metal due to its populist appeal and its function as material for tooling and intricate art pieces.

In stark contrast to the peace of the gallery, the smithy is a flurry of actions and sounds. Metal smiths in safety eyeglasses and leather aprons are hammering away at anvils in the blasting heat.

Next to the smithy is the foundry where iron or steel is melted and poured into molds.

Museum staffers also offer classes on basic forging and casting for metal smiths as well as interested members of the public. Wayne is the workshop instructor. "A lot of what we are doing today is to learning different ways to control sharp bended corners and manipulate the space between those."

One student says he wanted to learn something new. "You go to work everyday, you know how to do all of that, this is something I really don't understand. It's fun to come down here and try to make something work."

Another student says he is amazed by the completed work. "When you come out with a finished piece it looks real good, that's well made, you can be proud of it forever, ‘cause it's steel it'll be around forever."

William Price is a metal artist. "Traditionally in the past, most blacksmiths made items that were utilitarian... so you have a blacksmith who's used to be a necessity to everyday life, is now more of a luxury just like most art objects."

But like traditional metal smiths, Price treats the material the same way, and derives the same satisfaction from his work.

Mr. Price adds, "Taking steel, something that's is usually thought of as been really rigid and solid and heating it to a point where it can be manipulated so easily with your hands and with tools, there's certain amount of satisfaction to that as well. "

Metalwork as a craft has largely been pushed aside by foundries and smithies equipped with machines. But as an art form, particularly the art of decorative metal work, it has seen a revival since the 1970s.

Wallace poses a question. "When does a piece of metalwork or woodwork or glasswork make the transition from being craft to art?"

The answer is probably when functionality is so downplayed, that it is no longer considered necessary that a teapot pours tea. Or when these young smiths see themselves more as artists than artisans.