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Ohio Metal Sculptors Crack Art World’s Glass Ceiling

Grinding, welding and molding metal might conjure thoughts of working men, but some recent art exhibitions may help to change that perception. 

Clevelander Leila Khoury was part of a global group of artists on display in a Washington D.C. show that focused on women working in the world of metal.  Much of Khoury’s art involves working with steel or bronze, sometimes creating molds for liquid metal, sometimes showering her studio with sparks from a welding torch.

"I always thought there was something really empowering about it," she said.  "Empowering about being able to work with this material that’s considered to be very heavy, intense, intimidating almost." 

But, it doesn’t match the intimidation she felt one day rolling a seven-foot hunk of round metal down the street, moving it from one studio to another.

"I wish I could have counted how many times I heard, 'Oh sweetheart, you need a hand with that?'" she said.  "It’s infuriating.  I typically don't engage with that kind of thing, but how much I wish I could have told them, 'Um, I welded this.  I’m pretty sure I can transport it.'”

Khoury was featured in a National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibition, “Heavy Metal – Women to Watch 2018.”  Promotional literature said that the museum was looking to: “...further disrupt the predominantly masculine narrative that surrounds metalworking despite women’s consistent presence in the field for centuries.”

Elizabeth Meadows is a Cleveland native who moved an hour out of town to rural Huron where her property is littered with a vast assortment of cast-off scraps of metal. This collection comes from Goodwill stores, flea markets and friends who sometimes haul out old stoves or cabinets for her to transform into something else.

"This was going to be a windmill, but then I ran into some technical difficulties," she said, pointing to a pinwheel of rods and slotted panels. "So now, it’s going to be a flower."

She smiled as she carefully unscrewed a brass candlestick.

"I’m just happiest when I work with metal," she said.   "When I go for long periods without working with metal, I’m depressed.  I think if you don’t do what you really love it negatively affects you." 

Elizabeth Meadows lights up a welding torch in her backyard studio (Jeff Haynes / ideastream)

The Akron Art Museum recently featured an exhibition, also called “Heavy Metal,” where the majority of artists were women.  Associate curator Theresa Bembnister thinks the idea of a male versus female divide in the art world is much larger than metal sculpture.

"Women painters were treated poorly historically," she said.  "Women doing just about any kind of art-making, even if they are working with a material that’s traditionally thought of as female, they’re still not being treated the same, because we still have this idea of craft not being as important as fine art." 

She suggested that the issue goes back to a time when culture dictated that a woman’s place was in the home. 

"Like, our collection goes back to the 1850s and a lot of it is photography," she said.  "And if we’re talking about who was even able to leave their homes in the 1800s and walk down the street by themselves and take a photograph, that’s not something that women were really able to do.  And that really affected who could make art."

Bembnister said things are starting to change, but it’s a slow process. 

Khoury’s pieces in the Washington exhibition were part of that process. One of them was a rough-hewn image in concrete and steel of the ancient city of Palmyra from her family’s Syrian homeland. 

"It survived all of these years, it survived the rise and fall of civilizations, and, just like that, it was destroyed in fighting," Khoury said.  "It became ephemeral.  The act of creating it was like a grieving process for me."

A grieving process she says she needed to express with metal.  

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