Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Essay for the "I Used to Work Here, A Work In Progress: 25 Years" exhibition catalogue commemorating the Metal Museum's 25th anniversary, February 8-May 9, 2004
We called it the Natural Oatmeal Museum. There were only three of us on the staff, Director Jim Wallace, (Wally) Judy (now Mrs. Wallace) and myself, at the time, a 19-year-old art student. We had excessive optimism, a handful of dedicated volunteers, resources were few to slim, Ronald Reagan was President and phones still had dials when I started working at the National Ornamental Museum. I was drawn to the Museum by my desire to know everything that I could about forging iron. Upon leaving to attend graduate School at Southern Illinois University three years later I had become a reasonably skilled blacksmith. Better yet, I had had the experience of a lifetime, being a participant in the early days of an institution that in the next two decades would enrich the cultural life of Memphis, contribute to the growth of the artist metalsmithing field, and impact the lives of thousands through education and inspiration.
The idea of a museum dedicated to ornamental ironwork originated within the trade organization, the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metal Association, in the 1970's. Among the founders were several Memphians who were especially enthusiastic about the concept and worked hard to find a location. The fledgling museum was established as a separate entity from NOMMA but was intended to highlight the products and services of the industry. Over the years it has done that, but its mission expanded to exhibit all forms of metal arts both historic and contemporary. Additionally the Museum has become a repository of information and artifacts as well as a working shop for the education of visitors and professional metalsmiths alike.
When visiting the National Ornamental Metal Museum today, it might be hard to imagine the Museum's humble and hard scrabble beginnings. The grounds are now beautifully landscaped and the artists working in the Schering-Plough Smithy and the new Lawler Foundry are busy with interesting projects. Inside the Museum's galleries are stunning exhibitions of art and metalwork. The Museum Library contains a wealth of information available for historic research and the ongoing documentation of the work of contemporary metalsmiths. Also, among the many changes, Jim Wallace's staff is now about five times larger. The one thing that has not changed since the beginning is the Museum's make something out of nothing culture. An underlying enthusiasm for accomplishing seemingly impossible goals, infused with old fashion blacksmith ingenuity, is the force that propels the Museum forward.
In this 25th Anniversary year, the primary goal is restoring the "White Building" to create a new home for the Museum's expanding library. Twenty years ago the goal of keeping the doors open through tomorrow was just as daunting. I credit much of the Museum's survival to the vision and relentless persistence of Jim Wallace. Looking at the place then--three acres and three deteriorated abandoned buildings--who would have imagined it as a credible and even internationally recognized center of education, research, and professional interaction? If there was a wall, it needed paint. Leaves, a foot deep in the basement, were home to every creepy crawly thing imaginable. Mowing was not necessary because there was no grass in the yard. It was cause for celebration when there were more than four visitors in a single day.
During the summer of 1982, there was a tremendous effort to spruce up the forlorn grounds and buildings. The exteriors of the Museum and Duplex were painted. Lighting intended to be temporary was installed on the grounds. I think some of it is still in use today. It had always been dark and spooky if not downright dangerous to walk across the yard at night. We also refinished all of the floors in the upstairs galleries, the "hovel" (a small apartment adjacent to the upstairs gallery which has served as residence for the Intern since Mike Weeks, the first of Wally's assistants, moved in 1979), and two rooms that became the new office. Up to that point, the office was an old door heaped high with papers and supported by two empty file cabinets in the hovel. During that summer I had to live in the basement, sleeping at night on the old door, formerly the office, supported by sawhorses. The twenty years worth of accumulated compost on the floor provided my tropical fish with live food and once I nearly stepped on a snake while getting off of my door/bed. From all that floor sanding, I still find sawdust in some of my books.
Looking back it astounds me that the Museum ever survived those first years. None of us was ever really paid in the normal sense. I was compensated with rent-free residence in the hovel and as a raise received a bag of M&Ms every week. I survived on cornbread and molasses, and perfected the art of showing up at people's homes around dinnertime. I supplemented this by doing small commissions and repair jobs in the smithy. The real reward was the excitement and satisfaction of creating something completely new. The word "moil" means drudgery and endless churning. We called ourselves the Moilers and gradually transformed a forgotten corner of the city into the beginnings of a real museum.
The old blacksmith shop was a cramped little shed with several additions and multiple rooflines that we called the "Ode to Arkansas Architecture." In the evenings, Wally and I would work at the forge while listening over and over to the same Terry Allen cassette tape (Lubbock On Everything) until Larry King came on the radio at midnight. There was rarely a day off. Life generally revolved around a six-week changing exhibition schedule. We never had enough of anything. Once the phone was cut off and Wally's idea of heating was keeping the pipes from freezing. Exhibition changes were all out efforts, building pedestals and exhibit props down to the very last minute before the openings. Long Hardware gave us old paint and bags of odd screws spilled by customers and swept up off the floor at the end of the day. We traded donated cases of dog food for steel at the junkyard and bought old cases of natural oatmeal soap at the salvage store.
In September 1982 the international exhibition "Towards a New Iron Age" opened at the Museum. The show, curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and its American tour organized by the Metal Museum presented the work of artist blacksmiths from Asia, Europe, North America and even the then isolated Communist Eastern European countries. This spectacular show raised the profile of the Metal Museum not only in Memphis, but also internationally among metalsmiths and established Museums across the country. The press was great and the visitor count grew exponentially. In the years to follow, participation in Memphis community events, Repair Days, fund raising auctions, hosting of workshops and conferences, and curating major exhibitions set the standard of what could be achieved and lifted the veil of obscurity. Numerous awards, grants and various accolades serve as a reflection of the Metal Museum's increasing cultural value. In 1985 I finished my internship at the Museum. My last responsibility was the demolition of the Ode to Arkansas Architecture. I was given, as assistants, twenty inmates from the Department of Corrections who had volunteered for community service in exchange for reduced jail time. At the end of the day they traded sledgehammers for brooms and I knew that this represented the dawn of a new chapter in the life of the Museum. The old shop, partially built with lumber salvaged from trans-Atlantic shipping crates once containing the "Towards A New Iron Age" exhibition, filled two dump trucks, and the ground was swept clear for construction of the new Schering-Plough Smithy.
I moved to Illinois well prepared to continue my education and ultimately to start my own studio. To this day, many of my experiences at the Museum function as guiding principles in my approach to building and operating my own studio business. I internalized the notion that if you can think of it, it can be done. Once a moiler, always a moiler. In that spirit, in 1997, after working nine years in an ancient shoe factory building, I moved a 37 ft. tall; 2800 sq. ft. metal building from a coal mine 60 miles away to the Murphysboro IL Industrial Park. The "new" building has been transformed into a studio for the construction of public art sculptures larger than anything that I could have ever imagined creating twenty years ago. I also strive to foster the same type of professional growth for my employees that I received at the Museum. In the winter, just like Wally, I try to keep the pipes from freezing.
In retrospect, I think of my years at the Museum as a defining period of my life. I still see the Museum and many of the people associated with it as my second home and family. I know I am not alone in holding these sentiments. Every October, returning to Memphis for Repair Days feels more like a class reunion than a fundraising event. Dozens of us trace our career paths and many friendships back to the Metal Museum. The improvements in facilities and the continuing growth of the numbers of individual and corporate supporters suggest to me that these are still the early days of the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Undoubtedly, in the next quarter century, another generation of metalsmiths will learn and launch careers from association with the Museum, scholars will find their way to the new Library, great exhibitions will be seen, and of course there will be plenty of tasty Bar-B-Que.