Monday, September 10, 2012

Art, from a Crucible of Fire

Image Courtesy of Doug Schmeltzer

I first met Amanda Szot when she was still in high school and working at the legendary Pine Tree gallery in Ironwood, MI.

After later returning from college she became a dear friend while serving nine years as gallery manager for that institution, right up until the day Philip Kucera retired by throwing a party that still reverberates across the Range. Pine Tree is missed by all who knew the place -- as a valuable resource for lovers of fine art to be sure -- but particularly as safe harbor for artists adrift on wild waters that frequently roil the Fine Art World.

As I hurtle towards both photographic obsolescence and my own personal dotage, I can look forward to watching up close as this already accomplished artist engages creative maturity and the halcyon days of her career. That's something I'll treasure and have already taken advantage of:


Amanda arrived on the Range at a young age, when her family relocated from Milwaukee to Ironwood MI. There she was struck by the same wildness of place and complexity of culture that changes so many of us, even at first glance. Both the landscape and the history of the region have informed her work ever since.

Interested in the arts even as a child, ultimately dissatisfied with constraints imposed by working in only two dimensions, it was when Amanda first joined the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that she was handed a list of artistic disciplines to choose from. Near the bottom of that list was "Sculpture".

I always sorta thought that mostly meant bearded guys with chisels making chips of marble fly. Shows what I knew.

Image courtesy of Amanda Szot

Coaxing art from iron is a massively inconvenient, inherently complex process fraught with opportunity for disappointment and not just a little dangerous besides. It involves toxic fumes & chemicals aplenty. You might make the perfectly realised pattern but then on the pour something doesn't go exactly right -- the sand isn't quite ideal, the temperature or timing's off a bit, or maybe the Iron Giant decides to visit you with just plain bad luck -- then all the work, all the preparation all the anticipation leading up to pouring molten metal comes for naught and you might never know for sure what went wrong.

Then of course, there's the hot truth that molten metal isn't exactly friendly to human flesh.

All that makes the sometimes chemically noxious process of photography look like patty cake by comparison:

Today Amanda operates out of her Dancing Raven Artworks studio in Ironwood MI. The name was given her by a raven, while Amanda worked an art installation along the shores of Superior. The creature rode as a shadow out from the forest behind her, then down over the waves of the lake, where it turned and hovered on the winds, observing her closely. Eye contact was made, as it sometimes is with ravens.

When things like that happen in the field, artists sensitive to their surroundings pay attention and make of the gift what they will.

Amanda works not only in iron, but also in non-traditional materials to make traditional sculpture. Found objects -- curiously formed pieces of wood, beach stone or cobbles and other natural materials -- are combined by her with iron castings or silica beadwork to make a thing uniquely hers, heightened by the juxtaposition of the natural world and ours of construct.

When you've forged metal to a shape of your conception, place it with precisely the right rock and the right wood found on the landscape, then adorn it with carefully woven silica, you've drawn art from the world.

All that might be enough, you'd think, for any one person. But it's not. Amanda crafts jewelry too. And gives classes in beadwork.

Most of all, Amanda Szot gives back to her community. When I asked about her long term artistic goals, she didn't hesitate to reply: "Community service through art". And in the finest tradition of citizen artists, Amanda lives up to the ideal.

Her first volunteer work for a community arts program came while she was still in high school and the template for service was set. Over the years Amanda's sought public engagement through continuing education outreach, after school programs for kids, volunteering in schools where the arts programs have gone under the knife, leading public arts workshops and contributing her many talents to public works of art as well, such as creating the iron tiles and six finely worked iron benches soon to grace the new library garden at the Ironwood Carnegie Library.

So this November, when some demagogue solicits your vote with the cry "Vote for me or America will fail", know that they do it for reasons of their own, which is to reap profit from your despair.

People like Amanda disprove their cynicism. And I'm here to tell you she's hardly alone.

In small towns and rural regions everywhere across the Basin, I've seen that every minute of every day regular folk reach out to their neighbors in ways large and small to honor their collective past and strengthen their community, all the while working together to help assure its future.

This Superior region has long served as emblematic for what America is, both good and not so much. These people who live on this land know something about what it takes to prevail through hard times, too.

And hard times are here again, for certain.

But any politician who says we're failing is flat out lying.

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