In the Elements

Fan sculpture by William Dwyer. Photos by Rimas Zailskas.

Marilyn Bailey, a metalsmith with an MFA, makes and sells sleek, sophisticated jewelry under the name ME Bailey Designs. But she plays in more rugged realms, too, creating large-scale, botanical-inspired sculptural pieces for gardens. President of Advocates for the Arts of Henderson County, and co-chair of the second annual Art in the Garden competition for Henderson County high-school and college students, Bailey encourages young artists at an important time in their lives. She wants them to know that “you can make a career of art. It’s possible to do this — to make a good living.”

These days, she’s loving the look of “found” objects welded into outdoor sculpture — scrap metal reshaped for art’s sake. Last year, the winning pieces were the ones that made the most creative use of scavenged materials.

Bailey says the focus went to yard art partly because of its growing importance in the design of outdoor spaces. “There’s no question it’s become a huge thing,” she says. “So many people are interested in sculpture for the garden.” In creating their works, students must use only materials suitable for constant outdoor exposure.

Participating in the contest is an early toehold in the professional art world. But Bailey is worried about state budget cuts that hurt school curricula. She doesn’t want 3-D art to be relegated to the back burner in classroom instruction or be eliminated altogether, which would, she says, be “absolutely ridiculous.”

Aaron Bernard, art instructor at Blue Ridge Community College, urges his students to think of scrap metal as a metaphor for life.

West Henderson High art teacher Kelly King, who oversees a group of students involved in the project, says that sculpture is important to mental and artistic development, as well. “Few students have experience in building anything, so this is a great opportunity to teach skills that will make our students more well rounded and capable,” she says.

King starts her kids off with a brainstorming session. Then they work independently, gathering materials in the community in preparation to build. “They’re free to choose their own direction,” she says.

One major rule shapes the proceedings: all sculptures must be at least three feet high — tricky when there are 20-33 students in a classroom. The next challenge, says King, is attaching the found objects. “Typically school supplies don’t work, so we use welding, epoxy glues, etc.”

Solving these problems can inch students’ goals forward, whether or not they snag the prize. Being involved in such a contest “is a rare opportunity for them,” says King. “It could impact the rest of their lives.”

The high schools work closely with Blue Ridge Community College, where students also participate in the competition. Robert Wallace, art teacher at East Henderson High, is a ceramics colleague of Aaron Bernard, BRCC’s full-time art instructor, and sometimes fires his students’ work in the college’s larger kiln.

Bernard teaches Sculpture I and II and a class called 3-D Design, where students turn out pieces that must be functional. “If it’s a chair, you have to be able to sit in it,” says Bernard with a laugh. Students in all three classes are working on Art in the Garden pieces, honing their craftsmanship and minding their teacher’s crucial manifesto: “I require the use of recycled materials,” says Bernard. Students pluck metal debris from the scrapyard and transform discarded wood pallets. They use the college’s vocational facilities, including the auto-body shop, to drill and weld. “For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve used a power tool,” he says.

Bernard is excited by what he views as a kind of “renaissance” in hands-on design. Not just simple crafts, but challenging, transformative work. Marie Lemmond, last year’s contest winner, and another of Bernard’s students have netted scholarships to four-year schools, where they’ll undertake disciplines that include interior architecture.

Making art out of deceptively inert objects is no less than a major life lesson, according to Bernard. “I encourage my students to look at limitations as opportunity. A wooden pallet is more than just a pallet — it’s a source of raw material. It changes the idea that says you have to just take what you’re given. It’s training the mind in a larger context. Not ‘here’s what is,’ but instead, ‘What could this be?’”

The winning pieces from Art in the Garden will be on display in five residential gardens on Saturday, May 28, from 10am-4pm. The self-guided driving tour is $10, and tickets are available at the Flower Market, the Studios at Flat Rock, and at the Henderson County Visitors Center. For more information, e-mail advocatesfortheartshendo@gmail.com.

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