I first met Coral Lambert at Franconia Sculpture Park during Iron Butterfly II cast iron pour in the summer of 2001. I was there to watch and photograph and knew little of cast iron art. Everyone was covered in gear. I watched from behind the safety line. It wasn’t until late at night, during the after-pour party, that I became acquainted with her as she made gasoline-reminiscent cocktails in Dixie cups.
If Lambert needed a reason to have a drink that night, it may have been the fact that her mold didn’t work out – it seemed the Fates had doomed it. The plan for the day had been to pour 200 pound molds, instead of the usual maximum of one hundred. So Lambert and the crew had brought in two furnaces, her Iron Butterfly and Jim Brenner’s furnace up from Chicago. Lambert’s furnace was lit and melting, but the other furnace was causing trouble. It froze up and wouldn’t deliver the iron. I watched as they struggled with it in the heat all afternoon. With only the one furnace running, Lambert’s mold was too big to pour. Although the group poured 3000 pounds of metal that day, she had nothing to celebrate.
Rather than give up the idea, she showed her mettle by spending the next week building a furnace that could supply 200 pounds of iron in one tap. Essentially starting over, she built that furnace in a week. But what she didn’t realize was that sitting for a week in the heat and humidity had caused her molds to collapse on the inside. When she opened them up there was nothing. All she got was iron sprues – the channels into which the iron was poured.
She laughs at the memory, “I thought, I’m never gonna cast iron again… just took a day out and I laid in the field and thought, right, I’m gonna go and just paint clouds.”
Well, she was back at Franconia this summer, and she had clouds on her mind - ominous, portentous, full of persistence, and yeah, maybe a little payback. That summer as a recipient of a Jerome Foundation grant she poured iron clouds, a ton’s worth.
Having grown up in Greenwich, southeast of London, England, Lambert’s odyssey into iron started when she transferred from Central School of Art in London to Canterbury School of Art in Kent during the mid-1980’s. At that time Canterbury was known for steel sculpture, but although she knew immediately sculpture was the direction she wanted to follow, steel didn’t feel exactly right. Trying to beat the steel into “curvaceous, volumetric, vessels,” wasn’t appropriate to the materials and what Lambert was trying to create. She needed a medium with more fluidity, and began to look to casting, but bronze was too structured, too aesthetic and loaded with the history and tradition that she wanted to break free of. She began applying to casting residencies and ended up at New York Mills in Minnesota. Although making steel sculpture there, she searched out iron, meeting Wayne Potratz at the University of Minnesota.
Right away Lambert was intrigued by the potential of iron casting. She applied for the international research fellowship at the U of M, which would give her nine months to study and apply casting techniques. She experimented with mold making, explored different metals and researched ancient techniques, searching the gamut for what would lend itself to the process she needed to realize her work. Ultimately, having delved so deeply, she found she needed to extend the fellowship to three years.
Iron has the “elemental power that resonates within the piece, it maintains that, whatever you do to it… of being from the earth, the core. The way I use it, it still has all its cracks and rawness, as if it has just come out of the furnace.” Working with iron has allowed Lambert to capture a sense of vitality in her work that was unexpected. It brings together concepts in her work – the object is physical and static, yet it resonates with life, maintaining the presence of the process that forged it.
There is an inherent feminine physicality in Lambert’s work, although she doesn’t feel that she is making a direct feminist statement, the fact that this sensuality seems to literally erupt from her pieces creates an obvious connection. And in a sculptural world where machismo can dominate, her work feels obviously female. Her pours attract women and as artist Felicia Glidden, who has been learning the art with Lambert for the past several years, mentioned, “She works harder than anyone else, so it’s easy for people to follow her lead.” Lambert feels a sense of responsibility to pass down what she has learned and simply, because of her own passion, she has become a role model for women working in the field.
Pouring iron by the cupola method has a feminine sensuality on its own. My speculation is that early fire tenders must have been women. They would have been entrusted with the hearth, and must have been vested with power within their community. Indeed, Lambert told me that myths suggest that Bronze was discovered by a woman tending a fire. The fire had rocks around it, some rocks started to bleed “tears of the sun” while others bled “tears of the moon.” They came together to form a pebble, thus beginning the Bronze age. It’s really a creation myth, like many of the iron stories Lambert told me. Blacksmiths were considered magicians or shamans, forging the “fruits of the earth” from mother nature, “Earth’s furnace.” Some ancient cultures saw the furnace as a womb, often keeping women away from it to protect its sexual energy. Others would burn a fire inside a new furnace for nine months to gestate it. Iron tapped from the cupola is essential, like blood, flowing life.
Lambert found a home in Minnesota when she first came to the States, so she feels comfortable returning here annually to work. There is a rich tradition of iron here, but I was surprised when Lambert spoke about the “big sky” of the landscape as being influential to her work. She finds an openness to the landscape, both physically and intellectually. Her “Thunder Cloud” was inspired by this landscape and reminds me of the Midwestern stories I read as a kid, of pioneers traveling across the plains, at the mercy of the landscape and the weather.
The text circling Thunder Cloud reads, “Riding high on the crest of an eternal wave, thunder cloud in the distance, this is our only earth.” Iron was first generated in million year old stars and came to the Earth in meteorites. With this piece, Lambert thinks about this phenomenon, of this magic falling from the sky. This work is optimistic, yet ominous, and with the events of the past few weeks – the disaster befalling New Orleans, the city that Lambert has called home for many years – it feels almost prescient. But it is no secret that we must respect our environment; that this world is a powerful, magical gift that we have only begun to understand.
There is so much room for failure in pouring iron, but Lambert has learned to accept and incorporate this into her pieces. “Expect nothing, but always expect something,” she says of the process. Lambert knows the material extremely well now. She knows what is going to come out, and she likes the tension and imperfections that are created. “The physical attributes are accentuated… it is a brutal material… you want that work (the process), the transformation, the fact that the work has been in the fire to show through.”
I went to see Thunder Cloud the weekend after it was installed. Lambert told me that it looked too new; the patina was too fresh, but that didn’t interfere with my experience of the piece. Way out in the field at Franconia Sculpture Park, it surprised me, not because it felt slightly dwarfed by some of the huge pieces surrounding it, but because it was standing up, when I had seen it in process laying down. It faces west, and holds its location with a calm insistence that those larger sculptures can’t compete with. Indeed, it is a standing stone, facing the weather, showing those signs of process that Lambert values so highly.
Already, this piece has become a metaphor: it’s imperfections show wear, show the broken nature of life, yet it is resilient, full of energy. As Leonard Cohen said about love, “It’s a cold broken Hallelujah” – life is full of sublime contradictions. To my eyes, it belongs on the prairie, in the path of the storm, a place that we can return to as a reminder that life goes on, that we are able, even in the face of greatest adversity, to bend to it, but not break.
Since being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Coral Lambert has made the most of the past year, traveling internationally with new sculptural projects while still keeping in touch with her rebounding home city, while keeping a studio in Long Island at the New York Institute of Technology Sculpture Studio where she has been renovating work and equipment rescued from New Orleans with the help of a grant from the Gottlieb Foundation. Residencies have included those at Tondu Iron Works in Wales and the Museum of Steel Sculpture in Coalbrookdale, England where she made a large scale steel and cast iron sculpture for the World Heritage Site of Ironbridge. She has been a visiting artist at the Chicago Art Institute and Bennington College in Vermont and will be artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico this fall. Immediately after her show, IRON FORMS, at Gallery 13, Lambert will be heading to China where her work “Bell Forms” has been chosen to participate in the 4th China Huian International Carving Art Fair & International Stone and Wood Carving Symposium.
Dates to remember:
Franconia Iron Pour, Franconia, MN
Sat August 5th, 10am – 6pm
Call Franconia Sculpture Park for details 651-465-3701
Iron Forms at Gallery 13, NE Minneapolis
Opening August 11, 7-10pm through Labor Day
Call Gallery 13 for details and workshop dates
651-592-5503 or [email protected]