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Material Girl

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: May, 2007, Page 112
Photo by Brandon Sullivan

Metal sculptor and painter Joan Waters prepares to commence work on a piece of cold-rolled steel that will become part of her Organic Geometric Series.
Asking Phoenix artist Joan Waters which she likes best—painting, or sculpting with metal—is like asking a mother to choose a favorite child. She loves both.

For many years, Waters concentrated on her painting; that was before she discovered the possibilities that awaited her in turning flat sheets of steel into artwork.

Now, the graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art has two mediums that bring her joy. In fact, she explains, her paintings often serve as inspiration for her colorfully patinaed and intricately embellished metalwork.

Because they are so unusual, it is her metal sculptures that in recent years have caught the fancy of many. To name but a few, these range from a wall-hung shirt, to a piece that can do double duty as a wall-hanging or fireplace screen, to an enigmatic box in which to store one’s secret thoughts.
Top photo by Ken Epstein

Top: A section of Coelacanth, welded steel with patinas, 25" high x 15" wide x 5" deep n

Bottom: Waters uses a plasma cutter to carve into metal.

What people say about Waters’ welded and plasma-cut metalworks is that they are highly imaginative, rhythmic and extraordinarily—even sensuously—textural.

Suzanne Chudnoff of Chandler, Ariz., who met Waters in a welding class, owns watercolor paintings by the artist that she admires greatly. But it is a small metal piece that has her jazzed. “I can’t look at her metalwork without touching it, feeling it and even caressing it,” she says. “So much of metal art is same-old, same-old traditional. Joan’s is very Contemporary, so it’s very original.”

A collector of art for many years, Alice Olsan of Scottsdale appreciates fine metal sculpture and was particularly drawn to Waters’ creations. “They have a great delicacy, and also a lot of strength,” she notes. “There is a sense of vitality about her work. I like the way she cuts the metal. Some pieces are bright, some are dull. You really get a feeling of the material from her work.”

The main tools of Waters’ metal sculpting are a plasma cutter, a MIG welder and an angle grinder. In the simplest of terms, the plasma cutter has high heat at its cutting tip. “It cuts through metal like butter,” Waters says, likening the clean lines she is able to produce with this device to “drawing with a 10,000-degree torch.”

She uses the welder to join individual pieces of metal together and to “sketch” molten metal lines and patterns on surfaces. The angle grinder—“like what people use to refinish cars”—is used to smooth edges and finish surfaces. She also utilizes the grinder to “create lines, scratches and expressive textures.”

Waters, who studied African art, says the textural quality of her metalwork—such as lines, dots and protruding sticklike rods—was largely inspired by designs created during the African ritual of scarification. One sees hints of this ancient rite of passage, in which patterns of scars are made on the body, in Waters’ large shield- and leaf-like pieces and in other configurations.

Viewers also see glimpses of nature in her work, abstract forms that, like scarification, do not always stem from what people generally perceive as having beauty. Says Waters: “When we refer to ‘nature’ in our culture, we often think of some idyllic, beautiful world, but I’m equally interested in the force of nature to tear down, burn, destroy and essentially
Photography by Ken Epstein

Scarification Series: Indigo, welded steel with patinas, 35" high x 21" wide x 5" deep

In addition to her work being in private collections, Waters’ pieces, both serious and humorous, have won accolades in the public sector. Among those are a 51/2-foot-high by 16-foot-wide mural of welded steel and color-rich painted canvases for Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library; a 4-foot-high cartoonlike dog named Spot that sat for a spell on a downtown Mesa street, and now is at Pima Community College; and a nearly 6-foot-high metal purse, which, as part of the city of Mesa’s Sculpture in the Streets exhibit, has graced Main Street. Why a purse? A chuckling Waters recalls having overheard some women talking about their designer handbags, and she became inspired. 

Shemer Art Center and Museum in Phoenix is one of numerous sites where her artistry has been exhibited. Here, Waters also has participated in critiquing the work of emerging artists. Her skill and willingness to encourage other artists have not gone unnoticed. “Joan is just dynamic, down-to-earth and very talented,” says Brian Flanigan, Shemer Art Center director. “Her metal sculpture is beautiful, awesome, and its texture is superb.” Waters, he believes, is a forerunner in Contemporary metal sculpture. “I do see great things for Joan.”

Just how involved she is in metal sculpting came as a surprise to Waters herself. “On a whim, I decided I’d like to do some welding,” she recalls. So, in the summer of 2002, not knowing what she was getting herself into, she enrolled in a welding and basic sculpture course at Mesa Community College. She became fascinated by the way light “reflects off steel and is constantly changing—creating a sense of movement, a dynamic aspect, to the sculpture.” She was hooked. Today, an 8-foot-high steel work by Waters, Sentinels to the East, stands in front of the school’s welding building.

That she would wind up living in Arizona after growing up on the East Coast also came as a surprise to Waters. Like so many before her, a vacation here became a love affair with the desert, and a year later, in 1989, she moved to Phoenix, without a job and knowing no one. Skilled in graphic arts, she cultivated corporate clients and built a successful business.

It was a life-altering event in 1993, when she was 34, that prompted her to get more serious about her painting, and start exhibiting frequently, as she had been doing in the Baltimore area. Waters had surgery for breast cancer and underwent a six-month course of chemotherapy. Forced to take time off, she decided to again make art the focus of her life: hence her outpouring of paintings and, years later, her foray into welding.

Her metal sculpture, especially, causes Waters to reflect on her childhood as the daughter of a physicist father and a “very creative” mother. “I think about the woods in back of our house when I was growing up in Maryland, and I can remember how much time I spent there, poking around a little stream looking for crayfish, fungus on trees, turtles—just exploring for the curiosity and fun of it. When I’m working in metal, sometimes what I’m doing is very similar to this—exploring, inventing forms and textures, trying new things.”

Such new things continue to impress those associated with exhibitions of the artist’s sculpture, including Michelle Nichols Dock, gallery coordinator for the City of Tempe Cultural Services Division. She says of Waters: “She takes a common cold, industrial material and transforms it into a warm, beautiful and living form from nature.” 
When she is not welding or painting, Waters is busy bringing other artists to the attention of the public in her voluntary position as curator of the Herberger Theater Gallery in Phoenix, where her work, too, has been exhibited.

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