Liberty for All

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unnamedLiberty Arts Sculpture Studio and Foundry has served as Durham’s incubator for the arts since 2001. Liberty Arts allows artists to teach, create, learn, inspire and work with various mediums – metal, ceramics and wood, among many others – all in one place. Evie Watts leads Liberty Arts’ Clay-Metal Fusion class, in which students of all levels of artistic experience combine ceramics, metals and personal objects to create a tabletop or wall sculpture that tells a story.

We asked Evie about what inspires her artwork, her favorite teaching moments and everyday life at Liberty Arts.

How long have you lived in Durham? Why did you make the move here?

I first moved to the Triangle area in 1979, so I’ve known the area well for over 30 years. My move to Durham happened in 2012 after living in Texas for a short time. Good friends needed a housesitter, and I needed a place to stay while getting settled back into the area. I have grown to love Durham with its old-school, authentic grittiness, fabulous food and growing focus on the arts. When our foundry was in jeopardy of being taken away, Durhamites spoke out and supported us in a most heartfelt and unmistakable way. They let it be known that the foundry is one of those things that makes Durham so different, interesting and unpredictable. Where else can you be taking an evening stroll for hot chocolate and happen by an aluminum or bronze pour? Where else can you watch molten metal being poured into molds and then experience the excitement of watching those molds being broken open to reveal the sculpture inside?

Tell us about how you became involved at Liberty Arts Sculpture Studio and Foundry.

When I returned in 2012, I found out about the Southern Entrepreneurship in the Arts Conference in Greensboro. They offered an opportunity to participate in an iron pour the evening before. I jumped at the chance. That Friday evening, I scratched away on my scratch block at Jim Gallucci’s studio, totally immersed, and then watched the iron pour. I loved it. During the pour, I met Tripp Jarvis, a Liberty Arts artist, and I asked him where I could do more of it. He told me that he worked in a studio called Liberty Arts in Durham. Within the week, I made my way over there. When I walked in, my first thought was, “How do I get involved in this?!” I was in heaven. It’s a large, dusty, loud place, tools of every kind everywhere. I immediately felt like I could create anything in this space. I signed up for a class in casting, made a mask of Georgia O’Keeffe and participated in a bronze pour. I was hooked. I then became an Associate Artist and worked in the studio as much as possible before I moved to New Zealand for six months to be with my husband. When I came back, I became a full-time artist and now spend at least 40 to 50 hours in the studio every week.

What makes Liberty Arts unique from other sculpture studios and foundries? 

The fact that I can create with clay, wood and metal, all in one place is very rare. Our studio is split up into three areas. We joke about the areas being delineated by the kind of dust we create – wood, metal or clay. While my core studio space is in the clay area, I spend a lot of time in the metal area welding and using my grinders to create and finish metal pieces.

Walking into Liberty Arts can be a little intimidating. As I said before, it’s often loud and dusty, but you will be greeted very quickly by one of the artists happy to show you around. We love sharing our space and our passion with the public. There are 14 of us working in metal, wood, clay, stone and glass. While we work on pieces for the gallery and other shows expressing ourselves and hoping to find buyers who will enjoy our work in their homes or yards, we also do commission pieces to particular specifications.

There’s a small gallery that changes out every Third Friday. You can come by and visit the gallery, taking in a wide variety of sculptures, but how often do you then get to go behind the scenes and see how and where it was made? We are so happy to show you processes, materials and techniques, answer questions and get you involved. We teach classes in welding, plasma cutting, woodworking, clay and mixed media. Absolutely no prior experience is required. We love introducing what we call the “fire arts” to everyone. At the same time, the classes are designed to allow those with more experience to create at their own levels.

Your class combines clay and metal, two elements that we don’t often see fused together. What inspired you to mix the two?

My inspiration to fuse the two simply came from my love of using the two. As you said, it’s not a combination one sees often, which I’m sure comes from the fact that there are very few sculpture studios where clay and metal work so closely together. Clay studios are usually fairly quiet and many ceramicists would find the metal dust and noise to be a problem. I spent 30 years as a carpenter, while dabbling with clay in my spare time, so it’s a natural combination for me. Structure and problem solving interest me a lot. Combining the two mediums requires being comfortable with both. I wear ear protection most of the day and just cover things if I think the metal dust is going to be an issue. My glazes have been very successful, so if there’s an issue with the dust, it’s a good one. The two media are also reliant on fire of some kind, another reason that their fusion is so natural to me.

The combination is also an amazing way to tell a story through a work of art because it’s so permanent. It really is “set in stone.” The idea of my class is to take your own found objects, which can be made out of metal, or find objects at the studio (we have a lot of fabulous scraps from local metal businesses and scrapyards) and then work the clay around these. You can mold any shape you want with the clay to work around the found objects and tell your story to create a tabletop or wall sculpture. Your “tiles” and objects are first set in thinset, a mortar for tile setting, and then grouted with any color grout that works for your piece. These are pieces you’ll be passing along to your kids.

What has been your favorite moment while teaching?

One of my students brought in a lot of watches from her parents, who had both passed recently. She took the watches apart, used the watch faces in her piece and filled the watch frames with small pictures of her parents. She created a beautiful ribbed shape out of clay, referencing a wing, glazed to a translucent green. When the piece was done I hung it on the wall at the studio in good lighting. We were both really moved. She said she’d used a lot of her parents’ memorabilia for other craft projects, but this one felt as if she’d really honored their memory in a fitting way.

Honestly, there are so many favorite moments as every one of my students has created something they never imagined they could. Seeing their expressions as they watch their pieces take shape makes every class a joy for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Most metal working/fabrication shops are off-limits to the public, as are many artists’ studios, unless you’re invited or they open for an annual studio tour. Liberty Arts is always available for a visit, exploration, commission or fix-it job, classes or school tours. Please take a look at the website to see how you can get involved or my website if you’d like to contact me directly. I’d love to show you around.

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