By Lisa Kinoshita
Carla Grahn is a Seattle-based artist and metalsmith who experiments with extremes of scale, overturning viewer expectations. “Athena’s Bling”, her installation of larger-than-life jewelry at the Woolworth Windows through Dec. 10, is a highlight of Tacoma’s city-wide Metal-Urge celebration, and a tribute to the symbolic power of the jewel. “This show is ultimately about perception and perspective, finding a balance between the masculine and the feminine, and simply trying to make the world a bit prettier place,” she says.
Grahn’s exhibit gives new meaning to the term, “tons of jewelry.” Her pieces are welded, riveted and screwed with hardware components; ornate necklaces drape with literally yards of industrial-grade chain, and rings (set with “stones” as big as doorknobs – because they are doorknobs) are big enough to encircle a waist. Her bracelets approach the length of a Prius…If you shook out the jewelry boxes of Harry Winston, Liberace and Beyoncé – and supersized them – honey, you’d only begin to glimpse the reach of this artist’s craft.
Although she claims no “intentional interest in Greek mythology, per se,” as the alter ego of the warrior goddess, Athena, Grahn has selected uniquely personal materials to be-stud and bejewel her pieces (elements that also reflect her work as a furniture maker). “The hardware in ‘Athena’s Bling’ consists of nuts and bolts, ball bearings, dissected lamps, threaded rod, chains of all sorts, machined pieces I have collected from numerous places over many years,” she says.
“Often it is after the piece or pieces are done that what they are is revealed. I do not typically start a series with a concept. Greek mythology is essentially, to me, a story reflecting on life and the human condition….When I think of a goddess warrior like Athena, I think of a powerful and feminine woman; and I do think women are incredibly strong, and powerful, and possess a femininity that they should be proud of and that should not be suppressed.”
Grahn’s work embodies this paradox beautifully; for instance, in a military-style brooch that combines ornamental metalwork with a drape of oxidized bicycle chain; and a gargantuan hinged pendant painted with a delicate bird. Hers is a modern Athena that is physically engaged, aesthetically adventurous, able to wring domestic symbols into witty personal adornment while rejecting the folly of self-aggrandizement and its ability to weigh down.
At the opposite extreme of “Athena’s Bling”, Grahn has produced projects such as a meticulously detailed collection of tiny armor. “I work with different scales for the sake of variety and learning,” she says. The armor series began with a tiny helmet she made for a jewelry casting class, but was hastened forward by a dream: “This little army of women [stood] on top of a green, grassy hill; proud, resilient, friendly though. I then started making their armor….I worked on it for almost a year.”
Another project is a series of soft sculptures hand-formed from steel wool and nickel wire. The animal heads are strangely compelling, at once inviting touch with their life-like expressions, but repelling with the itchiness of the steel wool. Of her use of found objects and materials she says, “I am not particularly interested in the designated use of an object, but instead its aesthetics. I actually think once a function is attached to an object a limitation of perception happens.”
Grahn is a maker of custom furniture, and has been an instructor at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle for 16 years. See more of this fine artist’s ongoing explorations in metal at www.carlagrahn.com.
“Athena’s Bling” by Carla Grahn through Dec. 10, 2014, at the Woolworth Windows, 11th & Broadway. www.carlagrahn.com