Sculptor Susan Ferrari Rowley goes in New Directions with Minimalism
Here is my article on Susan Ferrari Rowley’s Rochester exhibit which ran in the November 11, 2012 Living Section of the Democrat 7 Chronicle:
In the male-dominated world of art, it’s tough to be a woman sculptor. Women artists seldom get the space they deserve in the pages of an Art History 101 textbook.
The exclusion of works by women is further evidenced in the inventory of American museums, where only about 5 percent of museum collections include works by women artists, according to the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. An even smaller percentage include sculptures by women.
That is why Robin Muto, who is the co-curator of one of Rochester’s newer galleries, AXOM Gallery & Exhibition Space, jumped at the opportunity to show the work of Rochester-based minimalist sculptor Susan Ferrari Rowley in an exhibit specifically designed for the studio’s airy, high-ceilinged space.
“New Directions,” on exhibit at AXOM, 176 Anderson Ave., through Saturday, offers the viewer a range of human emotions in stark white fabrics, stretched and sewn onto soldered aluminum frames. The works will head to New York City’s OK Harris gallery in December.
Contrast in form
“New Directions” reveals Rowley’s current migration from creating larger outdoor and public sculptures to works scaled for private residences. Asymmetric pieces likeInseparable, Centered and Off-Balance exude an edgy tension as they balance precariously on pedestals Rowley custom designed to be just big enough for their footprint.
The “living on the edge” quality of these smaller works also suggests anatomical elements of a body, legs and arms. A calming, translucent glow that seems to start from within the sculptures hints at an inner soul.
Rowley’s sculptures are a contrast of materials and moods. They are large and imposing, yet they invite the viewer to come closer. Through cloth and metal and angular and curved lines, the exhibit of about a dozen abstract pieces can be experienced by stepping around, over and through them.
Outside the main gallery is the story of the art through photos of Rowley making them in her Scottsville studio.
The dominating work in “New Directions” is 4-2-2, a 10-foot composition of three geometric forms. This construct of three white, billowy shapes gives off a peaceful, translucent glow made possible by the carefully placed overhead track lighting. At the same time, three enormous metal poles that extend from the floor to the 14-foot ceiling impale the composition. The very moment of this piercing appears to be captured within the tension of the cloth.
Though abstract and stark in composition, 4-2-2 was created out of a very human emotion: the heartbreak of impending loss. Rowley says it was inspired by the death of her dog Tu-Tu (pronounced tiyu-tiyu), who was a loyal companion for almost 14 years.
Rowley melds techniques like sewing, traditionally regarded as a feminine skill that she learned from her grandmother, with the more masculine crafts of soldering metal and machine tooling. The combined media make each sculpture confrontational in its large scale, yet lightweight and vulnerable in overall appearance.
“I like to work in opposites,” says Rowley, associate professor of fine arts at Monroe Community College. “Metal is hard, and poly fiber fabric is soft. There are male and female qualities, a vulnerability yet strength in my work that are emotions I needed to embrace in my own life as I evolved as an artist.”
A cause in jewelry
“New Directions” also includes Angular Extremes, wearable bracelet art that is the result of Rowley’s tenacious three-year campaign to convince American machine tooling factories and other manufacturers that they can make art and jewelry.
The aluminum bracelets are cast in a Milwaukee factory that did not think they were cut out to manufacture jewelry until Rowley talked them into it. The bracelets are shipped to Rochester, where another company provides the black-and-white nickel color coating.
She then designs the boxes, made from post-consumer recycled materials, with New York’s Jamestown Container.
It is a company where her late mother-in-law spent most of her working life. The label for the packaging was produced by another American company.
These bracelets are also part of the AXOM exhibit and available for purchase at Shop One2 Gallery on the Rochester Institute of Technology campus and the Memorial Art Gallery Store.
Influences on work
Growing up on Long Island, Rowley developed an appreciation for the arts by making treks into New York City. She found art in museums, but also in the windows of Macy’s or in the hand-drawn fashion advertisements in the Sunday New York Times.
On a sixth-grade field trip to the Museum of Modern Art, Rowley fell for a sculpture of abstract feminist sculptor Louise Nevelson. Rowley had found her calling.
“I remember on the train ride home thinking, ‘Making sculptures and placing them on pedestals, that’s what I want to do with my life!’ ” she says.
Later in graduate school, Rowley wanted to find additional 20th century female sculptors to emulate. She had studied the work of Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp. Then she found fiberglass artist Eva Hesse and sculptor and printmaker Nancy Graves.
“When I read about their lives and how they struggled as women sculptors, their drive inspired me. I knew if I was driven, I would be OK,” Rowley says. “I had to live up to my potential; I had to produce and show as a woman sculptor.”
More than 30 years into her career, Rowley still possesses that drive. She sometimes works alone in her studio. Sometimes she is “making it happen” on group collaborations. In 2004, she proved to be a quick study on zoning and construction codes when she designed relief art for noise-barrier panels placed along Rochester’s western highways for the New York Department of Transportation.
Rowley also made a suspended sculpture for the set of Garth Fagan’sLight Night and Melanin.
The diversification of work, trying to make it fit in several situations, is what she tries to impart to her MCC students, says Rowley, who received the 2011 SUNY Chancellor’s Award of Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.
“I tell my students that our brains have tremendous capacity to diversify,” she says. “Artists today have to have communication and business skills as well as artistic talents, especially when they are commissioned on a piece and will need to work with those with non-artistic backgrounds.”