Metal sculpture queens get tough at the Eastside Culture Crawl

Sculpting can be back-breaking work, but three women get tough with steel, stone, and bronze at this year’s art extravaganza

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      At first glance, Stefanie Dueck’s living quarters look much like any one-room apartment in East Vancouver: there’s the futon in the corner, some art on the walls, and a table and chairs tucked near the kitchenette.

      But then things start to get a little strange. Beyond the main room and past a set of large sliding glass doors, there’s an array of steel and brass rods. And a forge. And a large, imposing anvil. It’s hard to picture the slight, mild-mannered, 28-year-old spending hours hammering away at pieces of red-hot metal, but that’s precisely how the young artist chooses to spend her time.

      Dueck discovered her love of metalwork while completing a three-year program at the Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson. “I just gravitated towards metal right away,” she recalls in conversation with the Straight at her live-work studio in the ARC at Powell and Commercial—one of the 60-odd artist buildings being opened up this weekend for the 14th annual Eastside Culture Crawl from Friday night to Sunday (November 26 to 28). “It was so mysterious to me, and I knew nothing about it,” she continues. “It kind of terrified me a little bit. I never used power tools before, and I would look at something and I wouldn’t have a clue how it was made.”

      Dueck is part of a small but growing community of female artists working in what was previously a male-dominated medium—several of whom are showing at the Crawl. “We’re few and far between, but we do exist,” she remarks with a laugh as she shows off her work: sculptures built up from steel bent to resemble strange, skeletal sea creatures; hammered, clawlike flatware spoons; and pieces of jewellery with carefully crafted patinas that look as though they’ve been dredged up from an ancient shipwreck.

      What sets Dueck apart isn’t just that she works in metal, but that she uses ancient techniques honed during a six-month apprenticeship with a blacksmith in the small Spanish town of Casares, in Andalusia. “I think I’m the only one [in the building] that hammers on an anvil for long periods of time,” she admits. “I am pretty noisy, so I have to be respectful of my neighbours. I know they hear me.”

      A few blocks west, in a large industrial shed beside the train tracks on Alexander Street, artist Sandra Bilawich of Elemental Designs has no such worries. The 47-year-old stone and metal artist has been in the workshop for 11 years, where, she proudly notes, “I can make noise in the middle of the night.” Largely self-taught, the Yukon-born Bilawich came to her art form relatively late. At the age of 29, she was taken by the work of a stone sculptor on Granville Island who encouraged her to try her hand at it. Having already done prospecting, geology, and work at a now-defunct airline, she found it a revelation when she went to an international stone-sculpting symposium in Mount Vernon: “At the end of the first day, I thought, ”˜Everything I’ve done up to this point fits. I’m looking forward to figuring how to do it every day.’ ”

      Bilawich started off sculpting stone in a friend’s garage, and later borrowed a welder from a neighbour. “He was an old retired guy who had it covered over with a tarp for a couple of years, and it caught my attention,” she recalls. “I borrowed it for a couple of months, and once I knew that I could do it and I liked it, I gave it back and went out and bought my first welder.” It’s dirty, often back-breaking work, which Bilawich muses is what keeps a lot of women from attempting it.

      “There’s definitely not as many women working in sculpting or metalwork,” she observes. “It’s partly because of its physical nature, and also exposure. I know when I was in high school, I had to take home ec. I had to learn to sew and cook.”¦Every time we have this Crawl, there’s always a handful of women that show up at the event that want to learn how to weld as a result.”

      Crawl-goers will be welcomed into Bilawich’s home, which she has set up as a gallery. The workshop is a rather less comfortable place for visitors: dusty, under-heated, and filled with heavy-duty machinery, it contains two large welders, a plasma cutter, and stone grinders. But it’s roomy enough to accommodate sculptures ranging from life-sized crows made of welded steel to the 21-foot-long frame for a full-sized orca sculpture commissioned by the City of Victoria, which was later filled with plants.

      That’s the kind of scale that Anna Gusakova, 36, a recent immigrant from Moscow, can only dream of working in. A graduate of the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry, where, along with husband and fellow sculptor Misha Pertsev, she received a master’s degree in decorative and monumental arts, Gusakova creates figurative and abstract works in porcelain and bronze. “It’s very expensive to work in bronze,” she laments in her small studio space in the Mergatroid Building on Vernon Drive. “That’s why I now try to use porcelain, because it’s cheaper, so I can make bigger things.” In an ideal world, her oddly touching bronze sculptures of infants and children’s heads would be large pieces of public art: “The bigger the better,” she says.

      Unlike Dueck and Bilawich, Gusakova employs a foundry to help bring her metal pieces to life. In a four-step process, she creates a wax model of the sculpture, which the foundry uses to create a bronze casting. “Then you have to work with the bronze,” she explains. “I work with a rotor tool to polish it, and I use different patina [agents] to oxidize the surface and bring colour.” While Gusakova hopes to one day turn her small metal pieces into large-scale public artworks, she’s content to work in porcelain to create what she calls her “teddy-bear molecules”—adjoining spheres of different sizes that resemble the ubiquitous plush toy—and replicas of her bronze infants. Her chosen medium is labour-intensive and time-consuming, but, she says, “For me, you do art if you will die if you don’t do it.”

      This will be her second Eastside Culture Crawl, an event she says is far removed from the scene in her native land. “In Russia, artists are more marginal people. Ordinary people there are too poor to afford art, and people who have lots of money prefer to go to Europe and buy it there. Here, it’s so wonderful that people are interested enough to come to your studio to see art.” She smiles, glancing over the collection of artwork she’ll be showing to the public this weekend alongside hundreds of other artists. “Here, it means something,” she says.