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Margaret Jacobs Creates Metalworks Inspired by Indigenous Culture

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Published November 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


"Partner Pieces: Mint I, Bolo Tie" - PAMELA POLSTON
  • Pamela Polston
  • "Partner Pieces: Mint I, Bolo Tie"

Humans have been coaxing metal into utilitarian, nefarious and artistic objects for millennia. Yet somehow, people still find inventive ways to craft it. For contemporary sculptor and jewelry maker Margaret Jacobs, the malleability and solidity of metals suits her aim to make permanent the ephemeral expressions of the natural world, as well as to carry cultural narratives.

In her artist's statement, Jacobs puts it like this: "I find metal is an incredibly versatile material that lends strength and visual weight to the work, but can also be worked so that it is organic and delicate."

Though larger, weightier sculptures are cataloged on Jacobs' website, her current exhibition at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson presents small forged-steel sculptures and adornments in powder-coated brass. Titled "Shape of a Memory," the show is modest in size but rich in symbolism.

A member of the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe, the upstate New York artist writes that her culture inspires her "to create pieces charged with power, strength and beauty." Her ability to do just that has earned coverage in art journals and fashion magazines alike. A Harper's Bazaar spotlight featuring one of Jacobs' bolo ties, for example, observed that her work "speaks to the connection between community, self, and nature."

Jacobs' jewelry — which is really wearable sculpture — includes necklaces, bolos, earrings, brooches and collar pins, all with finely crafted botanical elements: strawberry, blueberry, mint, garlic, mushrooms. The works that she calls "Partner Pieces" attach to both sides of a shirt or jacket collar. One of these, "Blueberry I, Collar Pin," features tiny clusters of the fruit with two fine brass chains swooping, necklace-like, between them. Another similar set replaces the berries with miniature antlers; in matching earrings, antlers dangle beneath purplish pieces of wampum.

"Plantain I" - PAMELA POLSTON
  • Pamela Polston
  • "Plantain I"

Most of the wall-hung or tabletop sculptures in the exhibit merge elements from botany — Jacobs calls them "plant relatives" — with referents to Mohawk ironworkers. Renowned for helping to construct bridges and buildings — including numerous New York City skyscrapers — members of the Mohawk and Kahnawake tribes (from upstate New York, Ontario and Québec) proudly passed down their "walking iron" tradition over generations.

Jacobs honors this history in steel sculptures such as "Plantain I," a wall-hung piece in which a cluster of leaves and stem anchors a diminutive ladder. In a tabletop version, "Plantain With Nail," an outsize screw nail lays on a pedestal and intersects the plant, whose stems shoot upward.

Jacobs graduated from Dartmouth College, where she has subsequently been a guest lecturer, and is currently adjunct faculty at SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury, N.Y. The long list of exhibitions, awards and residencies on her CV indicates an active presence, and a welcomed Indigenous voice, in the art world. With "Shape of a Memory," Jacobs quietly but eloquently resolves cultural and material dichotomies with expressions of harmony.

Margaret Jacobs, "Shape of a Memory," through November 29 at Red Mill Gallery, Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson. margaretjacobs.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Margaret Jacobs Creates Metalworks Inspired by Indigenous Culture"

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