Local women artists take on welding, metalwork and engineering

SKILL SHARE: “I’m really proud of what we’re doing,” Sara Sanders says of UNCA’s STEAM Studio, which she directs. “The environment we’re trying to create is one of inclusivity from the perspective of gender identity, race, discipline … it’s about trying to give people access to tools and skills.” Photo by Cindy Kunst

Artistic modalities aren’t gendered any more than, say, cuisines, dance styles or literary genres. Yet, historically, certain forms of making have been more associated with female-bodied people (fiber arts and jewelry design among them) while other skill sets, such as electronics, blacksmithing and welding, have been associated with male artists.

“I really like being able to make things and building things and share that skill set — especially with engineering students,” says Sara Sanders, director of the STEAM Studio at UNC Asheville. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math. Those studying engineering, Sanders points out, are “basically tasked with designing something that someone else will build.”

When Sanders started her job at UNCA, where she’s an alumna, she was with the university’s engineering department, and part of her role was developing the STEAM studio along with collaborators from the art department. “Being a female-bodied person working with boys and men who are not used to seeing [a woman] in that role — teaching them to weld, teaching them to use tools — not only was important for the few female students, [but for all the students] as they go into the work field and see women as capable.”

One of the barriers to entry into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers for female students, she notes, is not seeing women in those fields being treated with respect.

For local metal artist Jeri Bartley, another roadblock was in finding an apprenticeship opportunity. “I always thought that once I learned small work and the basics, I could take it to the next level,” she says. Bartley was named among the region’s best jewelry artists in the 2015 Best of WNC reader poll. But she wanted to do “more useful” work, so she got into welding.

FIRE POWER: While studying welding at A-B Tech, one of Jeri Bartley’s instructors told her that women tend to be better at that skill. “Attention to detail, steadier hands and a little bit more caring,” Bartley explains — attributes she brings to her own job as a metalworker. Photo by Cindy Kunst

These days, Bartley works for Haw Creek Forge, owned by former construction welder Catherine Murphy. “It almost feels like there has to be a woman-owned metal company to hire other women,” Bartley says. At the same time — having recently transitioned away from her own River Arts District studio in the wake of a family tragedy, “I was happy to get a metal job.”

Bartley’s current employment has her working with a team of makers. “It’s a nice crew to be on, which doesn’t exist in solo work,” she says. And production of garden art pieces means she routinely practices her welding skills — a throwback to her training at A-B Tech.

Bartley found her way to that educational program after an interest in crystal collecting and wire-wrapped jewelry led her to want to fit metals and rocks together. “I started asking for who would help me [learn] to do this, and that’s how I found Bill Churlick [of Earthspeak Arts] in the River Arts District,” she says. “He had no qualms about giving me big hunks of metal and hammers and saying, ‘Hit it!’”

Bartley had envisioned pursuing sculpture (she describes her relationship with arts as “both addictive and therapy”) when she went for her welding certificate. “I definitely showed up as a tiny, middle-aged woman and had some judgment, mostly from big, young men,” she says of her studies at A-B Tech. “The dean and the instructors were all awesome. They didn’t flinch or blink or say, ‘Who would hire you?’”

One hurdle to overcome for Bartley has been accessing safety wear in her size. Welding coats don’t come in a small or extra-small, so she scours thrift stores for old leather coats. “I had to go to Jacksons [Western Store] to buy boys Carhartt pants,” she says. And, to find welding gloves that fit means paying a higher price than larger-sized gloves meant for her male counterparts.

Sanders also took welding classes, drawn in a roundabout way to metalwork through environmental activism and downhill bike racing. “I was always into working with my hands and making stuff,” she notes. “I was pushed toward art school but didn’t want to be told to make art.”

She decided to return to academia for art education and discovered that she loved algebra and physics. Sanders was considering a degree in chemical engineering when a flyer for the mechatronics program at UNCA caught her eye. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. In a circuits class, “a whole world of invisible magic became accessible.”

These days, Sanders’ own artwork takes the form of furniture, but much of her creativity is devoted to curriculum design: “Coming up with projects for students where it’s a platform for them to have something to do [and] have something to take away.” Current projects in the STEAM studio include a take on the traditional marble machine in the form of a kinetic sculpture, which will be installed in the Asheville Art Museum’s interactive area for children.

Sanders also directs the Community Tool School with STEAM Studios outreach coordinator Jeannie Regan. The after-school and summer camp programs for girls were established through the Community Foundation of WNC, and the Windgate Foundation offers students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with power tools while building a functional object, such as customizable benches, wind chimes, birdhouses — and playable, custom electric guitars in collaboration with Girls Rock Asheville. “The instructors act as artist assistants to the kids,” Sanders explains. In one week, “They’re learning how to use tools, how to measure, how to use simple math. Metalwork, woodwork. On day one, the first thing we do is get them using basic tools, and then we start making stuff.”

There will be four Tool School camps offered this summer to inspire the women welders, metalworkers and engineers — or, simply, women who like to build things — of the future.

Learn more about the artists in the story at steamstudio.unca.edu/faces/sara-sanders and jeribella.com. Learn about The Community Tool School for girls at avl.mx/6ws.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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