Molly Groom Alter knew from an early age that art was her calling. It wasn’t until many years later that she found her preferred medium: Metal.
“Metal as a medium is very versatile,” said the Murphysboro artist. “It has a pliable nature and strength. When worked in the right manner, with the right tools and equipment, it is almost as soft and smooth as a clay body.”
Alter has been active as a designer and maker of metal sculpture and jewelry for 25 years. Her work is shown nationally and in several publications. She is a full-time instructor of art at John A. Logan College in Carterville, leading classes in ceramics, drawing, 3-D design and fibers. She enjoys sharing the expertise she gained while earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cleveland Institute of Art and Master of Fine Arts from SIU Carbondale.
Alter also teaches metalsmithing to students ages 5 to 18 in her studio at Jones House School. “I am putting together more classes and workshops,” she said. “I want to be able to teach a wider population of Southern Illinois.” story by Joe Szynkowski
What is it about metal that attracted you to the medium?
There is a malleability and softness to the materials that isn’t present from the vantage point of the eye. It is a warmth and feel of the material in the hands. Initially, I was a fiber major in my undergraduate program at Cleveland Institute of Art. My roommate at the time was a metals major. She came home one night with a neckpiece that she was working on, and I was mesmerized by the work.
What do you enjoy most about sharing your knowledge with your students, both at John A. Logan and at your metal studio?
The most enjoyable thing about teaching in higher education is showing my students the history of the materials. Many practices and techniques in the field of metals have not changed much over the centuries. Some applications and tools are the same today as they were 200 years ago, and many date back much earlier. I love teaching. I find that I learn as much from my students as I hope they are learning from me.
What art tools, materials and techniques do you use in your work?
I generally work in a way that the design and sketch dictates the materials and techniques. My sculptural work is almost always mixed materials, such as, steel and wool, or clay and metal. In my process of design and creativity, I get an idea of what materials would best suit the projected piece of work. My primary materials are metals (copper, brass, steel, iron, silver, gold) but in combination with fibers (wool/fleece) and clay. My favorite tools in my studio are my hammers and anvils; they tend to provide me the shaping and forming techniques I use to move and pattern the metals.
Can you describe your artistic process? How does an idea start and what is the process from the start to the final production of the item?
When an idea appears or flows through me, I generally look at all aspects of that idea not just the thoughts or visuals I am experiencing. I find that through my research and sketching in early stages that the idea or experience changes as I begin with my materials. As forgiving as metal is and can be, there are always changes that need to be made through the process. Ihave a tendency to work in multiples whenever an idea comes. The work tends to be in a body rather than one singular piece.
Can you also describe the feeling that comes with reaching the final product after so much planning and work?
When my work or pieces come out successful it feels great! There are many other times when the work reaches the final stage and everything goes as planned, but I don’t feel the strength that I wanted to achieve. Sometimes, that is my own self-criticism, and other times the piece isn’t coherent on many levels. When I feel the work reaches its goal, or my goal of visual and perceptual challenge, it is successful to me or for me. By working in multiples I find that some of the work is very exact and pleasing, while some of it needs further research and thought.
Why do you create art?
Because I have to. It is my nature and my purpose in this world. It is a way for me to understand the world around me and to find better understanding within myself of the world. I have always been a maker since as far back as I can remember. My father asked me when I was 4 or 5 what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my reply was, I already know what I am, I am an artist. I have never questioned or strayed from that response. It is the essential wholeness of my being in the purest form.
How do you improve your craft? Do you attend seminars, conferences or travel to see other work?
It is important for me to research and experiment with new technology and tools. I do attend seminars, shows, museums and conferences. I surround myself with other artists in all fields and that feeds my experience and knowledge. I have never been wary of taking chances with materials and experimenting in my medium or any other medium. It is important for me to grow and challenge the work that I do. It also feeds new ideas within a body of work. I also think and believe that improvement comes from working and not giving up. Continual practice always leads me to improvement. Teaching also makes me a better artist; it gives fresh views on ideas and techniques.
Who or what inspires you?
Many things. I don’t think I can name who or what. My inspirations come from humanity, nature and our relationships within it. The world and all of its chaos inspires me. How we as human beings react and respond to our environments and personal plights. Nature and its forces, beauty and power inspire me. Life inspires me.
Have you created a piece that you are most proud of?
Yes, and I think I have been working toward recreating it ever since. It is one piece that resonates with me on many levels. It is personal, universal and part of many people’s experiences in life. The piece is titled Cancer 1-4. It is a wall sculpture that was made in 2005, and it is my representation of deterioration of a single cell, from healthy to complete corrosion with cancer. It expresses the beauty and relation to humanity in perfect balance for me and, hopefully, for the viewers, too.
If you could give only one piece of advice to an aspiring artist, what would it be?
Work hard, make mistakes and learn from them.