Inside the Collection: Elizabeth Brim and #5WomenArtists
Elizabeth Brim was born in 1951 and grew up in Columbus, Georgia. In 1974, she graduated from Columbus College (now Columbus State University), with a BA in Art and a minor in English Literature. In 1979, she earned an MFA in Printmaking, with minors in Painting and Drawing, at the University of Georgia. After graduate school, she moved back home to Columbus, and at the time, the head of the art department at Columbus College told Brim, “Why don’t you go to the Penland School of Crafts and learn how to do ceramics? Then you can come back here and be our pottery and ceramics teacher.” (1) So her first introduction to Penland was in ceramics, and Brim continued to take classes at Penland for the next twenty years.
After finishing an intensive eight-week summer course in ceramics at Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina, Brim immediately became a ceramics professor at Columbus College. Soon after, she became interested in metals and took a two-week jewelry course at Penland. This class sparked a life-long devotion to metalworking. Although initially focused on non-ferrous metals, Brim was introduced to blacksmithing during a small metals class at Penland with Gary Noffke. During this class, students needed to repair some iron tools, so Noffke took them to the blacksmithing area. Brim enjoyed the tool making so much, she ended up abandoning this class and started working on making her own iron tools. Although struggling initially, Brim made her first hammer at this time, and she continues to use it today. Brim continued to take blacksmithing classes at Penland, studying under instructors such as Doug Wilson and Peter Happny.
After taking many classes, Brim became more and more involved with the Iron Studio at Penland. She organized the first blacksmithing symposium at Penland in 1989, which ended up saving the blacksmithing program there, as it had been on the decline. She went on to run the Iron Studio from 1995 to 2000.
“Upon signing up for Happny’s class, Brim…called her mother, ‘and told her how excited I was to be taking a blacksmithing class. She got really quiet on the phone and said, ‘Well, Elizabeth, I have to tell you that I don’t approve of that. Blacksmithing is NOT a ladylike thing to do.’ So I told a jeweler friend of mine, Tom McCarthy, what my mother had said, and he answered, ‘Oh, just wear a string of pearls and you’ll always be ladylike.’ I started doing that, kind of as a joke, and it stuck!’” (2)
Brim is known throughout the blacksmithing field for wearing her trademark pearls while forging. She is also known for using feminine imagery in her work. This started when she forged a pair of steel stilettos in 1988 inspired by the fable “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The shoes are wearable, but according to Brim, “You can’t walk very gracefully with them on though, and nobody is going to dance with you with steel shoes on!”(3) This pair of shoes ultimately won first prize in the 1988 ABANA Southeastern Regional Conference in Madison, Georgia. She continues to craft narrative, feminine forms in iron, such as aprons, tiaras, corsets, and frilly pillows.
“I grew up in a strong female dominated society. My mother and grandmother made frilly dresses for my sister and me, and Mama told us fairy tales. In my own way I am continuing that tradition. The things I make are all about being female and the expectations of Southern women of my generation. I’m just playing dress-up, making a little fun of myself and having a really good time.” (4)
In addition to her feminine aesthetic, Brim is known for her steel inflation technique, where she inflates heated steel with compressed air. To see her demonstrate the technique, watch the video below.
(Elizabeth Brim Steel Inflation Demo, Courtesy of Penland School of Crafts.)
“I like teaching a lot and I like it for many different reasons. In the first place, I get to go to great places and meet a lot of nice people. And I enjoy working with the students. I teach them something and then they take it a little bit further. So I learn from them, too. It really stimulates a person creatively to be around other creative people. That’s one of the greatest perks of living at Penland, is that you’re around an entire society of extremely artistic people. In particular, I love to see the young people get involved in blacksmithing because it is such an interesting and creative art form. I’ve seen the Penland program grow from very few people. But it has gone from that to where we have waiting lists—huge waiting lists—people who want to get into these classes. Blacksmithing is the ‘in’ thing to do now, and I’m really proud to be part of that. That’s a big reason why I like to teach.”(5)
Brim is a very active blacksmithing instructor and exhibiting artist. In addition to teaching at Penland, she’s taught at Peters Valley Craft Center, Layton, New Jersey and Haystack School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine. She has also taught workshops all over the country, including at past Society of North American Goldsmiths annual conferences. She has an upcoming workshop at the James Renwick Alliance in Washington, D.C. Brim also regularly exhibits her work, especially at university museums and galleries. She was included in the pivotal 2010 exhibition Iron: Forged, Tempered, Quenched at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Houston, Texas. Because of her innovative techniques, her voice as an artist, and her role as a female pioneer in a male-dominated field, the Metal Museum chose Brim as our 2009 Master Metalsmith.
“Excess” was included in Brim’s 2009 Master Metalsmith exhibition. This is one of her inflated steel pillows, and involved etching, forging, and welding to create its delicate frills. Brim was first inspired to make pillows for her forged steel tiaras, and continues to make them with her steel inflation technique. Following her Master Metalsmith exhibition, “Excess” was donated to the Metal Museum by John & Robyn Horn. It is currently on display through May 12th as part of Crafting a Legacy: 40 Years of Collecting & Exhibiting at the Metal Museum.
“Elizabeth is a perfect example of somebody who’s chosen to go against the grain, who’s chosen to do a difficult thing, who’s decided to follow a passion. She’s a perfect example of the type of people we’re celebrating: an artist, a professional, an educator, somebody unlike just about everybody else.” – Anthony Bourdain
To learn more about Brim, watch her episode of “Raw Craft” with Anthony Bourdain and visit her website.
(Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain – Episode Seven: Elizabeth Brim)
Elizabeth Brim is the last of the Metal Museum’s featured #5WomenArtists for Women’s History Month. Since 2016, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) has been asking this question on social media each March during Women’s History Month using the hashtag #5WomenArtists. The campaign calls attention to the fact that women have not been treated equally in the art world, and today they remain dramatically underrepresented and undervalued in museums, galleries, and auction houses. So far, more than 1,000 cultural institutions from seven continents and 47 countries, plus over 10,000 individuals have participated. To learn more about the campaign, visit NMWA’s website or follow them on social media: @WomenInTheArts. Check out the other women artists from the Metal Museum’s collection on Facebook and Instagram.
2. Carissa Hussong, “Of Things Forged and Frilly,” Master Metalsmith 2009: Elizabeth Brim (Memphis, TN: Metal Museum, 2009).
3. Andi Juell, “Interview with Elizabeth Brim.”
4. Carissa Hussong, “Of Things Forged and Frilly.”
5. Andi Juell, “Interview with Elizabeth Brim.”