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Let's Talk Shop: Jim Masterson

By Robert Fairchild, Arts Intern in Marketing

Jim Masterson, Shop Foreman at the Metal Museum
Jim Masterson, Shop Foreman

For the past 19 years, Jim Masterson has worked as the Metal Museum’s lead designer and foreman of the Blacksmith Shop. He grew up in St Louis, Missouri as one of seven children in his family. When talking about his early influences Jim says, “I sort of came to metals […] through working on cars with my brothers.” He learned welding and basic metal-working skills from this hobby, but he didn't find his love for the craft until later in life. In undergraduate school Jim studied electrical engineering. After taking one blacksmithing class to fulfill an art requirement, he realized, “This is what I want to do.”

Jim went on to acquire his BFA and MFA in metalsmithing from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL and Miami University in Oxford, OH. Understanding metalsmithing from an academic perspective provided Jim with the language and capacity to know what he needed to do to move metal. After completing his education, he moved west to California to work as the shop technician for the California School of Arts and Crafts. After five years, he moved to Memphis to work for the Metal Museum.

Commissions are one of Jim’s largest responsibilities at the Museum. Whether the piece is for a client or his personal practice, the process always starts with drawing. “For personal works, it is figuring out ideas in my head. For clients I am envisioning what they want [in an effort] to see what they like.” Sketches turn into developed plans. These vary from complex drawings on paper to renderings in CAD programs like Rhino. Once the client has approved a final rendering, Jim discusses details on the project and works to accommodate their budget.

Jim and the rest of the Metal Museum staff are no stranger to complicated, large-scale works. One piece for the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts took a year and a half to complete. The sculptural installation was designed by metal artist Dolph Smith and the shop collaborated with him to bring it to life. Other notable long-term projects include a stairway railing for a client that took nine months, and another railing for Johnson City, TN that was completed over five months. Creating high quality art takes time, but most projects that the shop undertakes are completed in under six months. The Museum’s studio facilities are no “ordinary shop,” so operations pause when there are tours, events, and classes.

The Museum’s visiting artists, including Anton Yakushev, Tom Joyce, Alfred Bolerman, and Brian Russel, all have an influence on Jim’s personal work. He admires each artist’s individual style and the ways that they approach design challenges. Historical inspiration comes from metalsmith Samuel Yellin and architectural work by unknown artists. Jim’s own style is marked by a strong technical approach and “clean,” well-made designs. Humor, inside jokes, and family interactions are a few of the concepts behind his sculptures. He also tries to incorporate comedy. Some of his work is meant for his siblings to get a laugh out of. By drawing on his own personal history, his sculptures reference inside jokes, stories, and memories he shares with his family members.

As a well-established and respected metalsmith in the city of Memphis his main goal is to push himself to make more work. “Sometimes when you get done here at the end of the day, it is not easy to just go over to the house, eat something, turn around and come back out.” Supporting his colleagues is important to Jim too. He usually attends exhibitions by artists he has worked with at the Museum. Jim says what he enjoys the most about his job is, “the different problems we get [on projects], the people I work with, [and how] nothing is ever the same around here.” We appreciate his work ethic, candor, and metalworking wisdom! Jim is a master of his craft and we are fortunate to have him on our team.


Robert Fairchild is the Summer 2019 Arts Intern in Marketing at the Metal Museum. Fairchild is a senior at the University of Memphis, studying Studio Arts and Creative Mass Media. The Arts Intern program, which offers paid internships in the arts to undergraduate students in financial need, is one of many arts programs run by the Studio Institute.

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