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‘Rust Never Sleeps’ at Memphis’ Metal Museum

‘Rust Never Sleeps’ at Memphis’ Metal Museum

Jan Mercker

Rising star Sophie Glenn brings her humorous take on furniture to the Metal Museum

The world of fine furniture and antiques can be serious — and seriously stuffy. The rising star sculptor and metalworker Sophie Glenn takes an irreverent look at iconic furniture in her first solo show at the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

In her “Rust Never Sleeps” exhibition, Glenn plays with classic furniture forms — a demilune table, a Shaker chair. Her signature is turning the classics on their heads by crafting them completely  in metal and using unexpected color and decorative elements. As a trained furniture maker with a longtime love of metal, Glenn is a pro at taking familiar design touchpoints in her own clever direction.

“The reason I do these classic forms is because a lot of people can relate to them,” Glenn said. “Maybe your grandmother had this particular table or chair in her house growing up.”

metal museum - Sophie Glenn
Artist Sophie Glenn is known for taking classic furniture designs and turning them on their heads, by making them completely out of metal.

‘Furniture shouldn’t be taken too seriously’

Glenn is also known for her sense of humor. Her work often pays homage to ’80s and ’90s pop culture in titles and decorative elements. One of her most popular pieces is “Gorgeous George,” a Regency-style chair piece in painted and rusted steel. But where there might traditionally have been a landscape or female nude on an antique wooden chair, Glenn has transferred the infamous image of George Costanza posing in his underwear from the legendary Seinfeld episode “The Package.” 

Glenn’s pair of Shaker chairs, with woven seats in painted and rusted steel instead of wood, are playfully entitled “Rump Shakers.” The title is a hilarious nod to the legendary ’90s hip-hop hit. A Regency bench in rusted purple steel earned the tongue in cheek title “Purple Reign.”

“For me color is a lot of fun,” Glenn said. “I don’t necessarily want the pieces to be these stark looking steel pieces. The color gives it a little bit more liveliness.”

As a trained woodworker, metalworker and furniture designer, Glenn has the chops to riff on the seriousness that often accompanies furniture and antiques. 

“I’m making fun of woodworkers and the history of furniture,” she said. “I always try to add a little bit of humor. Furniture shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”

metal museum - Sophie Glenn
One of Sophie Glenn’s most popular pieces is “Gorgeous George,” a Regency-style chair made of rusted steel. But where there might traditionally have been a landscape or female nude, Glenn has transferred the infamous image of Seinfeld’s George Costanza posing in his underwear.

Celebrating makers at the Metal Museum

Glenn’s work is a natural fit for the Metal Museum — the only museum in the country solely dedicated to metalwork. Launched in 1979, the museum features galleries, a blacksmith shop and foundry, a restoration lab and a beloved sculpture garden. The museum has a reputation for identifying emerging talent in metalwork. It launched its Tributaries series in 2008 to recognize up and coming artists.

The museum selected Glenn’s chair piece “Daryl Dragon” for its 40 Under 40 show last year. It earned the artist a solo show as part of the Tributaries series.

“The work was just so magical. It’s playful, it’s unexpected. It was a perfect fit,” said the Metal Museum’s executive director Carissa Hussong.

Hussong says part of the museum’s mission is to celebrate the versatility and diversity of metal artists.

“[Metalwork] is a huge field and it’s one that sort of gets lost because it’s so much a part of other art forms but it’s just an amazing field,” Hussong said. “Metalsmiths, they can do anything. Because of their chosen media, they often have an understanding of other art forms. They’re pulling in woodworking, some are working with glass as well. They have a really vast knowledge of making.”

metal museum - Sophie Glenn
Sophie Glenn’s Regency bench in rusted purple steel earned the tongue in cheek title “Purple Reign.”

A passion for metal

Glenn was born and raised in Manhattan and studied sculpture at the State University of New York’s campus in nearby Purchase, NY. While earning her BFA, she worked with the noted furniture designer Vivian Beer. The accomplished furniture designer/maker helped inspire Glenn’s ongoing passion for metal. 

“It automatically clicked for me,” Glenn said. One of her signature practices is using woodworking techniques to create surprising wood-like forms in metal, like the traditional kerf bending process that involves making small cuts in the material to allow it to bend.

“I do that in the metal to get these more organic looking forms,” Glenn said.

The native New Yorker crossed the country to earn an MFA in furniture design and woodworking from San Diego State University. 

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“I needed to see something else,” she said. “I was really finding my voice. The work I made in California was something I needed to get out of my system… It helped me get to the body of work that I’m making now.”

Her furniture design training helped the young artist find her voice. Then a three-year residency at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tennessee, which ran through last year, helped her current esthetic to gel.

“I came at furniture making from the metalworking side,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to recreate these classic pieces completely out of welded and fabricated steel to blend my two passions together.”

Up next

Glenn is currently an assistant professor of sculpture at Mississippi State University, where she’s been in COVID-19 limbo like so many artists. But after waiting two months for materials, Glenn has started on a new large-scale chest piece. While she works on that project, she’s waiting to see what the next semester brings. 

The initial plan was to open the “Rust Never Sleeps” show at the Metal Museum in mid-March. Then, the COVID pandemic hit. With Tennessee gradually reopening in recent weeks, Glenn’s show has been extended through September 27. The museum reopens to the public three days a week starting July 2, with social distancing measures in place.

If you can’t make it to the Metal Museum to see the “Rust Never Sleeps” exhibit in person, explore Sophie Glenn’s work at sophieglenn.com or on her Instagram page.

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