Whitehot Magazine

Bruna D'Alessandro: Working Magic With Metal

Magic Wands, Bruna D'Alessandro. Photo courtesy the artist.

By J. SCOTT ORR March 12, 2024

According to the Harry Potter Wiki, a wand is a “quasi-sentient magical instrument through which a witch or wizard channeled their magical powers to centralize the effects for more complex results.” Their cores consist of a broad range of magical stuff like unicorn hair or dragon heartstring, but their casings are always, always made of wood.  

Rejecting centuries of thaumaturgical precedent, Bruna D'Alessandro makes hers of steel. The Italian artist now based in Brooklyn has made them in silver, gold, black and gray, with gnarled and twisted handles and pointy ends, with and without stars on top. They are cold, heavy, unwieldy devices. Still, D'Alessandro’s wands seem somehow eternal, capable of maintaining their mystical properties despite their obvious sublunary descent.

“The wands are a celebration of imagination and creativity, of belief in dreams, in art, in creating something beautiful,” she said during an interview at her Brooklyn studio recently. “I imagine the magic wand ‘used.’ In fact, they are crooked, bent, imperfect, magic is encrusted on them. They have been re-welded many times because they have done many spells,” she said.

D'Alessandro brings her metal renderings to a rare exhibition of work by women who fashion art from metal at Culture Lab LIC in Queens. The show, called Behind The Mask - The Art Of Women Welders, features work by D'Alessandro and more than two dozen other women of steel.

Karen Dimit, who curated the show with Janet Rutkowski, said it’s a misconception that there are few women working in metal arts, though the genre’s historic upper-reaches have been populated largely by male sculptors like Alexander Calder, Albert Paley and David Smith. Still, she said, history’s female metal sculptor line-up includes names like Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Deborah Butterfield, and Alice Aycock.

Bruna D'Alessandro with her piece Forged Bed. Photo by Elizabeth Freeman.

“Why are people shocked?” Dimit wondered the other day, standing amid dozens of metal works by women artists at the packed opening of Behind the Mask. “A lot of people still have this preconceived notion that this is a man’s job. I think they see steel as something women are not going to want to work with. It’s hard, it’s heavy, it’s unbending, it requires heat and power tools, there are the sparks. But these are false assumptions, more than half of the welders at the Art Student League are women,” she said. 

The Art Student League, the Manhattan institution where American art giants Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and many others studied, played a critical role in shaping D'Alessandro’s practice. She studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma and received her Master Degree in Multimedia and Technological Arts in 2013 before moving to New York in 2014. She was attracted to the league as a place to learn and build community. 

“When I first came to this country, I didn't know anyone, I didn’t know the language, but I was looking for a community of artists, so I went to the Art Students League of New York. It's amazing, a place that I love, and I've been there all these many years. There is a metal shop there and it was the first time I saw metal working related to art. So I then started attending classes,” she said. 

“I became obsessed,” D'Alessandro said.  

As her skills evolved, D'Alessandro followed in the footsteps of other metal sculptors like Smith, who was employed making metal into locomotives at a plant in New York in the early years of his career, and made metal-working her profession. She is currently employed by a Brooklyn metal shop where she makes displays for artwork among other things.

Looking back over her 10 years of turning metal into art, it’s hardly surprising that D'Alessandro would bring her industrial skills to the realm of fantasy and magic. She has, after all, fashioned steel into organics like flowers, leaves and twigs; soft things like pillows and bed linens; a teddy bear, a loaf of bread, tomatoes, mushrooms, flowing abstract terrains, even human breasts.

Bruna D'Alessandro's Steel Breast, cold formed from a 16 gauge steel sheet. Photo by Elizabeth Freeman.

“I take things that you wouldn’t normally think of as being made of steel, like, for example, body parts. Making the breast out of steel contrasts the fragility of the body with the indestructibility of steel,”  D'Alessandro said. But she takes this particular body part further, creating a series of sheets each with a partly formed breast. Stacked one atop the other to form a book with steel pages, the work worthy demonstrates the artistic process, but also speaks of feminine maturity, growth and, perhaps most prominently, knowledge and strength.

“In some ways this work is connected to knowledge. So the book is a symbol of knowledge, it is a source of knowledge. So the idea I wanted was to connect the body with the knowledge, so that then it becomes the knowledge of the body,” she said.

“My work explores intimacy and investigates the relationship between opposing elements,” she said, adding that it often depicts “perceptions, dreams, imagination, illusion, hallucination, grotesque, and amorphous forms are used to convey an intimate, yet alien atmosphere.”

Sometimes, her work gets confusing as it mixes that artistic fantasy with cold, hard reality. Her piece My Dinner, for example, includes steel renderings of a pair of cutting boards, a loaf of bread, various fruits and vegetables along with a pair of knives, which are, for all intents and purposes, real knives. At a recent show at Bullet Space in New York’s East Village, her piece Vaso Di Rose consisted of steel roses in a steel vase sitting atop a steel table. The vase and the table, are, really, just that. 

The tools used to make art from steel. Photo by Elizabeth Freeman.

Among her more ambitious pieces is The Acorn, a monumental three-foot-by-four-foot steel sculpture of an acorn that is on view at Franconia Sculpture Park, Minnesota. 

The Acorn is left to rust since I appreciate the unstoppable nature of metal, ever changing and responsive to the environment. Acorns have an essential role in the ecosystems, being eaten by deer, bear, squirrels, birds and many other species. Furthermore, if planted, it leads to the birth of great oak trees. The sculpture celebrates the preciousness of the seed,” she said.

That “unstoppable nature” is probably what Michelangelo was talking about when he said “a great sculpture can roll down a hill without breaking.” This suggestion of permanence flows through  D'Alessandro’s diverse oeuvre; whether it's an onion, a wine bottle, or a human face, all the sculptures make the temporary permanent.

Hold one of those wands in your hand and you sense instantly that you are holding something that is real, something that is permanent, something that, even if tossed into a landfill or the East River, will endure for centuries. And that permanence is part of what makes D'Alessandro’s work so engaging and, yes, magic. 

Behind The Mask - The Art Of Women Welders runs through April 28 at Culture Lab, 5-25 46th Ave., Long Island City, Queens. WM


Scott Orr

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine. He can be reached via @bscenezine, bscenezine.com, or bscenezine@gmail.com.

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