Quilting with a Blowtorch 

Zella Bardsley brings her mixed-metals quilts to Art Source Gallery

This First Thursday, Zella Bardsley will be commemorating a traditionally female art form of quilting in her own feminist way: with metal and a blowtorch. Her patterns aren't those handed down from generation to generation, they are instead her "own, new definition of the metal quilt." Even though Bardsley's definition varies from the norm, she maintains many of the typical quilting conventions such as weaving her stories of joy, pain, gossip and laughter into her works. She also uses castaways, combines new pieces and says she "pushes the quilt form to suit her own desire to construct pieces that she finds magical, joyful, soulful or just plain silly."

Because her father was a violinist and a director of music in Boise public schools, the arts were always prevalent in Bardsley's family. She wasn't raised as an artist though; traditional female roles played an equal if not more exaggerated role in her household. She was expected to be a teacher. Her mother, brother and sister were all teachers and Bardsley heeded her parents' expectations for some time. She received both a B.A. in music education and a master's degree in special education from Boise State. Then she went on to administration, which may have driven her to become a steel artist.

The Boise community immediately embraced Bardsley's artwork. Her first venue was Crone's Cupboard, where she sold the "naked dancing women" she is well-known for now. At that point, she decided she could be an artist, and 18 years later, she's confident she made the right decision. "Working in metals is a challenge and a joy. The process of creating from a solid, substantial and unyielding substance and moving it into the sensation of an organic, flowing outcome delights and intrigues me," says Bardsley.

Along with Crone's Cupboard, she has also exhibited her work at Art Source Gallery, which is an artist cooperative she's been a part of for 12 years. She's been president twice and been on the board most of her time there. Her current First Thursday exhibition at Art Source, "Variations on a Theme of Zella's Grandmother Zella: Exploring the Idea of the Quilt in Mixed Metals and Mixed Media," will include approximately 25 pieces, some of them quite massive.

The primary inspiration for the exhibition was a quilt made by Bardsley's Grandmother Zella. Bardsley found it after her parents died about fifteen years ago. It was always "the magic quilt" to her kids, healing them when they were sick, and an extreme comfort to her as well.

More inspiration for the quilting theme came from Bardsley's two older sisters who have always tried to turn her into a quilter. "I love their quilts. They give me great quilts," says Bardsley, "Why should I quilt when they give me such great quilts? I do love the theme of quilting, though, and piecing old things together."

Bardsley does her metal work freehand using an oxygen/acetylene torch and a plasma torch. She also uses a MIG welder and grinding equipment. She thinks using computers would be tedious. She also doesn't agree with how technology lends to others borrowing her ideas: "It's interesting in this age of technology how people just take on your ideas and even admit it to you. I had one woman photograph my work and then say she was going to have her husband make it for her." But, Bardsley can't "copyright" every piece of work she does. She does explain to people, though why freehand work results in higher priced pieces of art--it's more time consuming and each piece is unique.

Luckily for Bardsley, her materials cost is low. Her husband is a heavy equipment mechanic and he has his employees save their "garbage" for her, which allows her to use about 90 percent recycled materials in her work. However, she doesn't use this garbage just because it's cheap; she's also worried about the environment. "We need to quit filling up these landfills," she says.

Bardsley also enjoys adding other mediums to her pieces. "I love mixing media, and I love experimenting, especially growing up doing all of the girlie things like knitting and crocheting, and putting it with metal. My dad never let me go in his workshop because he said I'd cut my fingers off. Well, I still have all of my fingers," she says with a smirk. Although now Bardsley incorporates different mediums such as watercolor, ink, glass and mosaic into her metal work, she didn't always appreciate the skills her traditional female upbringing gave her. When first embracing welding, she says she broke out of the female role and became very feminist. Over time, her feelings changed, "I think sometimes you reject those things then later embrace the pieces that work for you."

Some pieces to look for at Art Source Gallery include, The Bard--a reference to the old poets and minstrels, and artist "Bard"sley herself. It is a beautiful, intricate sculpture created out of found objects standing approximately six feet tall.

Another delight that will be at the gallery is Tristan and Isolde. The story of Tristan and Isolde is one of the quintessential romances of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and remains an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. Bardsley's "couple" made up of old gears and nuts and bolts, dance and yearn for each other in such a way that one could never imagine separating the two for fear they might crumble to the floor, forever lost bits of machinery.

A third piece to be included in the exhibition, currently named Sky Scraper, features Bardsley's love of mixed media through enamel on glass. The colored glass pieces, hanging and towering over each other, evoke a large city, bright and luminous yet transparent and repetitive.

These pieces, along with many more, prove for a captivating first Thursday stroll. More of Bardsley's art can be seen at Art Source Annex, Ashton's Fine Art, The Gallery at Hyde Park, Eagle Rock Art Museum in Idaho Falls, and The Artist's Shop in Missoula, Montana.

--Gina Sinisi

Opening reception on First Thursday, March 1 from 5-9 p.m. with music by Rochelle. Art Source Gallery 1015 Main St., Boise, 208-331-3374, www.artsourcegallery.com.

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