Had you asked Karen Madden over the years what kind of artist she was, the answer likely would have been immediate and definitive – a fiber artist.
More recently, though, that answer has expanded as the Hudson Valley artist has begun to explore a new medium.
While Madden had been integrating nonfiber materials — think metal, stone or beads — into her fiber work for a long while, she’s now made a decisive turn to explore metal work as a separate avenue.
As she shares with WAG on a late summer afternoon visit, working in metal — which finds her going from an expert in one medium to a novice in another — is providing Madden with a new creative spark.
“I just love to learn new things,” she says. “I’ve got to see how something is done, then figure it out myself… But that’s true with any medium of art still. You won’t find anybody who can do everything all at once, from the beginning.”
THE BIRTH OF METAL
She traces the start of her new adventure to a gift from her husband, Bob Madden, a stone sculptor. It was two years ago that he gave her a birthday present of a welding class for artists.
“Much to Bob’s chagrin, I came back saying, ‘I love this,’” she says with a laugh.
And that’s what finds her now settling into her new studio dedicated to metalwork, an expanded element of the home-based Rock and A Soft Place Studio in Dutchess County’s Poughquag, which Madden formed with her husband in 2007.
If the last name or studio sounds familiar, then you may be thinking of our profile of Bob — Karen’s husband of more than 30 years and partner in Rock and A Soft Place — in which we traced his creation of a commission at a local sculpture park with an October 2018 feature.
The Maddens met when both worked for IBM in East Fishkill. Today, they have turned their focus onto their arts, leaving behind successful careers in the disciplines of science and engineering with both having worked on leading-edge technology and holding U.S. patents for their work.
That background plays right into Karen’s new work in metal, she says.
“It’s got its share of challenges. I’ve got to say I’m looking at people’s metal art online and say, ‘How do I take a piece of metal that comes to me like this, like all that stock there, and bend it?’ I’m strong but I’m not that strong,” she says, pointing at raw materials in her new studio space.
Madden shares she will search tools online and relies on her background, loving “the idea of trying to figure it out, to solve a problem.”
She’s not the type to sit back but rather dives right in.
“Now I’m here. I’m set up,” she says of the studio’s recent completion. “I’ve begun to create a couple of fun pieces.”
These include her Sun Series and she is already considering commissions, a sign of early support of her new direction.
“I think it’s easier because more people can understand metal, metal art,” she says. “Fiber… people don’t really understand it as art.”
THE TIES THAT BIND
But Madden says she sees some common elements.
“This doesn’t feel far from fiber art,” she says of how she works with color in her metal work, from powder coating to integrating agate slices into her sun-inspired pieces.
“It adds another element, so it might be mixed media, mixed media art. But I still call it metal art.”
She says that she continues to explore her art with her husband, each taking a great interest in each other’s work.
“It’s fun to bounce ideas off (each other). That’s what we enjoy a lot,” she says. “It’s a great thing to get input from someone else.”
Madden says she is exploring a whole new world of tools and materials, such as alloys and pure metals.
“I’m working right now with steel,” she says, noting its accessibility makes it a popular choice.
Copper is also familiar as Madden says, “I used to frame a lot of my fiber work in copper tubing.”
Madden sees a thread that runs through all her art; as she says, “That’s my tagline — welding is like knitting with fire.”
Fiber art — which has allowed her to exhibit nationally in both galleries and museums — remains close to her heart.
“I’m not going to give up fiber art. I am not. I love it.”
It is part of her history, as she shares she grew up on a farm in New Woodstock in central New York and her family includes seamstresses and upholsterers. She had her own “little sewing machine” as a youngster, was knitting at age 7 — and had a passing familiarity with welding.
Madden has been focusing on her artwork since retiring some 15 years ago.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do this.”
Though maintaining her fiber studio, Madden says these days find her concentrating more on the metalwork, trying to get into the new studio for an hour or two every day.
“I will just come out here, put my work clothes on, play a little bit, practice my welding,” she says. “Unlike with fiber, (metal) is not as forgiving.”
And Madden’s not the only one who sees a future in her new work. Her husband bought her a big lift that anchors one corner of the studio.
“He thinks I’m going to be lifting really big pieces… maybe some day. Now, I’m still learning.”
Karen Madden will be participating in the 2019 ArtEast Open Studio Tour, set for Oct. 19-20 and 26-27. For more, visit arteastdutchess.com. For more on Madden and her work, visit rockandasoftplace.com.