Starry Starry Night, 2019. Site-specific iron pour performance at Salem Art Works, New York. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Wonderment and Reflection: A Conversation with Coral Penelope Lambert

Recipient of the 2022 Outstanding Educator Award

Coral Penelope Lambert, Professor of Sculpture and Director of the National Casting Center Foundry at Alfred University, produces process-based, often performative and site-specific work that combines her background as a formalist steel sculptor with her passion for iron casting. For her, the foundry is a laboratory and a ritual site to explore materials by manipulating processes that parallel those found in nature. She engages with metal as a living material, born from the skies and the core of the earth, underscoring its transformative properties and associations with myth and legend. Traces of her process remain, evidence of the transition from hot to cold, liquid to solid, frequently alluding to darker issues. Her abstract works follow nature without illustrating it, capturing moments that range from the ordinary to the extraordinary to create a liminal space between “twilight and dreams.”

The Cloud, 2005. Cast iron, steel, and aluminum, 8 x 10 x 7 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Michaël Amy: You studied under Anthony Caro.
Coral Penelope Lambert: I studied sculpture at Canterbury School of Art in the late 1980s. I was taught primarily by men wearing plaid shirts, Levi’s, and steel-toe boots, who made formalist steel sculpture. I loved it. The teaching was fairly hands-off. We were required to obtain a welding certificate from the tech school next door, after which we could access an individual welding space in the sculpture department. There were no structured classes or assigned projects, apart from art history courses; one developed one’s ideas and made work each and every day. Once a week, we would have a crit. Caro was a regular visiting tutor. It was quite an event when he visited, all very dramatic. He would turn my large-scale steel sculptures upside down, have us weld furniture to them, cut out any “decoration,” and compel us to look at the works from a different perspective.

The norm back then was to go work for Caro, but I needed to forge my own path as a woman working in sculpture. William Tucker’s The Language of Sculpture (1974) was our common manual, until I discovered the writings of Lucy Lippard. Overlay (1983) introduced me to work like Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76). More importantly, it established a connection between the contemporary art of the United States, the land of my dreams, and the prehistoric art of England, the land where I grew up (I was raised in London). This brought considerations of site, process, and materials to my work, in addition to a focus on formal relationships within the object itself. An awareness of nature and the land, and thus of time and place, found its way into my practice.

MA: What drew you to casting?
CPL: I was introduced to bronze casting through traditional Italian lost-wax investment methods. I have always been interested in change; for me, casting is much more than simply making something permanent. Casting allows me to examine the union of concept and material transformation, which parallels and speeds up the work of mother nature. Making the mold and essentially losing the form in the process—letting go is when the magic happens. Exploring the rich history of metals in myth and culture feeds the concepts in my works, which also embody weight, tactility, permanence, and flux. They also address the negative outcomes of mining, and the contamination of our earth.

Volcano Furnace: Iron + Fire Earthwork, 2014. Earthwork and iron furnace, view at Pedvale Sculpture Park, Latvia, 2014. Photo: Gerhard Haug

MA: What brought you to the U.S.?
CPL: I came to the States as an International Research Fellow in Foundry at the University of Minnesota in 1995–98. There, I was introduced to iron casting by Wayne Potratz, who taught metal casting from different cultures. The open vistas of the American landscape resonated with me, as did the pioneering spirit and can-do attitude. I built my own portable iron furnace and started traveling, doing iron pours on site.

MA: How important is collaboration to you?
CPL: Metal casting is a group activity with a common goal—a choreographed dance of sweat, tears, and logistics, in which everyone plays a role. I develop my concepts for performance iron pours in the studio and, once they’re formed, I invite other artists to participate. Volcano Furnace: A Fire + Iron Earthwork (2014), for instance, was built over three weeks at Pedvale Art Park in Latvia with the help of my students and select performers. It consists of a 13-foot-high functioning iron furnace, embracing the spirit of the land and celebrating the forces of nature. Each tap of Volcano Furnace provided a specific occasion for a series of performances honoring dawn, sun, fire, and iron, thereby reflecting the creative processes of the earth. The performances, involving dance and music, constituted acts within the main play in which the operation of the furnace brought forth the molten metal; it was then cast in diamond-shaped molds carved directly into ancient granite boulders, at the base of each tap hole. Activated once during midsummer, Volcano Furnace is now a dormant earthwork, and the event lies within the realm of legend.

Shape Shifters: Pollinator Series, 2001–18. Cast aluminum, steel, and pollen-colored flocking, 8 x 8 x 5 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: Sculpture is traditionally about the human body, but you reject that.
CPL: My sculpture relates directly to my body, to the scale of what can be physically achieved. It is a human scale, linked to our place within the cosmos. The work may occasionally be large and extremely heavy, but it doesn’t need to be enormous. It may inspire, but it remains relatable. Traces of the hand are important, as in the Shape Shifters (2001–18), where you can see where my fingers have handled the material. I love it when people want to touch the work.

MA: What are some of the aspects of the natural world that you’ve explored?
CPL: Planets, stars, bodies of water, rocks, mountains, thunder clouds, volcanoes, flowers, and fire as a transformative agent. The beauty of working with molten metal is that as it cools, it captures the moment. Through my work, I ask if we can express nature in a way that does not merely illustrate it. The natural world takes one beyond oneself—it invites dreaming because everything within it is interconnected.

Shape Shifters: Pollinator Series (detail), 2001–18. Cast aluminum, steel, and pollen-colored flocking, 8 x 8 x 5 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: In your “Khipu” and “Chakra” series, you reach beyond the Western tradition.
CPL: The “Chakra” series examines the universal premise of being in sync with nature. The sculptures explore ideas of coexistence, resonance, and metamorphosis. In each one, various spherical forms are joined and dependent on one another. This references phenomena such as the alignment of planets or the chakras in our body.

“Chakra” is a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel” or “disk.” To visualize a chakra in the body, imagine a swirling wheel of energy, where matter and consciousness meet. This invisible energy, called prana, is a vital life force. It is believed that our planet also has chakras, which materialize as centers of high energy at sacred sites. This recalls the Western concept of ley lines and Aboriginal songlines, where the land was sung into existence. I use the chakra concept to build a tie between our bodies, the earth, and the rich history of metal casting; I also use it to refer to deep mining and the violation of the earth.

I respond to many myths and legends associated with metal casting, which are primarily about creation and power, such as the story of Copper Woman. A woman was tending a fire at night when the rocks started to bleed with the golden tears of the sun and the silver tears of the moon. In the morning, among the ashes, she discovered a bronze pebble, and thus began the Bronze Age. Sky Diamond (2016), refers to Cleopatra, an alchemist who wore a meteorite in her tiara to ward off evil spirits and aid her in her conquests. The iron meteorite was a fallen star from the dress of Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky.

Installation view with (foreground) Sky Diamond, 2016, and (background, left to right): Star Cage, 2017; and Black Star, 2018. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: You attach importance to ritual, procession, and choreography. Is the process of making more important than the end product?
CPL: The purpose of ritual is to make something happen, so yes, ritual is a crucial element—especially in my performance iron pours. For Starry Starry Night (2019), the iron pour took place at dawn in a small valley. Molten iron was poured into molds shaped like stars, which were then lifted up and planted in the ground, turning into cold and dark iron as the sun peeked up over the hills. With our helmets and leathers, we looked like strange beings as we carried the stars across the horizon, enacting an almost post-apocalyptic scene.

MA: What is the nature of your interest in the occult, magic, and alchemy?
CPL: I am interested in chance and letting go, which enables reflection and allows unknown messages to filter through. The first maxim of alchemy is: “That which is above is like that which is below.” If the religious and mythical origins of alchemy represent a portion of the “above,” then the anthropological record represents a portion of the “below.” Mircea Eliade wrote extensively about the cultural origins of alchemy, proposing that it was the first offshoot of shamanism and connected to the origins of agriculture and metallurgy. The divine smith was the ancestor of the alchemist who hunted the ore. Eliade’s book The Forge and the Crucible (1956) was a very influential read.

The furnace had symbolic meaning in alchemy. It was not just a tool used to heat and purify metals. Alchemists believed that metal (and thus, the human soul) experienced suffering and mortification while being cleansed of its impurities and corruption. When I built Tara, a new iron furnace, in 2007, I had it blessed by a female priest before we ran its first pour, where 1,000 pounds of molten iron flowed from the tap hole every 25 minutes, at temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Working with heat to melt and cast metal can be challenging and unpredictable, with spontaneous and uncontrolled results. The scars that result from this way of making are what interest me, because they echo those made by our civilization on the earth. I respond to the metal’s transitional fluid state as if it were a living material, flowing, breathing, and emerging from the mold, raw and elemental. Working with metals connects deeply with our cultural history. Iron is in our blood. It is universal.

Throat Chakra, 2017. Cast iron and pollen flock, 18 x 6 x 6 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: You precipitate the work of nature.
CPL: I reference the concept of “speeding up the work of nature,” which means harnessing, channeling, guiding, and gathering materials and energies. Only materials available on site were used to build Volcano Furnace, while the energy of midsummer was channeled in the ritual of melting and casting, which took place before the dawning of the new sun.

While I was at the University of Minnesota, I lined up the fires of Clay Mold Hill Kiln, Clay Pit Furnace, Earthen Pouring Floor, and Campfire (1996) with the setting sun to re-enact an ancient bronze casting process, as we melted bronze with hand-pumped bellows. The resulting castings contain the energy of the people who poured them, as well as the energy of the site and that moment. They have a poetic quality, a timelessness, a unity with all things, an illumination, a knowing beyond the grasp of intellect. I aim for wonderment and reflection.

MA: Could you explain some more about your understanding of the relation between nature and myth?
CPL: My recent exhibition “Alternate Worlds” (NE Sculpture Gallery|Factory, Minneapolis, 2021) focused on investigating the spaces between twilight and dreams in order to explore the concept of parallel universes—worlds coexisting with our own time and space, with similarities but different in subtle ways. This is the universal theme of alchemy, myth, and legend: affirming the existence of the underworld and heaven. Flowers of Elysium (2018) and Starry Starry Night (2019) explore the notion of other universes.

Flowers of Elysium, 2018. Hot cast iron, performance for the Inaugural Iron Pour at Novilla, Berlin. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: Materials carry meaning.
CPL: I strongly believe that materials and how they are generated bear meaning. Coming from the core of the earth and stardust itself, iron is the most ancient and elemental of all materials. We are made of stardust; everything is made of stardust. In Fallen Sky (2010), the facets of steel are aligned, resembling a section excised from something larger, like a gemstone cut from the earth. It is a chunk of sky that has been mined; it is the sky, fossilized. This sculpture alludes to ideas about the past, the cosmos, and the unknown. The inverted spirals reference a black hole—a supernova. There is a slight sparkle in the blue hues of the paint where perhaps thousands of tiny stars lie captured within.

When Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned from the moon, he saw earth from the window of his spacecraft: “I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge—it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy—a transformational experience.”

MA: What are the messages encrypted in MetaRunes (2019)?
CPL: A rune is a mark of mysterious or magical significance usually appearing in the form of divinatory symbols carved into a small stone. I combined these symbols with the concept of “meta,” which is a creative work that refers to itself or to the conventions of its genre. By casting the runes, I cast a spell, or incantation. I created MetaRunes through a computer modeling program that allowed me to write messages onto a virtual ball of clay. I then folded the ball in virtual space to encrypt the message within the form. This transformed my cursive writing into symmetrical patterns alluding to ancient symbols. I then 3D-printed and cast them in iron, stainless steel, and bronze. Messages within the runes include: “Save the Whales,” “Safe Travels,” “Take Care of Our Planet,” and “We Were Here.”

MetaRunes, 2019. 2D and 3D prints, dimensions variable. Photo: bump opera

MA: Could you talk about the ideas behind Library of Lost Knowledge (2017) and Cloud of Unknowing (2010)?
CPL: Library of Lost Knowledge consists of a collection of books and small objects cast in iron. The original books were printed by the International Textbook Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, founded in 1895, which generated educational books until its bankruptcy in 1996. The presses stopped; they became part of a lost industry. The cast-iron books and accompanying rust prints—made by placing wet books on sheets of paper, where they left oxidized marks—are a physical memory, an echo of times past. I took rubber molds and made copies of metal-casting textbooks, then cast them in metal. This transformed the written word into objects examining how knowledge is transferred, understood, and interpreted. These books on metallurgy contain information on processes now hidden from view through metallurgical acts of molding and casting—the knowledge is simultaneously lost and found. Each cast-iron book has a different patina to it, and a different age.

The Cloud of Unknowing was positioned—like a fallen cloud—in relation to a vista signifying a threshold to, or from, another world. I used a site marking where the sun rises when seen from within the ruins of Kidwelly Castle, Wales. The title comes from a medieval mystical text describing the alchemy that takes place when the soul of the mystic gets closer to the light, as a darker, confused state of being is entered. The cast-iron cloud and morning mist represent this event as a metaphor for the human condition.