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Lyrical Line and the Art of Mechanization

Impenetrable Devices SeriesThe Pavlovian Trainer 2IraSherman

Photo courtesy of Ira Sherman.

In December of 2015, the renowned Denver based sculptor Ira Sherman, was a guest lecturer at the School of Jewelry and Metal Arts. The event, in collaboration with the Metal Art Guild, was a unique view into his world. Ira’s career, which currently spans 40 years, began with his work as a goldsmith. His current body of work fuses science and technology in a truly unique approach, interacting with the viewer in surprisingly intimate and challenging ways. His lecture to a full house at the 79 New Montgomery theater, left students and faculty alike in awe and is still being talked about months later.


“The mechanics are the aesthetics and the aesthetics are the mechanics.” Ira Sherman sums up his work in this sentence. It forms the core of all the work he is most passionate about and now has time to create, explore and really enjoy building. Researching his work, I felt confused as to who the real Sherman was, but after listening to him talk I found the “lyrical line” (a word he uses often) that connects his innate design sensibility to all of his creations—whether it is jewelry, a liturgical piece, public art or any of his mechanized/wearable pieces.

Sherman thinks in a sculptural and scalable mode. Looking at design from every angle, he visualizes his pieces as either jewelry to wear on the body or a larger-than-life art installation. The juxtaposition of lines, shapes and forms stem from his philosophy of a three-part composition that includes a forged or cast piece, a curvilinear component and a middle component that brings all the aspects together. 

Technique is crucial to his sense of design and guides him through the process of creation. Describing each piece, Sherman excitedly points out the various techniques he used to create each piece: T fold, M fold, pleated fold, mesh casting, forging, lyrical lines, decking–slicing–decking, Keum-Boo and reticulation. His repertoire is filled with techniques we are familiar with, but his mastery of them and his attention to every detail demonstrate the limitless possibilities of these techniques to anyone willing to learn. 

With a degree in biology and chemistry, a random course in jewelry was all Sherman needed to redirect his career into a very different direction. You can see his transition as an artist through his body of work. The jewelry is very sculptural and so are the liturgical pieces, the evolution is in the narrative context. Sherman calls this the “value added” component that elevates a piece from good design to a work of art. His liturgical art is full of symbolic narratives, giving them a conceptual richness that goes beyond their use as religious objects. A great example is the The Spice Box inspired by Dali and Surrealist art. The flattened earth and the strategically placed “Jewish noses,” humorously explore the concept of smelling the spices and bringing new life to a religious piece that is more commonly somber and classic. The light placed above the Torah in a synagogue becomes a dazzling beacon of brilliant light, when Sherman conceives a laser beam to hit a diamond to relate the idea of the “Microscope to the Soul.”

Sherman has created many public art installations that show his mastery of kinetic engineering. The overhead installation at the light rail station in Denver showcases his talent for bringing together creativity, concept and the arduous process of committee approvals for a public sculpture while keeping the integrity of his aesthetics. The essence of trains and people in motion at a train station is translated effectively by a combination of circular shapes representing wheels that need human interaction to set them in motion. Adding neon lights adds the aspect of adventure, of going somewhere fun and exciting. According to Sherman, it was his dream to create a fantasy ride—“such a dangerous thrilling ride that everyone wants to get on it but no one can.” This sculpture encompasses his dream and the childlike quality that is so part of him as a designer: curious, fun and not afraid to explore. 

In his installation for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Sherman again not only shows his talent for bringing out the narrative that supports a fundraising campaign, but also his ingenuity at solving the engineering challenges posed by the limitations of the space.

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Photo courtesy of Ira Sherman.

Listening to him talk about the challenges, accuracy and attention to details required in fabricating a big piece like this or the gates commissioned by the Hebrew Educational Alliance Synagogue in Denver, Colorado, one can really admire the passion, energy and skill Sherman puts in every piece he designs and builds.

“If you as an artist can get somebody to see the world differently than they are used to seeing, then you are widely successful,” are words that underline his conceptual thinking. While Sherman is a well collected artists with his work in many top museums and galleries, he has very practical and realistic advise for all of us starting our careers—“You can be successful if you can self-evaluate your own work. If you can’t, find a mentor, teacher or enter a show.” He does not believe in struggling artists. According to Sherman, “well fed artists make better art than starving artists”—a point that outlines his own journey as an artist and connects the dots between his diverse body of work.

“I love James Bond,” Sherman blurts out excitedly as he moves on to his next body of work - the work that leaves you wondering, is this the same artist as the creator of all the previous pieces? Mechanics, engineering, circuitry, machining techniques: Sherman loves being “Q” (as in James Bond’s character), the scientist who creates real machines that come apart and can be put together to execute unexpected things, good or bad. Near the end of his college years, Sherman had started developing mechanical jewelry that used unconventional components such as oil and mercury. Between the simmering anger over the horrors of the Holocaust and watching his veteran father walk around on his prosthetic wooden leg, working at his machines, Sherman developed his sense of mechanics and poignant story telling. He started creating pieces he describes as “break through pieces that went past the conceptual and did something nasty.”

Panacea to Persistent Problems was a series that used the analogy of the atrocities of the Holocaust and applied them to insects. Sherman calls them his catharsis pieces, a reaction to the dehumanization of a whole generation. Aptly named Gas Chamber, Insect Incinerator, CIA Survival Kit, Venom Injection Pendant and Tick Flamer, each one is visually beautiful with the same lyrical curvilinear line, three-part composition and added value (in the form of precious stones). But underneath the beauty the viewer is forced to confront the horror that awaits the victim. Sherman won an award for his piece Gas Chamber at the International Contemporary Crafts of the Americas show, organized by Nelda Getty, giving him the encouragement and confidence to dive into the world of wearable mechanical art.

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Photo courtesy of Ira Sherman.

Sherman has created many controversial pieces. It would be easy to categorize them as misogynistic or steam punk or S&M at first glance, but upon closer investigation they raise many questions: What is this? What does it do? Is it wearable? Is it comfortable? Does it really work? As an artist, he wants people to be intrigued, be forced to think and be moved to ask questions. He wants to lure viewers past the lyrical lines of the pieces to examine the real issue he is addressing. Be it rape, gun violence, chastity protection, Sherman’s designs stem from a deep sense of empathy and a need to create devices to solve the problems of the world. 

In Impenetrable Devices, for example, each piece is a narrative of things the victims of rape wanted seen done to their perpetrators.

The pieces lyrically portray the feeling of a protective space for the victim and in-genuinely pack in the revenge, justice for the potentiality of a heinous act. The only way to find out would be to test them and to our horror Sherman says he has—an audible gasp rose from the audience at the thought of the horrific visual and then a collective sign of relief when the slides disclosed a carrot ripped through with darts. Sensational and comical at the same time, Sherman gets the reaction he had designed. The pieces look like machines, but Sherman has successfully juxtaposed the hardware with the softer aesthetic of curvilinear lines—beauty and the beast coming together to create a solution.

The wheels of creation do not stop for Sherman, who is constantly thinking of what and where and how many different ways he can show his pieces to a larger audience. Be it the Maker Faire, models on the fashion runway or a steam punk venue, the next move is just a step away. Sherman is a source of unlimited energy, whether he is talking to an audience or creating work. He has found a way to transcend his work into the realm of narrative art that is beautiful to view and replete with emotional impact. He loves that his work has a pragmatic quality to it, in listening to the visitors at the various exhibits, it thrills him to hear people question or consider the wear-ability and functionality of his pieces. “The plausibility of the art being real and usable” energizes him creatively and gives him the satisfaction of having achieved his goal.