Sarah Madigan casts her bronze sculptures at the Adobe Forge and Foundry.
The theater of remembrance—bronze, stone, and Hawaiian sea salt
Finding beauty in ‘small deaths’
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
The art is thematically fitting for October: lifeless birds, trees stripped of leaves, boats as a metaphor for passage from one incarnation to another, all fossilized in bronze. The artist, however, is young and full of life—a paradox.
Sarah Madigan doesn’t quite see things as most people do. To her, the dead birds are beautiful, and for the past seven years she has been “taken with them,” ever since she first got the courage to pick up a dead bird by the side of the road and hold it in her hands.
She had had a conversation with her father, a photographer who told her that as a child he had shot an entire roll of film of a dead bird in a gutter, disgusting his parents. His experience resounded with hers.
“I was intrigued by finding beauty in things that are not beautiful,” Madigan explains, adding, “and you know why that was,” referring to two years of personal tragedy that had preceded her return home. “I didn’t feel beautiful. I was a mess. So the process with the birds parallels my own.”
It’s hard to believe, coming from a woman who exudes vibrancy and life, but Sarah Madigan has seen a lot in her three decades. She was attacked in India. Got malaria in Ghana. Married and separated. Lost a child at birth. And now, after seven years back in Albuquerque, she wears along with the easy grace of bohemian youth a sense of timeless compassion.
Her work is not easy to appreciate and not at all easy to make. Metal is a demanding medium, and casting requires days of time-consuming steps. When Madigan says she “spends time with the bodies,” it is not a manner of speech.
To reproduce a bird body in bronze, she first covers it in alginate, the seaweed-based gum used for dental molds. Dental plaster poured inside creates a positive mold of the bird, which is then coated in rubber to create another negative. Wax is poured into the rubber mold to create a positive replica, which is hollow. This is coated, inside and out, with ceramic slurry, which can withstand the heat of melted bronze. The clay is fired, the wax melts out, and the final negative is ready to be poured with bronze.
At each step, the positive replicas have to be cleaned up and the details carved or sandblasted back in place.
“I feel like I take care of them,” Madigan says of the bodies, which she began to notice everywhere. “And I believe that small deaths need to be taken care of, also in ourselves.
“Small things die all the time.”
Each experience in Sarah Madigan’s life seems to have been, at once, a birth and a death. After graduating from high school, she was too restless to start college, so she headed to Latin America to teach English.
In Ecuador, she started making wire jewelry while traveling around the Andes with the artesanos, the craft nomads who ply their wares on the streets of Latin America. That sparked an interest in metal art, which led Madigan to an alternative, experiential degree through the Friends World Program (now Global College) at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
The degree is based on experiential study abroad, which was the only way she could have withstood four years of college, she said. To learn metalworking, she traveled to India and found a sculptor in Tamil Nadu who was willing to take her on as an apprentice.
“I wanted to have that relationship with a teacher—I was attracted to that way of getting to know the material,” she explains. Learning art-making in a traditional culture turned out to be both fascinating and frustrating, bound by rules and relationships handed down from antiquity.
“Here, art is all about personal creativity. In India, the artist is in service to the community,” Madigan explains. “Along with that come specific images and processes steeped in so much tradition.” The apprenticeship was supposed to last eight years, progressing from the least permanent material, clay, through metal, to stone.
But Madigan left after one year. A man who frequented the artist community where she was living attacked her, a harrowing ordeal that sent her home in crisis. After “tons of therapy” and a period of recovery, she headed to Ghana to learn their unique casting techniques—only to end up in the hospital with malaria.
Back in New Mexico in 2002, Madigan began her current period of foundry work, first at Shidoni Foundry in Tesuque, then at Adobe Forge and Foundry in Corrales, which reopened in the North Valley this year after a fire in June 2008.
At Adobe Forge, she trades part-time work in all stages of bronze casting for use of the equipment to make her own art. Four days a week, she teaches art and Spanish at Holy Ghost Catholic School, after earning a degree at UNM in art education.
“People either love it or find it disturbing and sad,” she says of her bronze sculptures, each of which features a casting from a dead bird, which dictates its setting. “I don’t know what to say to those people,” she adds. “It never strikes me as sad. It’s part of life.”
But Madigan feels it’s important to put people in touch with those metaphorical birds in the gutter, and to “re-present” them such that it is safe to approach and maybe see death differently. On a personal level, the birds embody and facilitate her own transformations and passages.
“What they do is make me pay attention,” she says. “And I find that when I do that, the world pays attention to me.”
Finding beauty in mortality—in the particulars of how small birds fall and die, which is inscribed on their bodies like a story—turns out to be the dimension that adds depth to youthful beauty. “There must be a witness to the death of small things,” Madigan writes in her artist statement. “…The ones we ignore. I take care of them and they locate my peace, using death as a compass.”