The two words employees dread hearing most came hurdling out her manager’s mouth: “You’re fired.” That’s what Lisa Elias heard 20 years ago when she returned home to Minneapolis after a two-week trip to New York for an experimental art workshop. Like many artists trying to pay their way, Elias worked a part-time job at a Minneapolis restaurant. Every night she waited tables, jotting down food orders and refilling drinks. But unlike most people, Elias didn’t panic when she lost her job. Sure, she felt mad. But she always knew the restaurant life wasn’t for her, anyway.
“When I was a waitress I was always calling myself an artist,” says the 52-year-old Elias. “I worked all day in my studio, and then I would go waitress at night to be able to afford what I wanted to do during the day.”
Overnight Elias turned into a full-time metal artist, trading in $20 lunch shifts to sell $20 towel bars. She rented a studio in northeast Minneapolis and launched Elias Metal Studio in the early ‘90s. But the artist’s designs quickly grew beyond the bathroom as she took on several public art commissions that redefined the urban landscape in the Twin Cities with hand-forged metal work.
A sneaky start
The hands on the clock crept toward midnight as Elias and a friend stood in front of a furnace in the University of Minnesota’s glass blowing studio. Next to them sat a pile of metal. During the day students used this furnace to heat molten glass and form it into varying shapes and vessels, but at night Elias snuck in to try her hand at forging metal.
“It was a big production,” Elias says. “A friend and I used the glory holes as our forge and pissed off a lot of professors.”
At the time, Elias was an undergraduate student in the glassblowing program. She had no idea how to forge metal objects, but she knew she wanted to try. Often her designs featured a combination of glass and metal, like the lamps she made for class. But the more she worked with the two mediums, the more she felt herself pulled toward steel.
She took a few classes to learn the basics of working with metal, and then set off on her own.
After graduating, Elias bought an anvil, some hammers, a tank of oxygen, and acetylene. Once she knew how to weld, she began to create functional pieces—items she needed around the house, like a coffee table, towel bar, and even a toilet paper holder. But her focus shifted once she landed a job with Crema Cafe (now Sonny’s Cafe). The owners commissioned her to create a large outdoor gate and grille—her first major project installed within public view.
Seven years later Elias broke into the public art sphere in 2004 when she created a bench called “Roots,” installed along Raymond and University avenues in St. Paul. Forecast Public Art sponsored the piece, which opened up new opportunities for Elias in the public art realm.
“It wasn’t a massive budget, but it was just big enough that it showed I had something under my belt,” she says.
After that, the projects kept coming. She forged a 400-foot fence for a pedestrian bridge along I-94 as part of The Loring Bikeway Project, built an arbor near the Burwell House in Minnetonka, made storm water planter railings along the METRO Green Line, installed 30 tree grates and 20 bike racks along Marquette Avenue and Second Avenue in downtown Minneapolis and a working drinking fountain at the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street. Despite the range in work, her signature style of furling lines, graceful curves, and organic shapes comes through in each steel piece—an aesthetic that harkens back to Art Nouveau, which rose to popularity in the late 19th century.
“I have a hard time with modern lines. They don’t bring me joy to build,” Elias says. “I’m not saying I don’t like to sit in a modern space, but that’s just not how I read metal. My style has always been loose and organic, not super precise or modern.”
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