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'Steel Medicine:' A Dose of Margaret Jacobs at the Boise Art Museum

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If Steel Medicine, the name of artist Margaret Jacobs' upcoming exhibition at the Boise Art Museum, sounds like a contradiction, that's because it is. Much of Jacobs' work explores the concepts of forces like those of nature and man—a tension and harmony that also applies to Jacobs, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, who makes indigenous art through the medium of steel sculpture, a departure from the norm of what is thought of both as "Native American art" and as a mostly male art form.

From Saturday, June 8, through April 26, 2020, visitors can see Jacobs' wall-mounted steel sculptures depicting medicinal plants alongside tools associated with early 20th-century Mohawk ironworkers. Her Steel Medicine and Survival Medicine series will be on view, as well as new artwork created especially for the exhibition.

For Jacobs, the content and medium of her work are natural fits.

"I was always a maker. I had a very hands-on childhood. My family was always doing projects and making things around the house so I grew up around tools," said Jacob.

After growing up in New York, Jacobs attended Dartmouth College, where she majored in studio art and graduated in 2008. She's worked with jewelry and sculpture ever since, and in the last two to three years, she has made art her full-time profession. In school, Jacobs wasn't even sure she would major in art but felt like it was where she fit, and her ambitions have been rewarded with a substantial number of exhibitions (64 thus far) that she has been a part of since graduating, as well as numerous awards including the Perspectives on Design award at Dartmouth, a Native American Fellowship through the Harpo Foundation and the 2019 Artist in Business Leadership Award through the First Peoples Fund.

Old Growth, 2019, steel, dimensions variable - GBH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • GBH Photography
  • Old Growth, 2019, steel, dimensions variable

In each piece, Jacobs' Native American heritage plays a subtle, but Jacobs has been an enrolled member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe since she was a child, a tribe from New York State.

"I believe in the importance of objects and their power to relay narratives which is why sculpture and jewelry resonates with me so strongly," reads Jacobs' artist statement. "From early on, story-telling and making have been an integral part of my life, and I see my family's lineage built into my work."

For her first solo exhibition at BAM, Jacobs has decided to showcase her sculptures exclusively, leaving out her jewelry, with the large space allowing her to present her larger pieces. "It's been a really pivotal experience," Jacobs said.

"I've been able to really dig into a couple bodies of work that I've been tiptoeing around before and really get into ideas that I've been thinking about but haven't had the chance to show because the space hasn't been right for it," she said.

This is BAM's first time working with the artist, but her work fits neatly into a theme the museum has deliberately curated with its exhibitions this year, which include Ceramics and Textiles from the Southwest, Sarah Sense: Cowgirls and Indians and Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts at 25.

"We're calling it our Native Voices exhibition series," said Melanie Fales, BAM executive director. "We've got five exhibitions that are celebrating Native American artists and part of the reason for that is that the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. For us, this series highlights Native voices through the language of visual art."

Jacobs draws on her metalsmithing techniques that she uses as a jeweler to create stark lines, organic forms and intricate links of steel to emphasize the resilience and fragility of nature. Creating such delicate, organic forms from bare sheets of steel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Jacobs said she fabricates everything herself, starting with sheets or tubes of steel, and hand-cutting all of her shapes, then forming through welding, grinding and torching.

"Generally with the steel work, I'm leaving the steel as it is so it's just a material and not adding color or other things, leaving the material honest and raw," Jacobs said, adding that with her jewelry, she typically adds bright colors: "I really love steel and sculpture but because it's big and monochromatic, it has a heavy visual weight. It's a much more intense conversation and experience for a viewer."

For Jacobs, all materials and objects used in her art have their own narratives and it is her role as an artist to maintain that narrative.

"It is important for me to use a material in a manner that remains true to this narrative and to see how and what it can lend to the work and add to my story," said Jacobs. "My culture inspires me to create pieces charged with power, strength and beauty, and in turn, I believe my work celebrates indigenous culture with a bold, powerful aesthetic."