The Intersection of Plants and People
Arabella Tattershall bends and burnishes and scrubs metal into flowing dresses that grace the gardens and foyers of her lucky collectors. Although she creates other pieces such as trellises and decorative tiles, her signature pieces are life-size dresses that can withstand the elements — shapely gowns that allow the admirer to imagine the strong, confident women who would wear them.
“The women really speak to men and women,” she says of her sculptures. “And I have found also that it doesn’t matter what the shape is — it doesn’t matter how large she is or how small she is — we all have a relationship with her, whether it be from our past, someone that we knew….The female form resonates with everybody for some reason.”
Aside from a welding degree from the Emily Griffith Technical College, Tattershall (whose name is pronounced without the ‘h’) is a self-taught artist and businesswoman. The daughter of an artistic surgeon and an accomplished seamstress, she attributes her ability to turn sketches into complex, finely finished sculptures to genetics and to lessons she absorbed early on from her elders.
“I come from hands-on people,” Tattershall says. “My father would not throw something away because it was broken. He would go down in the basement and belly up to the toolboard, and I would be with him and we would try to figure out how to fix it.”
Born in the college town of Lansing, Tattershall left Michigan in 1984 to become a photo stylist in Denver, Colorado. Though successful, she eventually switched careers, becoming a fiber sculptor of large works. Her one-of-a-kind pieces were commissioned throughout the U.S. by corporations that Tattershall says paid her “to build things that they could not buy.”
After marrying and starting a family, Tattershall launched a children’s outerwear company so that she could work from home. An intimate knowledge of sewing passed on by her mother allowed Tattershall to create AB Seas Funwear. At a time when most children’s fashions were pastel and subdued, Tattershall decided to create clothes in the vibrant, jewel tones that children naturally gravitate towards. It was another success, but once her kids were in school full-time, Tattershall wanted a change of pace.
“I really wanted to get away from fabric, which is so indoors,” she says. “And that’s why I was kind of inspired by the metal. It was something that I knew could be used outside.”
Though she was no longer working with cloth, Tattershall began welding her new medium of choice into soft-looking forms that fulfilled an idea she had about “girls in gardens.” She sought to design interactive, focal pieces that patrons could build a garden around, and in the process, formed an interesting fusion of her favorite materials.
“My brain is wired where if I think it – I can make it,” she says, explaining her translation of metal into fabric. “I just believe in that possibility. If you can think something up, there’s a way to build everything.”
The results of Tattershall’s labors are very precise, airy creations that resemble a cross between ancient Greek torsos, intricate Roman armor and bridal gowns for dream weddings or for actresses parading down a red carpet. Leaves of all shapes, wire mesh, and even barbed wire are coaxed to form beautiful women she gives names like Sarah, Elizabetta, Liv and yes, Cinderella. Sometimes a bird perches on a shoulder or a metallic sash is tied around a waist. For one work-in-progress made with vintage, metal ceiling tiles and intricately cut-out steel, Tattershall plans to add a chic belt buckle — a labelled vent from an antique stove that reads: Perfection Oil Heater.
For her life-sized pieces, Tattershall uses mannequins who, armless, painted over and duct-taped, have clearly endured the roughness of steel garments. Because she also makes miniature dresses, the artist was thrilled when Mattel came out with Barbie® Fashionistas™— dolls with a variety of more realistic figures. She enthusiastically replaced her scientifically impossible Barbies with a more curvaceous, proportionate model.
Tattershall does not become attached to her pieces, and says that she forgets about them when they go home to their owners. Her greatest feeling of accomplishment is when she takes an idea scribbled on paper and turns it into a finished sculpture.
“My favorite part is when I have a vision and I nail it,” she says.
There are no easy routes in Tattershall’s work. She polishes every inch of the metal dresses. She learned from her grandmother, a shopowner who sold men’s black tie attire, that the inside of a garment should be as beautiful as the outside. But there are plenty of functional details in Tattershall’s sculptures as well.
“All of my work requires a certain amount of engineering that people don’t see because pieces have to fit together, parts have to fit together, it has to be transportable; it just all has to work,” she explains.
Besides working on commissions year-round, Tattershall participates in juried fine art shows throughout the country, and has gained a steady following over the past sixteen years. Her collectors usually start out buying smaller works, which range in price from $75 to under $1,000, then save up for the full-size dress sculptures which cost between $3,500 and $10,000.
“They say, ‘Okay, I’m here. This year I’m doing it. I’ve watched you for so many years and I know I want one of your pieces.’”
For examples of Arabella Tattershall’s work and contact information, see arabellasmetal.com.