Ocean State of the Arts: The Steel Yard’s Winter Residency Exhibition brings a human touch to industrial materials

“You Left an Impression” (L) and “Maybe We’ll Be Free” (R) by Trae Brooks. (Photos by Gina Lerman)

I enter the Pawtucket Art Collaborative‘s gallery in Lorraine Mills and look at the art filling the room. It’s still early in the evening and the show’s energy is beginning to buzz. It doesn’t take long for Islay Taylor, The Steel Yard‘s associate director, to introduce herself. Taylor is friendly, despite the air of danger her gold shark tooth jewelry exudes. (“This is what happens when your partner is a jeweler,” she laughs when I compliment the pieces.) She explains that The Steel Yard’s residency program offers tools and support for artists to explore the industrial arts – blacksmithing, welding, ceramics, and jewelry. The residencies vary from a few months to a few years. In order for the residencies to be accessible to all kinds of artists, they are offered free of charge. Some artists even receive a stipend for their work.

Delicate ceramic cups featuring girls at play, running greyhounds, and floral motifs by Nyala Honda catch my eye. Nearby are Harry Cassell’s ritual artifacts with gorgeous glazes in blues, greens, and earthy browns. She lovingly characterizes them as “altars to the natural world.” Ti Dinh also evokes altars with grief unburned, which asks viewers to place an upright stick of incense in a sculpted vessel. But rather than honoring the dead as this custom normally does, the artist invites us to think of living people we have loved and lost.

Finding myself drawn deeper into the gallery, I gravitate to a trio of mysterious objects arranged in a bed of ultrafine jet-black slag on a low pedestal. Michelle Jiaxin Huang’s Instruments for Arrival includes a narrow brass instrument, an open cylindrical shell, and a carved wooden box topped with a copper plate of twinned oval molds. The scene brings to mind charred earth and tools of unknowable purpose, left behind after an otherworldly visit.

L to R: “Tree Which Waters Itself” by Harry Cassell; “Instruments for Arrival” and metal etching by Michelle Jiaxin Huang

Huang explains that her pieces are meant to take us out of everyday existence into “eternal return;” the philosophical concept that time is an infinitely repeating loop. Her Departure Chair is what launches us into this new space, and the Instruments for Arrival are part of our enigmatic initiation.

Now properly initiated, I am beckoned to the back corner of the gallery by a strong arm. This arm is built from welded-together fragments and is half of a pair that triumphantly holds broken chains. On the ground below, two metal feet stand with calves that terminate in brown shoots of grass. A huge central portrait anchors the limbs, lending the pieces a sense of bodily completeness. Its canvas is scraps of sheet metal in varying shades of rust and its lines are sketchy slices on the surface.

Trae Brooks is the artist behind these sculptures. Newly arrived in RI from CT, he tells me about his foundational studies in painting and his introduction to welding at a makerspace in Hartford, CT. The piece You left an impression on me depicts Brooks’ uncle, and is a continuation of his portraits that explore family narratives and identity. Brooks describes his use of found materials as emerging from a feeling of being left behind and not cared for. He aims to recontextualize the oxidized scraps of metal and dried, dead foliage; imbuing them with the warmth and vitality of what Brooks refers to as “the Black Spirit.”

The artworks in this show are eclectic, as different from each other as each of the nine featured artists. What they share is a sense of curiosity about ourselves and our world. The playful touch of the human mind and hand brings clay and metal to life. This exhibition closed with an artist talk on January 18, but there will be more opportunities to see this cohort’s work this summer – exact date and location to come.

Sign up for updates about the residency program and other public offerings at contact-us. The Steel Yard also offers classes and workshops. For more info, go to