Major prize nod inspires local artist
Being a finalist in the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD; New York City) Burke Prize this fall was inspiring for Holland Houdek, a Rochester metalworker and professor with an unusual niche. She didn’t receive the prize, but her entry is in MAD’s Future of Craft, Part 2 exhibition and catalog.
The prize, which goes to a professional artist age forty-five or under working in glass, fiber, clay, metal, and/or wood, “reinforce[s] the museum’s commitment to celebrating the next generation of artists working in and advancing the disciplines that shaped the American studio craft movement.”
While Houdek has a split appointment as assistant professor of jewelry and metalsmithing and director of the art gallery at Nazareth College, she is known for her artwork based on medical devices and implants, appropriate given the Rochester area’s innovative medical community—her website says she focuses on “medical implants, the body, and embodied experience.”
The work Houdek developed for the Burke Prize was “hyperbolic.” “I started to reinvent and morph into creating my own body parts, similarly to the memento mori of the Victorian age,” she says.
Houdek earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2009 and her master’s in metalsmithing from Syracuse University in 2012. She developed her niche in medical art as a competitive gymnast: “That intense awareness of my body influenced me,” she recalls. As she focused on her art, “the next logical step was to move from making work representing outside the body to the internal.”
Partners such as the National Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, MedWish International, Cleveland Clinic, and individual doctors donate tools, implants, and surgical objects—hip replacements, joints, and more—that become works of art in Houdek’s hands.
Much of Houdek’s work has a lacelike appearance—it can be hard to tell what a piece represents or is based on—and pieces often evoke Far Eastern shapes such as pagodas and calligraphy letters. Her work is complex. “I can have thousands of stone settings” in a single piece she says. She also uses industrial felt and inks. But don’t be surprised if some pieces resemble medieval torture machines or present “somewhat menacing postures.” “I often feel I am a modern Mary Shelley, about to create Frankenstein,” she jokes. “I’m always playing with medical terminology and anatomy. Doctors get a chuckle (out of the results).”
Houdek finds it moving and inspirational “to hold these objects and feel the porosity of the metal” in hand fabricating works in sheet copper, which is vital both conceptually and literally. “Because these are for the body, it is important that my hand be on each piece,” she says. “I want viewers to consider what is adornment — that it can be not only jewelry on the body but also for inside the body.”
Making art from medical implants has its comic, even ironic, aspects: “I had to sign a form saying I would not sell donated objects on the black market, would not melt down objects, and would not use them in surgery!” While her pieces are anatomically correct, “they would kill you if implanted in your body.”
Making these objects brings enjoyment from “the stories that come with them about patients’ experiences with surgery and with implants,” she says. “That helps drive my work and keeps me going in this direction.”
Houdek likes to “make art and be an artist because I’m contributing to what’s happening now in the craft world for generations to come.” The Nazareth appointment is ideal because “that’s also why I love teaching.” She and her colleagues and students are “elevating contemporary craft —pushing boundaries between the functional and the decorative or artistic; incorporating new technologies and techniques. This is a good time for craft: We are establishing our work as fine art.”
As Houdek moves forward, “lots of people know I’m a metalworker, but I’m also seen as a sculptor. I want to push boundaries yet also stay true to my roots as a metalworker.”
For information about where Houdek has exhibited or been featured, her awards, and examples of her art, visit hollandhoudek.com or visit the Nazareth Art Gallery.
Freelance writer/editor and Rochester native Ruth E. Thaler-Carter recently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, but will maintain her ties to the local literary and arts community.