Woman of steel: Lily Erb’s unyielding approach to modern sculpture

Local artist Lily Erb has gained notice for her large steel rod sculptures which she calls “abstract organic.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist Local artist Lily Erb has gained notice for her large steel rod sculptures which she calls “abstract organic.” Photo: Courtesy of the artist

For Lily Erb, art mirrors life—but only to a certain extent.

The Charlottesville-born and -based artist creates large steel sculptures, most lately composed of numerous steel rods bent into gentle, repetitive curves, then spray-painted in bright, jovial colors. She calls her style “abstract organic” because the pieces don’t resemble actual organic objects. Instead she starts with the idea of natural forms, then follows that concept in a non-representational way.

Her work resembles mountain ridges, split seedpods, the (abstracted) contours of human bodies. “My first memory is not being able to sit on my mom’s lap because she was pregnant with my sister,” she says. “Maybe that has something to do with [my fascination with] fullness and space, because I didn’t know what was in her stomach. I was like, ‘Why can’t I sit here?’”

There is a lot of empty space in her 3-D works, which cover walls and fill rooms without smothering them. “I like making space and I like filling space, but I also like being able to see everything. Something about being able to see every section of a piece is helpful to me,” she says.

Erb began sculpting in college after she signed up for what she thought was a sewing class. But Women’s Fabrication turned out to be a toned-down version of shop class, “more of a safe space to first learn the equipment as opposed to being around all the guys who are making cars and taking up a lot of space with their macho attitudes,” she says.

But from those first sparks, Erb was hooked. “I did torch welding, which is just really hot fire. I would start out with these long straight pieces—I was using coat hangers at that point—to make these forms that are very organic and immediate.”

Her first sculptures were pregnant torsos. Then she made one out of steel. Just like that, she created a structure with volume and emptiness, an absent vessel.

For the first time, Erb began to think of herself as an artist. Sculpting steel lines around what wasn’t there turned her attention to other voluminous organic forms—the contour lines of topography, specifically, and what might lie beneath them.

Erb began to wonder what the inside of a mountain might look like after a summer art course in The Burren, Ireland, “which has all this limestone rock that had been eroded away. It’s sort of like looking at a mountain range uncovered, but 6″ tall.” She also began sculpting abstract mountain ranges that reminded her of home.

Welding is a bit of a lonely business for women, as Erb quickly discovered. “There were women who really liked the class but didn’t end up continuing [to go to the shop] because it’s an intimidating space,” she says. “I just happened to be extremely stubborn, like ‘I’m going to show these people.’”

Show them she did. After college, she spent time in an artist’s residency in Tennessee, then came back to Charlottesville to work in Lauren Hanley’s steel fabrication shop in exchange for studio space.

Eventually Erb bought her own machine, and now she bends steel as much as possible. She sold 30 small sculptures through The Bridge PAI’s 2014 Community Supported Art program, and her work has exhibited all over Charlottesville.

She says it’s fun to be a woman who welds, that her craft feels important in part because “it’s not a skill people often think of women having.”

She no longer fields classroom machismo, but the surprise of strangers can get her hackles up. “I’ll go to pick up my steel and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to bring that in? Is someone going to be there to help you unload it when you get back?’” she says. “Like, ‘No. I’ll be okay. I have muscles.’”

But she goes on to quote Tina Fey: “‘If someone’s in between you and where you want to be in your job, just ignore them and keep going.’ I just ignore them and try not to get angry about it. That’s just part of the game, and I’m still making my art.”

In essence, Erb’s role as a female sculptor plays the same part as her work. Both present the question, in abstract: What truths exist beyond what we see?

“There’s a potential for growth in a seedpod,” she says. “Most vessels contain things that have energy. It’s in this little package, like an egg or an acorn, to help something continue on in its life.”

View and purchase Lily Erb’s work currently on display at tavola’s cicchetti bar, 826 Hinton Ave.