Sculptor Bella Feldman doesn't let her age stop her. The 80-year-old will display approximately 20 of her sculpture pieces at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art Nov. 19 through Dec. 30. Courtesy Photo.

The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) will welcome sculptures created by 80-year-old Bella Feldman Nov. 19 through Dec. 31. The glass and steel sculptures, which are from her “RPM” and “Reach” series, explore motion, size and balance.

A pioneer of fusing glass and steel, Feldman said she has been involved in art as far back as she can remember, starting when she attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City. Yet, at the time, women didn’t go to college to pursue an artistic career, she said.

“I didn’t pursue art when I went to college because I came from a working class family — girls didn’t go to college unless they were to learn a trade,” Feldmen said. “So I became a kindergarten teacher. And I did not start again — I always wanted to — until I was about 24.”

Her turning point was ignited by a miscarriage which led her to reconsider her path on an existential level, Feldman said.

“Even if it was impractical I was going to do it anyway,” Feldman said.

Since then, Feldman has taught mainly at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland as a professor of sculpture, as well as pursued dozens of both solo and group exhibitions. She’s also received seven awards, including the Distinguished Artist Award from the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. The prize from that award inspired her “RPM” series, which is comprised of two-dimensional steel wall hangings, Feldman said.

“The prize was for me to do some work at their shops and they would provide me an assistant,” she said. “And at that point I hadn’t done any two-dimensional work in years. I had these prints and they were really interesting looking, but they didn’t have enough content. But then I realized I’m not a print maker. I started cutting them up and using them in collages. I call them RPM because they come from the swirling of the grinder — and RPM is rotations per minute.”

Today, Feldman still creates, yet said she’s passed her days of welding. Because of this, Feldman hired personal assistant JP Long 10 years ago.

“She’s just been a fabulous mentor for me just in my work,” Long said.

Long said that when Feldman works on a piece, she walks him through her vision and continually makes adjustments as he fuses and welds.

“She’ll design a piece and then I’ll help her out in making it,” he said. “And as I’m working on it, she’ll make changes according to what she sees going on. It’s kind of a dialogue between her and I between the physicality of the work and her initial concept.”

Feldman, who has had numerous assistants over the years, said Long’s use of her studio and passion for his own art has helped sustain their partnership.

“Always as part of their salary, (the assistants) had permission to use the studio for their own work,” Feldman said. “And invariably, they did one or two pieces. But they couldn’t sustain a practice. JP is the first person to really use the studio.”

Feldman said she is thankful for Long’s help in giving body and life to her visions.

“He’s really my maker and he’s working right there in my studio and I’m directing and designing, but he’s actually the constructor,” Feldman said. “I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore if I didn’t have his assistance. We hit it off as if we’re practically peers. It’s an unusual relationship and I’m certainly grateful for it.”

It’s evident that Feldman’s grandiose sculptures need assistance in making, which stand upwards of six feet tall.

Assistant director of the SLOMA Muara Johnston said the exhibitions coordinator for the SLOMA Patrick Terjak saw her work in the Bay Area and had to have her come to San Luis Obispo.

“He was so blown away by it that he said ‘We need to get her here,’” Johnston said.

The museum will showcase about 20 of Feldman’s pieces, including large standing sculptures and wall hangings. Johnston said she’s astonished the work came from an 80-year-old woman.

“The craftsmanship in terms of her ability is exquisite,” Johnston said. “But it’s beyond that. It’s interesting how this 80-year-old woman is making such masculine large scale imposing sculptures. It’s like, where is that coming from?”

Johnston is fascinated with Feldman’s portrayal of movement and emotion, she said.

“If you look at the big ‘Reach’ pieces, they almost look like they should be rocking or moving,” Johnston said. “A small sculpture invites intimacy. These large sculptures are imposing. There almost borderline violent looking. They look like your could tilt them or rock them or almost hang off of them like a jungle gym.”

When asked where the inspiration comes from for these giant masculine structures, Feldman said it’s sort of become her train of thought.

“You live and you look and certain things really grab your attention and it comes out as art,” Feldman said. “People have asked me that, and in my case I’ve been working long enough that work tends to be a train of thought — one thing leads to another. The longer I work, the more readily the flow of one thing comes.”

Bella Feldman will be in attendance at her artist reception on Dec. 4 from 3 to 6 p.m. The SLOMA is free, open to the public and open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

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