DONNA McCULLOUGH remembers waking up one day deciding she had to learn how to weld. As a child she was impressed by the Degas dancer she’d seen at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then in the 1980s fell in love with Deborah Butterfield’s larger-than-life bronze horses. Welding was a means to an end — sculpting metal.
So, McCullough, who has been a graphic designer in the advertising department of The Washington Post since 1989, went part-time in 1995 to take general sculpture classes, learning to work in clay, wood and steel at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
Her first piece was a life-size dog named Rudi, a memorial to her beloved German shepherd. She still sculpts animals, but her work, which she calls a three-dimensional diary, is primarily fashion-focused.
“On a personal level, [fashion] has become my creative vehicle for exploring the emotional roller coaster of life,” says McCullough. Her inspiration comes from the dichotomy between the perception of women as fragile, delicate creatures and the reality of their strength. The sculptures, which are about 56 inches high, are crafted of steel and embellished with flourishes of wire mesh, screening, cut-outs and bits of found objects.
When her grandmother and aunts passed away the same year, McCullough looked for a way to honor their memory. “They all grew up on farms in Montgomery County and were great cooks who were always canning fruit from their big gardens.” Using canning as a theme for the series (which she named the Jones Girls because one of the tin cans she used to create it had Jones written on it), McCullough made fabric for their dresses out of food tins that she cut into strips.
When a curator in Texas was putting together art related to the Lone Star State, McCullough found some vintage 5-gallon oil cans and made dresses that “looked like vintage cheerleader outfits.” She calls that series “The Drill Team.” In deference to where she lives — in central Maryland, near Morgan Run — her newest work has a water theme. She created Betty by the Bay for her mother, Betty, who lives on Kent Island and loves the water.
Expressions in contrasts of light and heavy, supple and rigid, McCullough’s wardrobe of dresses telegraphs the artist’s vision of the female personality.
See McCulllough’s work up close locally:
In a group show, “Altered Ego,” at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts (1632 U Street NW) through August 23.
In “The Grace of Craft, at Washington Art Works (12276 Wilkins Avenue, Rockville) through the end of June.