The Art of Science: The Lure of Lead

Lead is heavy. Not just in terms of physical density, but also of cultural weight.  Malleable, ductile and resistant to corrosion, lead has been used for over 8,000 years for many purposes. The Romans, who gave the element its name (Pb, for plumbum) built their famous water and sewer system of lead pipes, and used it to make statues, sarcophagi, cooking pots, and wine vessels.   In the middle ages, lead was used in roofing and plumbing, as well as for statues and ornaments, including the strips joining the pieces of colored glass in church windows. Up until the 20th century, lead was still widely used in paint and solder and as an additive in fuel.

A material so commonly used inevitably left a mark on western culture.  An idea that falls with a thud is called a lead balloon. A driver who leans heavily on the gas has a lead foot.  A leaden sky is heavy and gray. And, because lead was used in bullets and shotgun pellets, when a person was shot, they “ate lead.”

Scientific advances over the last hundred years have brought about a massive change in our perception of lead as a material.  Although the negative effects of lead had long been suspected, by the turn of the 20th century it was clear that lead was highly toxic and that exposure to it had adverse effects on the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and the immune system. Lead was replaced with steel for most construction purposes and gradually removed from most fuels and paints.

For modern artists, this element of danger added to lead’s allure as a material.  Richard Serra, the best-known artist working with lead, worked in a steel mill as a young man. Among his early works from the late 1960s are sculptures he made by hurling molten lead at the corners of his studio and prying up the finished pieces. Intrigued by the physical properties of the metal, he later experimented with propping a large, flat sheet of lead against a wall with only a rolled lead sheet to hold it in place. The inherent instability of the construction combined with the toxicity of the metal gave these works a powerful aura of risk. (In fact, a worker was crushed during the installation of a Serra “steel prop” sculpture in 1971.)

British artist Cornelia Parker shows a completely different side of lead in her “Bullet Drawings” – delicate sculptures made of wire that has been stretched – drawn – out of old lead bullets.  Parker explains, “In the recent Bullet Drawings, bullets were melted down and drawn into wire, so they somehow became a trajectory of themselves. A bullet’s worth of lead wire was trapped between two sheets of glass and framed, where it looked like a pencil drawing. Perhaps the way that the piece of wire is fashioned is the intuitive part.  I like pushing materials that have symbolic meaning in society, stretching them to see how far they can go.”  (source)

A new and exciting talent working in lead is British sculptor Christina Ballard. Her lead pieces use the soft, heavy dullness of the metal to evoke geographic features like canyons, islands and cliffs.  One of her lead sculptures was recently selected for the prestigious Threadneedle prize, so her reputation and prices are sure to rise. For the moment, her beautiful work is an absolute bargain. (Christina Ballard Website)

Author: michelebanks1

Artist and blogger

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