GV Professor powers through grief in metalsmith exhibition

Ayron Rutan, Staff Writer

GVL / Rachel Slomba

Grief is a universal emotion. It’s felt and experienced by every living person at some point in their lifetime. To explore this incredibly complex idea is the mission of Grand Valley State University professor Renee Zettle-Sterling and company with their upcoming metalsmith exhibition “Sorrow/Fullness: A Reflection on Mourning,” which will be showcased Thursday at the Haas Center for Performing Arts Gallery. 

With the help of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania professor Sue Amendalara and studio artist Adrienne Grafton, “Sorrow/Fullness” will feature metalsmithing works that are meant to represent and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed on. 

This collaboration was born out of a 20-plus-year friendship between the three artists, as Zettle-Sterling studied under the tutelage of Amendalara while attending graduate school at EU, where Grafton was an undergraduate student at the time. 

All three artists have dealt with loss and grief over the past 20 years and have developed work surrounding the difficult emotion during their careers. In order to come together to create something even more meaningful, the three metalsmiths decided to join forces for “Sorrow/Fullness.” 

“We realized we were making similar work and decided to make a proposal for an exhibition at the Erie Art Museum,” Zettle-Sterling said. “It’s about our own personal losses and it speaks universally. We’re all coming from different perspectives and different stages of grief.” 

After a brief conversation with Nathan Kemler and Joel Zwart of the GVSU Art Gallery Team, the exhibition was on its way to Allendale. 

Grief is a very personal and meaningful topic to Zettle-Sterling, who lost her brother, Tommy, in 2002 in an unfortunate hunting accident. Since then, loss has been an important inspiration for her work. 

“After Tommy died it took a couple years for me to process it and then I started making work about it,” Zettle-Sterling said. “I started to use his clothes by making quilts out of them for my family and when I saw that it brought them comfort I realized that this was really powerful.”

Zettle-Sterling’s work in “Sorrow/Fullness” shows her expanding on her previous work, exploring the kinds of emotions and connections someone experiences while grieving. 

“I started thinking about relationships formed and lived and the people in my life,” Zettle-Sterling said. “I wanted to start coming out of the grief and talk about those ideas, and focus on the living. In the show you’ll see a lot of cast hands from my son and I and my husband and I.”

Much of Zettle-Sterling’s work in the exhibition is also inspired by generations of the past, where she pays tribute to the grieving process of those from the Victorian era through the use of different colors associated with mourning. 

“When someone died (during the Victorian era) they went into deep grief and they dressed all in black from their clothing to their jewelry,” Zettle-Sterling said. “I love that idea because when someone was sad, you knew they were mourning, and as they progressed out of that state they would transition into deep shades of lavender and grey and so this project is me moving out of that place of grief.”

The materials used in “Sorrow/Fullness” are also something very important to Zettle-Sterling.

“My undergraduate degree is in fibers and papermaking,” Zettle-Sterling said. “For the project I’m casting paper pulp molds of my hands and it’s really interesting how much it captures. It can actually capture your fingerprints.”

Zettle-Sterling hopes that those who come to see the exhibition are inspired to talk more openly about grief and loss and ultimately process losing loved ones in a much more positive and celebratory way. 

“Sorrow/Fullness: A Reflection on Mourning” will be on full display at the Haas Center for Performing Arts Gallery Thursday, Jan 20 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information about the event and the artists behind the project, visit the GVSU Art Gallery webpage here