Sarah Elizabeth Harling has three identities: She’s a model, actress and sculptor. Her chosen medium is iron, so Harling has worked in some gritty settings, pouring molten metal into molds. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute with degrees in Fine Arts and Sculpting, Harling is currently seeking a grant to research the history of Forest Park’s most famous statue: The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis. The statue, which is now on display at the Smithsonian, once sat in a Clark Street bar and Harling wants to shed some light on Cleo’s “Saloon Period.”
The grant is part of her effort to give voice to woman artists like Lewis. She noted that for many years it was difficult for women to establish themselves in the male-dominated world of fine art. Artist Claude Monet infamously said that women shouldn’t be artists at all.
Sculpting in metal has also traditionally been considered a masculine environment. This doesn’t faze Harling, who once worked in a foundry in Harvey. “It was an industrial foundry,” she recalled, “where I poured metal for bushings and bearings they use for ships and oil refineries.” She learned to drive a forklift, hoisting 800-pound pieces of stock metal.
Harling worked alongside a metalworker who had toiled in foundries his whole life, with the exception of his service in Vietnam. “He was a huge inspiration,” she recalled. “He didn’t have much formal education but knew how to work with metal.” Harling later used the skills she learned there to teach Beginning Foundry at her alma mater.
With friends, she traveled all over the country pouring metal. She constructed her own portable furnace, which they use for competitions, sponsored by the National Conference of Cast Iron Artists. She has gone from Wisconsin to Alabama to attend these conferences. Her six-person, mostly female, crew recently won an award for “Hottest Metal” at a conference.
Harling’s crew felt vindicated after their 3,000-degree furnace produced a 2,400 degree piece of metal.
“We got heckled in the beginning,” Harling recalled. “They told us our furnace wouldn’t work.” However, Harling had designed and built the furnace based on an industrial furnace from the foundry. “I also learned a lot of trade secrets from commercial foundries.”
It’s an unusual hobby, she admits, traveling to these competitions. “We call them ‘vacation pours.’ We’re the only people crazy enough to drive hours to do hard work.” She likes working with a team because otherwise she’s competing with these same people for jobs, grants and exhibit space. Besides, unlike painting, her form of art requires help. “It takes at least two people to pour metal,” she noted. She also has a mentor who helps her with commissions.
Harling’s creations range from realistic sculptures of horses to more abstract pieces. One of her works is titled “Hiraeth.”
“It’s a Welsh word for homesickness for a place you can never return,” she said. The piece consists of two standard-sized bed pillows, one with a head indent, the other without. “I can lay my head in the indent and leave an ‘impression.'”
Cast iron is very reactive. “Touching it permanently alters it,” she said, “like touching a person.” The moisture from a thumbprint initiates the decomposition of metal by accelerating rust, another quality she likes about cast iron.
One of Harling’s projects involved casting apples with beeswax candles stuck on top. The piece has multiple meanings. “The apple represents health and Original Sin. I’m taking back the imagery that was used against women. While candles can be spiritual, festive, or soothing.” It sends a positive message: “Lighting a candle for the future.”
Although she is a feminist, Harling rejects the portrayal of feminists as angry women. She believes it’s necessary for women to be assertive because otherwise, “It’s harder to be taken seriously.” Harling knows this firsthand from giving presentations with a male sculptor. When people ask questions, they tend to address them to her male friend. He is very supportive, though, and quickly tells them Harling has been pouring metal longer than he has.
“Metalworking and welding has far more men, than women,” Harling noted, “but women are getting a foothold through the art world.” She is proud of recently earning her American Welding Society certification, but admits that welding and working in foundries is dangerous, dirty work. To provide splash protection from the molten metal, Harling wears leather, which causes the liquid to bounce off.
She also wears a hard hat with a metal steel mesh screen that reflects the furnace heat from her face and leather motorcycle boots to protect her feet. Even with all of this safety gear, little droplets of molten metal get through the protective clothing. “We get some burn marks from splashes,” Harling noted. “We call them iron kisses.”
She began life in Evanston Hospital, the descendant of three ethnic identities: German, Irish and Native American. She believes the latter gave her a love of nature and animals. Harling, who is crazy about horses, believes her varied background has informed her work. “I have three different paths to my heritage,” she observed.
Her path thus far has taken her from Barrington, where she fist poured metal in high school, to Chicago. At 18, she began living in the city while studying at the Art Institute. In 2013, she and her husband, Jorge Borda, bought a house in Forest Park. Though new to town, the couple cares deeply about their adopted community.
They supported local candidates for the Proviso school board in the recent election. They participate in Historical Society events. Harling plans to donate her time and energy to an upcoming community art exhibit in the society’s home at First United Church of Christ.
The couple is thoroughly charmed by Forest Park and enjoy living a short walk from Madison Street. When she was starting her Edmonia Lewis project, Harling first approached the Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore. The owner contacted the Historical Society and that evening Harling and her husband dined with a volunteer from the society at Brian Boru.
He allowed her to borrow part of their Lewis collection, and she used the information for an event promoting Lewis at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Harling has no plans to move to the Big Apple, however. Instead, she has been learning German for three years in preparation for moving to Berlin to attend graduate school.
Among her many talents, she is also a good dancer. But saying that she’s a welder/dancer sounds too much like a certain Hollywood movie.