When Maureen Drdak set out to learn the ancient technique of Nepalese repoussé metalwork — hammering a sheet of metal from both sides to shape it — she thought it would be a walk in the park. After all, Drdak, a visual artist now based in Ardmore, had been painting all her life.
“I thought, ‘How difficult can hammering metal be? I’m really great at what I do,’” Drdak said.
She sought out one of the world’s great masters, Rabindra Shakya, in Nepal. “I showed Rabindra the forms I wanted to do, and he said, ‘OK, maybe you should just practice making a line on a piece of copper.’”
Drdak picked up a hammer and sat down at the anvil to try. Within minutes, she realized making a straight line was nearly impossible because it required “a lot of skill, a lot of energy, knowledge of application of force, and an intuitive sense of where everything was.” Drdak did not have any of those qualities.
“In that moment, all my hubris was revealed to me,” she said. “I went home and cried for 48 hours. And then I said to myself, ‘Buckle up, Maureen’ before heading back to study with them.”
That was in 2009. A decade later, Drdak is the only American artist who has trained firsthand with Shakya, thanks to a Fulbright grant she received in 2011. Her artwork now combines repoussé metalwork and contemporary painting, featuring vivid swaths of colors and swirling pieces of glowing copper.
Her pieces frequently deal with themes in nature. Her current series, Ardens Mundi, seeks to convey a sense of urgency about global warming.
“The Himalayas are called the ‘Third Pole,’” she said, “because it’s the third-fastest site of global warming. Every time I return after 12 months of being away, I can see changes in the environment. There’s less snow on the mountains. The glaciers are receding very rapidly. Monsoons have become unpredictable.”
One of Drdak’s pieces is currently on view at Hot.Bed Gallery on Chestnut Street as part of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ annual juried alumni exhibition. (Drdak graduated from PAFA in 1975.)
“Maureen’s work is pretty striking,” said James Oliver, who curated the exhibition. “It’s evocative and has a lot of movement, representing the fluidness of life and how things are created. It has that sense of adventure in it.”
Drdak first encountered repoussé artwork during a vacation to the Kali Gandaki Gorge with her husband in 2005. While there, she was captivated by copper ornaments at the entrances to palaces and temples called toranas that were made using repoussé, then gilded.
“Some of the gold had eroded away so the copper came through,” Drdak said. “It immediately struck me as being very painterly.”
After she came home, Drdak began to research repoussé. When she returned to Nepal a few years later, she went with the intention to build bridges between the traditional art and her contemporary work. Shakya struggles to find artisans who are willing to continue the practice, she said, and was open to her ideas.
“Maureen has mastered [repoussé] technically as well as the spirit of the medium,” said Lisa Hanover, former executive director at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. “That’s what makes her work so successful. When you have that fabulous technical acuity and intellectual approach, you can be a very successful artist.”
Repoussé metalwork is so difficult because it’s an extremely unforgiving, labor-intensive process. (The most famous example of a repoussé artwork is the Statue of Liberty, which features 80 tons of copper sheet hand-hammered into thin pieces.)
Drdak’s artworks take her months to complete. In order to manipulate the copper pieces into her desired shapes, she has to hammer them using various anvils. After a certain amount of hammering, the copper’s molecular structure goes into disarray. (Drdak said she listens for that point because the metal begins to sound like it’s “whining.”)
When that happens, Drdak takes the piece of metal outside and puts it into a propane-fueled fire, where it turns black. She then submerges the piece in an acid bath to clean it before taking it back to the anvil and repeating the process. After Drdak is finished hammering the copper pieces, she nails them to a wooden panel and adds thick layers of paint to complete the work.
“If you’re making a sculpture or statue from bronze or metal, you’re usually working with a model made out of malleable material made from wax or clay,” Drdak said. “You can correct the mold. Even after you cast the material, you can correct certain issues. But with repoussé, you’re working on the finished piece, stretching it and compressing it. It requires you to be a master of the tools immediately.”
But that doesn’t mean she has mastered the technique.