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VOL. 116 | NO. 120 | Friday, June 21, 2002

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By RICK RUSSELL

Metal maven

By RICK RUSSELL

The Daily News

The most skilled artisans of our time all have an innate ability to animate the inanimate and turn nothing into something

Be it a boulder into a man, leaflets into a journey, paint strokes into a window of a dream, or in the case of Judy Wallace, an old house with a view into a world-renowned museum.

Wallace, assistant director and resident of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, announced she would retire June 30. Her 20 years there could be considered as unconventional and unique as the museum itself.

Fresh out of college, Wallace and two others were asked to volunteer at a little known shanty down by the river to help repair various metalworks.

The smithy (a workshop for blacksmiths) was in a little shack. There was no air-conditioning, Wallace said. The only thing here was this big desk.

While the smithy has since been considerably upgraded, the desk, appropriately known as a partners desk, remains a lasting and symbolic testament to the museums evolution, as well as Wallaces life.

Sharing the same determination and vigilance that makes the museum work, the man commonly referred to as Wally worked directly across from Wallace since 1982.

Judy and Wally, more formally as Jim Wallace, were married in 1987. Together, they surmounted periods of near financial collapse and many other obstacles capable of abruptly shifting the delicate balance between success and failure in unproven realms of the art world.

Nestled on 3.2-acres on the Mississippi, the museum has become the creme de la creme of metal museums. Complete with two floors of gallery space, 25 employees, numerous volunteers, workshops and a spectacular array of metallic forms fused and manipulated by some of the worlds finest craftsmen, the museum has effectively been fused by flame and forge into the Memphis art scene.

In addition to handling day-to-day operations, the Wallaces often brought prestigious metalsmiths from around the globe to their home, located on museum grounds.

There is nothing like sitting down to breakfast with three artists all speaking different languages, Judy Wallace said.

Wallaces dizzying hodgepodge of official duties at the museum range from typing lulling letters on her vintage typewriter to prospective philanthropists to organizing what will be the worlds only metal and metalcrafts library.

As testament to her determination to transform an idea into a thriving museum, one of her first official acts shortly after arriving at the museum was to appeal to the city council to have the name of the road changed from Delaware Avenue to Metal Museum Drive.

Many people had, and still have, a hard time finding us, but it is certainly much easier now.

While the museum now boasts an annual attendance of roughly 40,000, and an operating budget that has grown from $2,000 to half a million, Wallace said the museum attendance hinges on a logistical paradox.

I think we are more widely known in New Zealand than we are in Cordova, Wallace said. We have people coming from all over the world, but our home-based attendance is still a little low.

However, they are taking steps to attract more Memphians to the museum.

Wallace said they have acquired numerous works laden with gold and other precious metals, as well as gem-encrusted works to complement the more masculine array of huge heavy metal edifices.

We wanted to offer something for everybody, including the kids, Wallace said.

Today, Wallace continues the crusade with the same steely resolve and determination as she did 20 years ago, but after accomplishing the milestone of securing the future of the museum, Wallace said she is ready to move on to her next adventure set to begin at months end.

Im going to retire, move to a house on the White River in Arkansas, learn how to use a computer, and above all else, Im going fishing, Wallace said.

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