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Metalwork and molds: MIAD alum on Kohler Residency

Eye-opening and awe-inspiring: this is how Nirmal Raja ’08 (Painting) describes learning to work with liquid metal. The Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) alum recently completed the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Arts/Industry Residency in Kohler, Wisconsin.

The Kohler Arts/Industry Residency accepts up to twelve applicants per year to develop their practice and work alongside factory associates in the Kohler forge or pottery. Artists do not need to have prior experience with either metalwork or clay. The residency attracts artists both nationally and internationally and encourages creatives to explore new ways of thinking and working.

For Raja, the impact of the residency was profound. Work that she made during the 2023 residency is currently on view at Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art until March 9, 2024. “Grace and Grit” explores themes of global movement, memory, loss, and the resilience of women under the weight of patriarchy. An artist talk is scheduled for Saturday, February 24, 2024 at 5 p.m.

Apart from producing a large body of work, Raja gained skills that she will continue to use in her artistic practice, from metalworking to power tools. “I had not used power tools so extensively, not since my graduation from MIAD after the 3D Concepts course!” says Raja, who used these tools to create mold boxes for metal pouring. “That immense amount of knowledge was really cool to gain in a three-month concentrated period of work,” she says.

“Grace and Grit” features sculptural works, as well as video installations and photographs of the factory windows printed on silk. Many of the installations reference the experiences of women in India. “I still have family in India, my mother lives there,” says Raja, who visits at least twice a year. “I always come back inspired. I was in India till my late teens … It is definitely part of me. I’ve lived in this country longer than I’ve lived in India. But still, it influences me because my formative years were there and I travel there often.”

When Raja moved to the United States in 1991, she started coursework at MIAD. “I believe I got a fantastic, solid first-year experience before I had to move away to the East Coast,” she says. After several years, Raja returned to MIAD to finish her degree, graduating in 2008. She remains connected to the college, often visiting to offer guest critiques and serve on thesis committees. “I really enjoy attending lectures by visiting artists who are nationally renowned,” Raja continues. “These are always inspiring!”

Reflecting on MIAD’s 50th anniversary, Raja appreciates the college’s commitment to providing scholarships for students to attend. “It’s such a wonderful cultural and educational institution situated right downtown, in the middle of everything!,” she says. “Very much part of the creative community here.”

In addition to her solo exhibition at Portrait Society Gallery, Raja is showing work in a group exhibition at the South Asia Institute in Chicago as part of The Paglees, a feminist collective of artists of South Asian origin living across the United States. “The Paglees: Between Reason and Madness” is on display until April 27, 2024.

Keep up with Raja on her website and learn more about MIAD’s 50th anniversary at 50.miad.edu.

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