Front Royal artist Melissa Ichiuji poses by her sculpture titled “Goddess of the Burning House.” The sculpture is on display at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C. Rich Cooley/Daily
FRONT ROYAL – Over the past year, a giant steel goddess has been in the making behind the storefronts in downtown Front Royal.
In her studio space behind Wynn’s Restaurant in Front Royal, artist Melissa Ichiuji has been working on pieces for “Make You Love Me,” her first solo museum exhibit. “Make You Love Me” will be shown at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., through Dec. 18.
Ichiuji said restaurant patrons have often stopped to get a look at the eye-catching sculpture on their way in to eat while she has been working on it. Some come in to give her a hug and compliment her work and some have kept tabs on her progress.
“Goddess of the Burning House” will be the largest piece of hers on exhibit, though she said she didn’t intend for it to be any kind of centerpiece. At around 12 feet tall, the steel three-headed figure holds burning houses in her six hands, which glow yellow from the inside.
Ichiuji said she had the Hindu goddess Kali, associated with both destruction and creation, in mind when creating the sculpture. Three steel heads look to the past, present and future, and Ichiuji said she sees the statue as a “guardian of homeland security.” The goddess is also a contrast in medium from the other pieces in the exhibit.
The Petit Oracles – small figures housed in plush coffins – are another part of the “Make You Love Me”exhibit alongside the goddess statue. They’re made of ceramic pieces and heirloom fabrics from the women in Ichiuji’s family.
“I wanted to create a foil to that, to juxtapose the hard and the soft, the industrial with the domestic,” she said. “But the fun part is that I’m sort of beating (the statue) into a feminine shape.”
There’s also a personal connection with the statue – Ichiuji’s family home caught fire when she was 6, which she said contributed to a fear of fire.
“My way of conquering that is to work with fire,” she said.
Scattered through her workplace are steel scraps and tools for welding and hammering pieces of the goddess, her first steel sculpture. Further back in her studio space are mannequin pieces gifted from a closed Ann Taylor store and various parts made by Ichiuji’s father, who was a precision machinist for NASA — and all could become pieces of other statues in the future.
She said she’s networked with other local artists and craftsmen who have loaned their talent to the process or even taken one of her dollmaking classes.
“I think it’s refreshing for people to know that there are working artists here, and I think it’s important for us to sort of come out of hiding and just sort of invite each other in to each other’s practice,” she said.