Enameled cast iron sculpture, embellished with copper and bronze
Opera Omaha 22/23 Artist in Residence, Lee Emma Running


I was invited to be an artist in residence with Opera Omaha for the 2023 season. I would observe opera production during rehearsal, backstage, and from multiple vantage points in the audience. I began by investigating the myriad of handmade objects and garments that create the world the opera singers inhabit. Artisans construct objects to fit the pitch of a stage, and garments are re-tailored for specific bodies, at a specific time. I’m a sculptor, and my work often focuses on the properties of a given material. A garment built with seams designed for alteration had broad resonance. What if not only garments but cities, systems, and culture were designed with change in mind?

Early on, I spent an afternoon in the costume collection of the opera, looking for a coat. The room was filled, floor to ceiling, with garments printed and woven with botanicals and metallic threads. I found a tailcoat that had different linings and complicated shoulder seams. Turning it inside out revealed the evidence of how it was made, and I knew that I wanted it to inform my sculpture.

In January of 2023, Kohler Co., in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, granted me a dream residency in their Arts/Industry Foundry program. This residency invited me to create art using the processes of enameled cast iron sinks and bathtubs. This was an incredible resource, and with the support of the foundry associates and Arts/Industry technician, I knew I could cast the Opera Coat in iron, at full scale.

I learned about how the coat was made by taking it apart. Remaking this garment in iron presented an opportunity to embellish and change the material's surface. To do this I used enamel, which begins as powdered glass.

By enameling the coat, I created a shiny surface that would be stunning from the stage. My work has always referenced the local natural world, and I filled the coat with botanical symbols of love and death from opera. I traced wild roses and deadly nightshade directly from specimens in the Nebraska State Herbarium that I then leafed with a thin layer of copper to catch the light.

Les Bruning’s Foundry in Omaha, where the Opera Coat was assembled, cast the seams in bronze. The experts at Kaneko installed the sculpture, and Opera Omaha Staff designed the lighting.

Many hands and minds have supported the ideation and fabrication of this sculpture. By turning this coat inside out, we see not only the evidence of the tailors who constructed the original garment but also the specificity of the material of raw cast iron, the detail captured in the bronze seams, and the weave of the fabric. Inside the coat the glass and copper surface of the enamel is luminous. I desire that this sculpture reminds us of the many hours, hands, craftspeople, designers, experts, and dreamers at the heart of cultural production.