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"Poison Ivy" climbs 26 feet in the Kreeger Museum’s sculpture garden.

Among Dalya Luttwak’s monumental works in Italy, "Root of Sweet Potato" clings to the ancient walls of Sicily’s Castello Lanza Branciforte.

"Root in Rosso Puro" scales three stories on Palazzo Morgagni in central Rome.

"Unearthing the Roots" radiated out from a tree in a 2021 installation at Maryland’s Sandy Spring Museum.

"Still Life" arises in the artist’s Chevy Chase garden.

In her stone-walled studio, Dalya Luttwak stands watch over an exuberant work in progress. Photo: Bob Narod

Taking Root

Painted-steel sculptures by Dalya Luttwak spring from nature’s buried treasures

Dalya Luttwak had just returned from the installation opening for her latest sculpture on Palazzo Morgagni in central Rome. Scaling three stories on that noble façade, Root in Rosso Puro presents a brilliant-red, naturalistic contour against the palace’s golden masonry. Closer to home, another of her larger-than-life sculptures animates the Kreeger Museum sculpture garden. Viewed from the gallery’s terrace one wintry day, its sunny-yellow form appeared to dance up a distant tree. On closer look, Poison Ivy’s smooth, painted-steel surface contrasted boldly with the rough, weathered bark of an aged oak. Far overhead, its ancillary rootlets mingled with the tree’s upper branches—art and nature outlined against a milky sky.

Back in the living room of her Chevy Chase, Maryland, home, Luttwak discusses the major theme of her art. “I like the idea of uncovering roots, taking them out of the ground, revealing what nature chose not to show,” the sculptor says. Long before shaping these forms, she collected root specimens found on neighborhood walks or dug up in her garden. 

One day while disposing of a late-summer basil plant, she noticed its distinctive root nodules. “Plants have such different root systems; some are fantastic looking,” she points out. “I was inspired, but didn’t do anything with it. ‘Nature is so perfect,’ I thought, ‘Who am I to even try to make anything like it?’” 

Then, in 2006, she did just that. After only two attempts, Luttwak recalls, “I immediately knew that this was mine. I’m not copying nature; my aim is to create interesting visual effects for the viewer.” 

At that stage, her metal-working skills had advanced. Since first taking metal classes at Montgomery College 15 years earlier, she had been designing and making one-of-a-kind silver and gold jewelry, along with pewter vessels and Judaica.

Deciding to scale up in 2006, she began to work in steel. Heating and connecting two pieces using that material produces a blobby residue, which typically is removed as an error. In her sculptures, it remains. “For root systems,” she observes, “the more weld-building that shows, the more organic and natural it looks.”

Luttwak’s works, both outdoors and in, are intended for specific sites, from the 100-foot-wide Root of Sweet Potato that courses 30 feet down the stone walls of a Sicilian castle to the attenuated, branch-like structures, echoed as shadows against the white walls of a residence in Israel. 

Whenever possible, the artist begins by taking a photo of the location, printing it out and hand-drawing the sculpture on top. Designs are often constructed in her light-filled basement studio. Starting with at least five steel rods of different dimensions, she cuts them to size, heats them up in her studio forge and, once malleable, shapes them on an anvil. When the steel is red-hot, “it’s as soft as butter,” she says. “But you don’t have much time; steel becomes hard very quickly.” Formed pieces are then fused together by welding.

Each sculpture is composed in sections. For works that are too heavy, too awkward or too big to handle, the sculptor heads to Metal Specialties in Spencerville, Maryland, for help with fabrication and installation.

Since first presenting her work at the 2011 International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, she has received five public and private commissions in Italy, with more underway. 

Luttwak’s ongoing fascination with roots may have been instilled early on. She was born on a kibbutz in Israel’s Upper Galilee, in a valley of relatively plentiful flora and fauna. Later attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she studied law before transitioning to art history and political science. “Basically,” she remembers, “I always wanted to be an artist.” A part-time job guiding visitors through the Israel Museum’s ceremonial art collection enhanced her appreciation for these historical metal forms. She met her husband in Jerusalem; the couple moved to Washington in 1972 when he pursued a doctorate. 

Luttwak starts a piece by researching root systems online, unearthing their structures and exposing their hidden meanings. In Roots of Winter Wheat, a series exhibited at the World Bank, four sculptures illustrate an entire life cycle. “As the plant’s energy moves from the roots to the flowers,” she reflects,“its roots shrink. We don’t see that the roots are dying, but they are.” Her interpretation: “When we see something that is at its peak, something else has to give.”

In the sculptor’s front garden, several pieces once exhibited around the region are now on display. A cluster of bright-orange mangrove roots shoots from the earth like joyous trumpeters blaring. The long, lively Alfalfa Root at 4.5 Months ascends a huge evergreen.

Luttwak remarks, “Sometimes from inside the house, I see people stop and ask themselves, ‘What’s going on? Is it real? What is it?’” Brightening, she adds, “I like the process the viewer goes through—noticing the sculpture, thinking it’s like nothing they’ve seen before, then moving closer. I want people to stop and look and try to figure it out.

For more information, visit dalyaluttwak.com. 

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