marguerite eilliot with a sculpture

Taking On a Towering Issue

How one alum welds together feminism, environmentalism,

and social justice in her art

By Marguerite Elliot ’71

It’s been an honor to have three of my environmentally themed “Sentinel” sculptures installed at Pitzer. Fifty-plus years ago, I lived in Holden Hall in my freshman and sophomore years, so it is now very fitting that my sculptures are standing on that space, which is now Holden Garden.

When I was an undergraduate, we didn’t have an art department. But being part of The Claremont Colleges still gave us an opportunity to study at other schools in the consortium. At the time a member of the Scripps faculty was Paul Soldner, one of the great ceramicists of the 20th century. His work emerged as ceramics was moving from a craft to an art. I had a chance to study with him.

I soon became entranced by ceramics. The transformation of wet malleable earth into a solid form was life changing. The intense heat of the gas-fired kiln changed the chemistry of the clay and made it rock hard. Today, I work with steel. The 3200 degrees Fahrenheit temperature of my welding torch makes the steel soft and malleable. Remove the heat and, voilà, it’s rock solid again! I was in love with the transformative process.

“Welding has always been treated as a man’s job. But every time I work with an electric welder, gas torch, and heavy steel, I feel that I’m making a statement. I see it as feminist art.”

–Marguerite Elliot ’71

After graduating, I immersed myself in the feminist art movement in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and created large-scale public installations at prominent locations including City Hall, all of which garnered widespread media coverage.

Today, living in Northern California, I’ve become a welder and create large-scale environmentally themed public art. Taking art out of the gallery makes it available to everyone.

  • Marguerite Elliot Sentinal Sculpture in Holden Garden
  • Marguerite Elliot Sentinal Sculpture with McConnell Hall in the background

The sentinels in Holden Garden are part of the “Sentinels: Protectors of Wild and Beautiful Places” series. They stand watch and witness what is happening to our environment. Five years ago, when I was an artist in residence staying in the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, I learned that the Arctic was warming much faster than the rest of the planet. I took a three-day solo drive to the farthest reaches of Finland and Norway. I drove through miles and miles of vast forests, marshes, and wildlands. No towns, no other cars, nothing. I realized I was totally dependent on cell phone towers and the GPS on my phone to guide me. My sentinels were inspired by the cell phone towers we are so dependent on. They reflect the precarious interface between technology and the environment. For example, the golden flame sitting atop one of the Holden Garden sentinels represents the tragedy of our recent wildfires in California and now all over the earth. The flame also stands for hope and purification.

Artist Marguerite Elliot welds in her studio

At Pitzer I learned to combine activism with art. And even though I didn’t start welding until much later in my career, I can still find a connection between my welding work and my Pitzer experiences. Welding has always been treated as a man’s job. But every time I weld steel, I feel that I’m making a statement. I see it as a feminist act. Activism and art go hand in hand, and in sculptures like my sentinels, the many kinds of activism that are important to me—feminism, women’s rights, environmental and social justice—have come together thanks to heavy steel, a torch, and the transformative power of fire.

Marguerite Elliot ’71 is a Bay Area sculptor. Works from her “Sentinels” series are installed in Pitzer’s Holden Garden through June 2024.