“What people don’t realize is that the gel is epoxy,” Ally Silberkleit says, extending her turquoise fingernails in my direction. They look pretty good, save for the fully chipped-off pinkie nail.“It basically reinforces a layer on top of your nails, which is really good for me because I can’t break them as easily.”
For Silberkleit, 25, the occupational paint-chipping hazards are significantly higher than those of most manicure enthusiasts. She’s a full-time carpenter at the Smithsonian, responsible for helping to build displays that house all sorts of historical paraphernalia. She’s also a fine artist, which is how she got into carpentry. (And, incidentally, what brought her to Baltimore: She moved here after college in 2014, when she applied for the Sondheim award—having visited only once before. She was later named a semifinalist.)
“One of the central themes in my work is memory and recreating my memories exactly how I see them in 3D form,” she says. “It all comes down to me being the one who makes it—all of it. I force myself to create every aspect, to do the heavy lifting and use my hands … The work that I’m doing is part of the final product itself.”
Often, these fabricated memories take the form of places, like a childhood bedroom she built to scale using her current height, or the back of an old car of her late father’s that she’s never actually seen. The diorama-based works have required her to teach herself carpentry and furniture-making; aided by “a lot of YouTube,” she now does both professionally at the aforementioned Smithsonian shop and with her recently co-founded décor and housewares company, New Relic. She lives in Mount Vernon and teaches classes at Station North’s Tool Library, which she calls a “second home.”
“We joke about ‘mansplaining’ a lot in the Tool Library, but sometimes I find myself doing it,” she says. “I feel like there’s a part of me that feels like a little boy trying to assert himself. Because I’m a woman in a male-dominated field who’s forcing myself to learn these things, a lot of my recent art has to do with masculinity and my interpretation of it.”
The artist’s relationship with gender roles may be complex, but it’s playful, too. She regaled me with funny-yet-terrible tales of men’s reactions to her at Home Depot, particularly a time when she was buying lumber in a self-described “weird dress” and homemade “boob necklace.” She says the incident embarrassed her—and then forced her to reflect on why she felt that way.
“Sometimes, I’ll find myself hiding the art side of me so I can be taken seriously on the construction side,” she says, “though they’re both equally true. Part of me still feels weird about it … But if I felt like my art was easy, it probably wouldn’t be that important to be doing it.”