Short and slight, Joyce McDaniel welded powerful steel sculptures, and also created works that were as brittle as they were memorable.
Welding was among the classes she taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where she gathered students in a basement studio that was equipped with a safety shower and an emergency eye wash station.
“It’s hot, heavy, noisy, and intimidating,” she told a class in 1996 as she demonstrated the tools of the trade: a helmet, goggles, thick leather gloves, and the all-important welding torch.
“The first time you light a torch and that flame shoots out,” she said, “you think, ‘Oh, my God.’ "
A role model and mentor for women sculptors in welding’s male-dominated ranks, Ms. McDaniel died Feb. 3 of complications from COVID-19 in the Bridges by EPOCH at Mashpee assisted living facility.
She was 84 and previously had lived for many years in her artist’s studio in the Distillery building in South Boston.
During Ms. McDaniel’s more than three decades on the Museum School’s faculty, it seemed as if she had taught welding sculpture “forever,” said Sally S. Fine, a sculptor and longtime friend. “That’s not something a faint-hearted woman does.”
A founder of the Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery, Ms. McDaniel also crafted sculptures from dressmaking patterns and sometimes combined the fragile sets of thin paper instructions with her soaring steel pieces to make layered works of multiple materials
In “Living Patterns,” a 2002 show in Newton, Ms. McDaniel turned her attention “to the four letters — A, T, G, and C — used as abbreviations for the bases that make up our DNA and determine our genetic endowment,” Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote.
“High overhead in the gallery hangs a 16-by-32-foot grid of steel mesh,” Temin said. “On top of the grid is a layer of translucent ochre pattern paper, lit so it has the warm glow of a golden sky, and on top of that, McDaniel has inked those four critical letters, in a scale roughly the size of an adult human being.”
Gallery visitors who walked beneath Ms. McDaniel’s “suspended, suspenseful, scrambled letters” could sense that “their potential seems endless,” Temin wrote. “They’re restless. Small electric fans stir the air, which in turn stirs some of the letters. They look ready to set out on their own, only they can’t.”
Ms. McDaniel, who grew up in Oklahoma, was encouraged by her parents to study finance in college, a practical profession. She later was married for nearly 40 years to Paul McDaniel, a prominent tax attorney.
“But she was not going to be defined by that,” said Murray Dewart, an artist and longtime friend with whom Ms. McDaniel cofounded Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery, an artist-run cooperative. “She reinvented herself as a sculptor, a professor, and she empowered a younger generation of women artists. She was fierce as a feminist.”
After Ms. McDaniel and her family settled in Newton, she returned to school and graduated from Boston College in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in art history — 15 years after receiving her first undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Within less than a decade, she went on to graduate with a master’s in art history from Wellesley College and a master’s in sculpture from what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.
During the flurry of degrees, Ms. McDaniel kept sculpting. Initially, she was represented by the Clark Gallery in Lincoln, until she and Dewart launched the Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery, which operated out of Second Church in Newton before moving into Boston.
“She was a Type-A personality,” Dewart said of her leadership. “She could make the lists — she could make it happen.”
With Boston Sculptors, “Joyce’s vision was of a gallery devoted only to sculpture. In addition, the membership would be equally male and female,” sculptor Donna Dodson wrote in a 2013 essay posted on boston.com.
As Ms. McDaniel’s marriage was ending in divorce, she moved from Newton to the Distillery building.
There, “she set up the most amazing studio I have ever seen, or ever hope to see,” Fine said.
The studio was so expansive “it had catwalks,” Fine said. “And she had tucked inside it this little living room. She had scaled down her favorite things to fit in this corner that she had allotted for herself in this three-story studio.”
Ms. McDaniel’s Distillery building studio was “an enormous space, so it was well-suited for the scale she was working in,” said her daughter, Alysa McDaniel Emden of Bethesda, Md. “That was her dream living situation.”
Born in Oklahoma on Feb. 5, 1936, Joyce Kirchner was the younger of two sisters and a daughter of Harry Lewis Kirchner and Ora Lea Little.
Ms. McDaniel was particularly close to her father, who was “a very talented woodworker, a talented mechanic,” her daughter said. “That’s where she picked up her ‘I can solve any problem — let me fix this.’ "
As a teenager, Ms. McDaniel was an American Field Service exchange student in Germany. “That experience opened her eyes — that there was a bigger world out there than Oklahoma City,” her daughter said.
In 1958, Joyce married Paul McDaniel, with whom she had attended high school, and they lived in Oklahoma and Maryland before settling in Newton. They divorced in 1997, and he died in 2010.
As a leader of Boston Sculptors, “she gave you a real feel on how to advocate for yourself and follow what feels true,” Fine said. “She was taking risks that commercial galleries wouldn’t.”
And as a teacher of sculpture, “she was very open and she tried to find in your work something that was a stepping stone to the next level,” said Ken Hruby, a sculptor who learned from Ms. McDaniel, collaborated with her on projects, and was a Museum School teaching colleague.
When the Boston Sculptors Gallery staged an “Ode to Joyce” retrospective in 2017, Hruby wrote on its website that “from her early welded steel work, inspired by her upbringing in Oklahoma, to her later constructions that combined expanded steel mesh, overlaid with delicate hand-made and dressmaker pattern paper, she showed an unusual willingness to push materials to their outer limits.”
In addition to her daughter, Ms. McDaniel leaves a son, Kyle of Boulder, Colo., and four grandchildren.
The family will hold a private service. Burial will be in Chilmark.
As part of the 2002 “Living Patterns” show in Newton, Ms. McDaniel had “installed a wall’s worth of gemlike little works, rough-edged rectangles of handmade paper in pale, muted honey tones with dark specks, the remains of dress patterns, embedded in them,” Temin wrote. “Hanging from the papers are threads or wires that culminate in little blocks with carved letters or punctuation marks. These pieces read like a postscript to the big work.”
Ms. McDaniel’s larger work, meanwhile, could be seen as a metaphor for how she sculpted an artist’s life from an Oklahoma upbringing that had prepared her for a far different path.
“She had a great intuition about what makes things stand up and have a center of balance,” Hruby said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.