Four Turns of a Key: Metalwork by Elma Johnston McKay

Elma Johnston McKay (Canadian, b. 1951), Independence: Interpretation (detail), 2004, sterling silver, 2.0 x 11.0 x 27.3 cm, Collection of the Artist

June 26 - September 14, 2014    |    Regular Exhibition

Elma Johnston McKay is a master metalsmith who has low vision related to myopia, retinal tears, and cataracts. Between 1996 and 2009, she researched and crafted an extensive collection of replications and interpretations of historical keys. On display in its entirety for the first time, this exhibition presents McKay’s creative exploration of the design, metalwork, and symbolic use of keys in imagery and lore across time and different cultures.


Historically, a key is symbolic, signifying prestige and power. As though reclaiming her own power, McKay produced something unique and beautiful in the image of a key, despite deteriorating eyesight. This collection of handcrafted keys formed in copper, silver, brass, and gold includes “inspiration” pieces (replicas or likenesses of historical keys derived from artworks or literary sources) and contemporary reinventions of those key(s) based on themes ranging from competition to tolerance, patronage to greed. Just as a key provides access to a sacred or treasured space, this exhibition gives access to a merging of contemporary fine craft, fine art, and art history.

McKay has identified four core qualities that are exemplified by the key as an object: Beauty, Difference, Symbolism, and Progress. These qualities resonate in the exhibition: the aesthetic quality and exquisite craftsmanship and artistic skill evident in the individual works; the metaphoric celebration of individualism objectified in the key (a thing that must be unique to function); the continuation of an art historical tradition of engaging symbolism to convey universal themes; and a physical manifestation of progress in the relationship between old and new, inspiration and interpretation, traditional craft and contemporary art.

Curator: Laura Ritchie
Organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery with the support of an anonymous donor.