Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I can't believe I'm having so much trouble posting photos again. And this post was going to be LOADED with photos! I went crazy with the camera. Then this borrowed computer went crazy. Now it won't let me flip pictures.

So we're stuck with only the horizontal pictures. Boring. Limiting. Like only being allowed to work in only one medium.

If someone had told me when I started this journey that I had to choose only one medium -- foreverandever limited to just that one -- metal would've won. Just as if I had to choose only one music genre, to the exclusion of all others, it would be blues. Choices are a wonderful luxury, big menus that fold out into page after page are dizzying in their possibilities...but metal and blues are basic nutrients. I could manage; I wouldn't starve.

Back in July I visited the San Diego State University arts department, and after touring the ceramics department we walked over to the metal sculpture area where I met Christopher Lee, an SDSU alum working there on a monumental commission, and his assistant, ceramics grad student Wes French.

Chris is a prolific public artist. If you've been to San Diego, you've probably seen his work. He and other local artists volunteer at SDSU's foundry, creating opportunities for art students to work in metal, regardless of their discipline. A furniture major who wants to design  bronze feet or knobs for a cabinet? A potter interested in casting a vessel in aluminum? This is an ideal place to try it.

It takes a group of students several weekends of work, culminating in the pour. There's more work after the pour, of course: clean up, chasing (removing excess metal), assembly, patination. But the pour is the big draw, the main entree, what we all want to see.

I've been interested in metal work since before learning to sculpt. My studio equipment includes several different welding setups and a small homemade forge, and I know at some point I'll add casting of some sort. And I spent a decade working as a professional art model (part of which overlapped my art studies), including modeling for monumental works. Lisa Reinertson, known for her massive figurative works in ceramic and bronze, is both a friend and a former client. I modeled for her monumental public bronze, Mother Earth, which stands in a wine country traffic roundabout just a few hundred feet off I-80, in Suisun Valley, about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento:

I've seen and participated in a lot of public sculpture steps, from scale measurements to modeling to installation to maintenance. But I'd never actually seen a pour. Wes invited me to come watch. I watched the watchers, too. SDSU's Art Council and the new department director were there.

That's Chris Lee in leather, explaining things to viewers behind the safety tape. Then Mitch Younker, looking like the tin man, checks the temperature of the furnace. Even with the lid closed, protective clothing and a reeallly long probe, Mitch is getting baked here.

While bronze ingots are being added (down a chute) into the hole in the furnace lid, and the metal is getting up to pouring temperature (2100 degrees), they're setting up the molds for casting. 

The furnace cover slides to one side and a winch lifts the crucible out. See that greenish pitchfork-looking thing on the ground between the furnace and the molds? They'll set the crucible into that.

They lower the crucible in place, attach the crane to the top, and raise the handles; this allows the crucible to tilt. It's not only hot work, it's back-breaking, with very controlled movements. I'm not sure how heavy that is, but it sure looks like a workout.

I actually saw two pours that day, so although I'm presenting the photos (only a few. only the horizontal ones. sheesh.) in an appropriate chronological order, they're a combination of both pours, with different folks having different turns at the various tasks.  

Once the molds are filled, any remaining molten metal is poured into ingot molds, to be reused another time.

After it's cooled a bit, the works are lifted out and the waste molds removed. They're still really hot, untouchable even with gloves, but you can use tools at this point, to start chipping the mold away.

We got our first look at the cast works, but they really don't look correct until the excess metal has been cut off, and -- if it's a complex piece -- the separately molded parts then welded together.

I'll try to fix the photo issue and update this posting next weekend, so check back in awhile. Much better pictures await.....

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