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Metal Meltdown

Dustan Creech, an assistant professor of art, moved his January Term metal sculpture class outside one morning last week, not because the weather was so inspiring—the plummeting wind chill made the campus feel like a meat locker—but because the class had a singular job to do.

Creech and his students had assembled a small foundry on the patio behind Old Main, where they were melting bronze down to a glowing-red 2100-degree river of metal to be poured into sculpture molds the students had prepared. The bronze pour was the climax of Creech’s course, the first of its kind at Elmhurst. Artists have been making bronze sculpture in roughly the same manner for a few thousand years, but for most of Creech’s students the chance to craft, mold and pour their own bronze sculpture was entirely novel.

“It’s a beautiful process to watch,” Creech said, standing over a compact black furnace, not much bigger than a beer keg, that he and visiting artist Jim Brenner had set up a few yards outside the windows of the sculpture studio. The furnace was being fueled by propane gas, like your basic suburban backyard grill—except that the gas was mixed with air to stoke the furnace to the high temperatures need to melt bronze. As the heat built, the furnace whined like a jet engine just before takeoff. This was not necessarily the beautiful part.

The heat of the furnace, though, was creating some spectacular effects. Brenner was feeding the furnace bits of bronze—shards and fragments of his old pieces that he was willing to sacrifice to the fire. They would be melted down to provide the liquid metal that would become the student’s sculptures. He said he didn’t mind seeing his old work disappear into the furnace. “It’s making room for the new,” Brenner said, dispatching another bronze nugget into the heat. By the time the temperature inside the furnace climbed to more than 2,100 degrees, those bronze fragments had become a seething red liquid.

Most of Creech’s students were in the studio putting the finishing touches on their molds, readying them for the pour. Earlier in the term, they had created plasticene models of their sculptures, then used those models to form molds from a mix of sand and resin. Molten bronze poured into a mold through a channel called a sprue would distribute itself into the depressions and cavities, then cool and harden to create the finished piece.

“The pour is the exciting part to watch, but it’s really just a small part of the work involved,” Creech explained. Inside the studio, senior English major Natalie Stevens was standing over her mold with a blowtorch in hand. Her mold was split in two to reveal the pattern into which the molten bronze would be poured. Just before the pour, the two halves would be glued together to form a kind of box to receive the metal. First, though, she was brushing the inside of the mold with graphite, then flaming it with the blowtorch to create a non-stick surface that would release the bronze, once it had cooled. One of her classmates, Matt McGuire, already had completed his mold and was helping Stevens with her work.

“That’s one of the things I love about this class, the way we’re all rooting for each other and helping each other,” Stevens said. “Those are 100 pound bags of sand we’re working with. I can’t lift one of those by myself.”

Stevens was creating two elephant figurines, a mother and baby, to add to her growing personal collection of elephant-related arts and crafts. “I’ve never had to make a 3-D model before and I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she said. “I surprised myself.”

Outside, Brenner and Creech had removed the furnace’s lid and used a set of metalworking tongs to lift out the glowing red crucible. They were ready to pour. First in line was Jeremy Foy, a fifth-year art major, who was trying to create a six-foot-long swirl of bronze that he envisioned as landscape art for his parent’s back yard. Brenner and Creech carefully tipped the crucible to start the liquid metal flowing into Foy’s mold. They moved quickly, pouring into each of a half-dozen molds that had been lined up on the ground, hoping to fill as many as possible before the molten bronze cooled and became more difficult to pour. “This cold is a little hard on the pour,” Creech said. “The metal solidifies and it won’t flow fast enough.”

The bronze would need a few hours to set in the mold. Then would come what Creech called “the proud moment,” when students could break apart their molds with hammers to reveal the sculptures they had made. “It’s a little like Christmas,” he said. “You see what you get.”

When Foy’s piece had been removed from its mold, he knelt to examine it. Some of the poured bronze had splashed outside the form, creating a series of metallic splatters. Normally such irregularities would be sanded off, but Foy liked the effect. “I might keep the splashes on,” he said.

Creech’s students were checking out their classmates’ work and whipping out camera phones to photograph pieces newly freed from their molds. Some were warming themselves around a wood fire someone had started in a fire pit, and celebrating the pour by toasting marshmallows.

“I told the class,‘The next time you reach for a doorknob, you might see it differently because you’ll know all the work that went into casting it,” Creech said. “It’s an ancient art, but it’s also something that’s around us in our everyday lives. This is the kind of work that opens your mind to seeing the world differently.”

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Photo: Genevieve True

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