Taking the heat
A months-long, labor-intensive process and a 200-pound vat of molten metal don’t scare the sculpture enthusiasts at UNR’s bronze casting foundry. Artist Craig Smyres explains why they go through the trouble.
They’re not good for the lungs, but the fumes from molten metal are pleasantly aromatic. It’s the smell of productivity, the smell of art school. At the loading-dock- turned-foundry behind the Church Fine Arts Complex at the University of Nevada, Reno, students wait around for the simmering vat of red-hot liquefied metal to reach the required 1,800 or so degrees. The students, like Craig Smyres, are mostly working artists, and they’re casting bronze under the guidance of cowboy-booted local sculptor and art professor Bob Morrison.
Smyres’ live-in studio in the Riverside Artist Lofts, which is about a mile away, is dotted with bronze sculptures he’s made over the years. His favorite subjects are cars, women and car/woman combinations. In one piece, “Autolust,” a woman’s slightly abstracted, three-dimensional head is joined to a two-dimensional body cut out from the side of a Studebaker. Another bronze woman, “Diana Delahaye” (named after the make of artfully swank French cars of the 1930s and ‘40s), is styled with the leaning repose that bronze women are often fond of. She cradles one of Smyres’ toy-sized, solid-bronze cars from a series patterned after General Motors’ lavish designs of the ‘40s.
Bronze, Smyres says, is just the right medium for his message, “an industrial material to tell an industrial story.” The story is that Smyres loves cars—always has—but he recognizes that they conflict with his environmentalist concerns. The freedom cars represent, he says, comes at a pretty high cost.
At the UNR foundry—it’s about the only place around town where bronze art is taught—that industrial material is almost ready to pour. The furnace looks like a trash-can-sized hole in the ground; it’s covered with a thick, heavy lid with a peek-hole. Inside there’s a crucible—a conga-drum-shaped, graphite container—to hold the liquefying metal. Thick, translucent orange sludge, backlit from its own glow, gurgles lazily. A scum of impurities from whatever substances the recycled metal has picked up forms on top. Morrison uses a metal rod to skim the gunk. He taps the rod against a grate to get the red liquid off before it hardens quickly into amorphous chunks.
Bronze casting is a don’t-try-this-at-home activity not approved for instant-gratification seekers. It involves specialized equipment, multiple steps and a lot of patience. Morrison’s students have already spent more than a semester making wax models and preparing them for the pouring. They’ve attached wax rods to the models that will, after the wax is melted out, leave entryways for the molten bronze to reach the mold and then let hot air escape. The models, looking a bit mechanical with the wax rods sticking out, have been dipped into a liquid ceramic slurry up to a dozen times to make a sturdy mold. Drying and adding sand in between each dip can make that part take weeks. At least.
From start to finish, says Smyres, planning and executing a single large sculpture can take years. The process can be tedious to begin with, and lifting heavy molds and boiling vats of metal usually requires some collaboration with others. (At one point during this particular pouring, there are four people guiding the crucible, which they estimate weighs 200 to 300 pounds when full.) But Smyres, not one to take the easy route to a finished piece of sculpture, proceeds through most parts of the intensive process despite having muscular dystrophy. He gets around in an electric wheelchair, and he used to be a special-ed teacher, both of which verify his claim of having cultivated an unusual amount of patience. Perfect for such an arduous process.
The sculpture students use a pulley system to hoist a clunky mold out of the dewaxer, an oil barrel with a flame underneath that melts the wax out of the mold, leaving the right-shaped space for the bronze to fill. Wax pools underneath on the sandy ground, taking on the color of cheap milk chocolate as it hardens.
The molds get placed upright in the pre-heat kiln, a brick structure about twice the width of a coffin. Here, the molds are preheated, so they don’t crack or explode from thermal shock when the molten bronze hits them.
Everything looks heavy and potentially dangerous. Morrison and his students are suited up in hard hats, face shields and firefighters’ coats. The relaxed mood on the loading dock turns immediately to one of intense concentration as they maneuver the molten bronze from furnace to preheat kiln.
“It’s a pretty tough environment,” Smyres narrates as they pour. He reports that in 10 years of making bronze at UNR, he’s seen no serious injuries. (Though he has seen two students faint, both on hot summer days when temperatures near the foundry’s furnace were stifling. Both fainters were fortunate enough to be standing right in front of Morrison, who caught them before they hit the ground.)
Another mechanized pulley holds the weight of the crucible as it’s lifted out of the furnace, but it still takes at least two people to guide it a few feet over to the preheat kiln, where the molds are waiting. The students seem to expect a certain amount of awkwardness from the heavy container of boiling metal. It’s moved as gracefully as possible, but at one point, the crucible tips, and a splash of molten goop spills out, hits the ground and becomes a splash of solid.
Morrison directs and three students tilt the crucible, two using long, metal clamps and one supervising the thing’s center of gravity with a hooked rod. In unison, they tip. Electrified glop resembling hot, fluorescent Gatorade streams into the molds’ paper cup-sized openings with quick finesse and makes a popping sound.
The crucible is guided to the sandy ground, where it fades in color from glowing red-orange to graphite gray to lava black.
Later that day, the molds will still be hot to the touch but cool enough to handle, and the students will be able to break off the ceramic shell to reveal their new creations. That can be done with a hammer and chisel, or, as Smyres advises, “It’s more fun to throw it on the ground.”
After that, it’s several more hours of removing the vents that were attached as wax rods and are now solid bronze, grinding off rough spots, sandblasting the finish, polishing imperfections and applying patina.
“Most artists won’t do bronze,” Smyres says. “They do it once, and they go, ‘This is too hard.'” But for some, it’s worth the effort. Smyres likes bronze’s near-immortal quality. “The pieces,” he says with a laugh, “whether they ever gain any value or not, they’ll be around forever.”