Saturday, February 22, 2014

Learning how to be a bronze artist

Yesterday I went with a group of docents from the Seattle Art Museum for a tour of the Classic Art Foundry in Seattle. 

This outing was offered to the docents that are currently touring Miro: the Experience of Seeing at SAM, in the hopes that we'd be able to understand the bronze process so loved by the artist in his later years.

Miro loved both the lost wax casting method, as well as welding pieces together, when he created assemblage sculpture.  A third method, sand casting, was also used by him, but is not as commonly used by modern artists.

Our tour was lead by the incredibly talented, soft spoken artist Joseph McDonnell. We stood outside the massive Foundry doors, smelling fish from the waters of the Salmon Bay behind our backs, as he told us stories of Italy, meeting a young Chihuly, and ice cube inspired masterpieces.

I wish I had written down more of his funny stories as he told them.

Joe currently has several pieces that the foundry is fabricating for him, including the 1000 pound brown sculpture, called Messenger, that you can see in the middle of the above photo.  This piece is being created for a private residence.  As it was the first thing we saw when we came in, we started our tour with a lesson about how a piece this size is bound together by welder Glen McCarthy.

We were told how welding the piece together isn't the biggest time consumer, it is actually the clean up afterwards that can take weeks, even months on a piece this size.  There are three separate grinders used, all with various degrees of textures, and even the smallest of bubbles, the size of a pin's head, can cause damage if not removed.

The patina process explained by Jonathan Kuzma was just as fascinating, as this particular client wanted the same coloring that Joe had used on a previous public art sculpture.  So getting the exact chemical combination is vital, because once the wax coating goes on the artwork, there is no going back.  Well, there is going back, for an added price :)

We entered a second part of the foundry where we were to learn about the lost wax casting.

Here the process of this centuries old tradition was patiently explained, and re-explainded, and re-explained, by Joe and Ion Onutan, the foundry owner. 

I'm pretty sure we all have the same confused look on our faces.
But it wasn't until we went into yet another smaller room, were samples of the process were all laid out at the table, that I could see the light bulbs finally flicker around all our heads.

The whole process, laid out in simple to understand steps!

Here you can see that Joe has created the exact piece, but on a much smaller scale, in an addition of 10.  This room is the wax room, while the room we had previously been in was the room where the molds were created.

This photo shows all the steps for this process:

A. Joe's carved wood model.
B. The model is covered with a brushed on rubber mold  which is held in place with a plaster mother mold. These when set will be cut in half and removed from the original model.
C. The plaster and rubber are put back together and wax is poured into the molds.  Here, the artist still has some leeway to make any corrections, additions or removals in the wax.
D. The piece then has a container added to the bottom, along with drainage holes for the air bubbles to escape, around the sides.  The bottom container will be used to hold the melted bronze after the piece has been invested.  The entire piece is then taken to a separate room (photos below) and dipped in a silica, then covered with a special sand.  The piece has to complete dry, before the process is begun the next day.  The process continues until a desired thickness is reached.
Once this ceramic shell is complete, the wax is melted out and bronze is poured into the mold.  The brick in front of this step in the photo is how the bronze is shipped to the Foundry.
E. These are examples of five of the ten art pieces that were created from this process.  They are all bronze, yet have different patinas and paint on them to make them unique.

We were taken into the investment room and shown the process by Ion.

Behind Ion were four large vats of sand.
Joe also explained the process of how an art piece is created, showing us the various molds he started with before he finally landed on one he liked.  He also told stories of working with clients and architects to ensure that their custom work would be compliant with safety regulations.

To make it perfect, you have to try, try and try again.
Here is a closer look at four of the completed miniatures, all available for purchase. 

The patinas on these in person are stunning!

Thank you Joseph McDonnell and Classic Art Foundry for expanding our knowledge of how bronze sculpture is made.  Now I feel ready to better explain the process on my tours on Sunday.

Please go to Amazon and buy his book!

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