Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Down in shadows of the great dark wood
Her brooding mystery runs
To the depth of languid black pools.
Fierce nurture, gentle terror.
The delicate lace of her foliage
Erupts with the force
Of the Green Man’s passing
And the still shimmer of his molten heat
Bakes and burnishes summer upon her hills.

MY first commissioned sculpture was a bronze. It was also a nude. It was done over thirty years ago, and I have long since lost track of it and it’s buyer. The buyer had requested a nude bronze likeness of herself for her husband’s birthday. She was well into her forties, and he in his seventies. She had said, “I want it to look like me, but you’ll have to use your imagination.”

I've never had a shortage of imagination, so I got right to work. There was no base beneath the figure. The piece was designed to sit on a ledge or shelf. She would have been about eighteen inches tall if standing, but she sat leaning slightly forward with her hands on the edge, and her legs dangling over. Her face and expression were a good representation of the subject, but were more concerned with the essence of her feminine charm and mature beauty than with photographic accuracy. How well I captured her form and the lines and detail of her body is, of course, left to your imagination.

At that time, I had not worked in any kind of metal before. My experience thus far had been in clay and wood and stone. By a remarkable stroke of providence, there was an art foundry less than three miles from where I lived, and I made my way there.

The proprietor was a foundryman; a weathered, leathery cowboy artist who made his way sand casting belt buckles for the leather craftsmen in the street fair trade. He might have been much younger, or much older than his features would suggest, but it was impossible to tell which. The foundryman claimed to know the lost wax method, and spoke authoritatively about the process we must use to successfully accomplish the piece. I was sufficiently impressed with his talk, and his skill with buckles, and sufficiently without better alternatives, so I hired the foundryman to cast my work. The only condition being that I be allowed to be present and part of each step in the process.

No work had been done on the sculpture when I first approached the foundryman. It was still a fluid idea in my mind. We discussed the technical aspects of the project, and I began to have a better understanding of the production issues and design factors that would be involved. Then I began the work, first in familiar clay. Then, under the skilled guidance of the foundryman, I learned to transfer the image to wax form, which I gave more detail and expressive energy.

As we worked together I gained full confidence in the craft of the foundryman. We added the gate, sprues, and risers; the system of ducting and venting that would allow the molten bronze to flow freely to every part of the figure. The foundryman patiently explained every point of theory and practice as we continued the work. His student absorbed it all, and most of my practice over the ensuing years has been informed by this brief apprenticeship.

Finally the piece was ready and we put it into its encasement of refractory plaster and prepared it for the pour. Next we put it into a kiln to burn out the wax, drive off the remaining vestiges of moisture, and pre-heat the mold for the pour. The morning of the pour was cold and foggy with a mystical northwest drama of spirit that I had grown to love and revere in Seattle in the Fall. It reminded me of Celts and Druids and mysteries of fertile earth and untamed wilderness. Untamed even though in the heart of the city. No other city I had ever been in could boast this
extraordinary phenomenon. The primitive ancient energy of earth and rampant vegetation and damp wilderness would not give in to the onslaught of progress in this place, and I lived and worked and played in it with awe and reverence. It was only fitting that the damp mist should shroud the foundry yard as we prepared for this ancient bronze-age ritual.

The foundryman had come early to fire up the melt furnace. It was loaded with a crucible of bronze and covered to retain the heat against the damp chill. Fire roared out of the small vent in the lid. The foundryman greeted me distractedly, continuing to work, opening the kiln, which had been shut down for hours to allow the mold to cool slightly. We worked together in the early morning twilight to set the still hot mold in position for the pour. The furnace roared with gas flames, white hot and swirling furiously. The foundryman removed the lid revealing an outrage of heat and light and fury all glowing and broiling out of the mouth of the furnace. He checked the temperature of his little pot of hell and deemed it suitable for the transforming task at hand. He shut down the furnace and skimmed the slag from the surface of the bronze with a pine board. The board flared up instantly and burning intensely as it touched the metal, but somehow it seemed well suited to the task and cleaned the surface of the molten metal to a smooth shimmering mirror.
I was unprepared for the profound mystery of what I would experience in the dim twilight of that early morning as I looked down into the crucible of bronze. It was a shimmering radiance like nothing I had ever seen. The metal was a liquid mirror, rippling and wet and hot and glowing full of light. The damp cold and shrouding mystical fog yielded to its fierce energy of light and power and sheer intensity of being. And yet the bronze did no harm to the brooding spirits of the mist and the lush vegetable growth of the hillside. They were brother and sisters. Utterly different and unlike each other, and yet perfectly matched and melded and merged in energy and balance.

Foundryman and sculptor worked together to pour the shimmerhot liquid into the mouth of the mold, pouring steadily until the glowing liquid rose to the tops of all the riser ports indicating that the pour was complete. Now it was done but for the cooling and cleaning. We would chip away the mold investment, chisel and grind the gating away, then chase and sand blast and patina and buff the surface to get the desired effects in the bronze.

As the pour was completed and the bronze cooled, the secrets of place and craft softened and settled quietly into the metal. The buyer would not know what magic and mystery of fire and mist and fertile pregnant earth lay hidden and waiting in the heart of the little figure who sat smiling from a bookshelf at her husband each day.

1 comment:

  1. lovely story Michael...
    haven't been up to my usual FB correspondence lately, but been thinking of you!