Sci-Fi has a show called How It Works and it’s on Netflix. At night, when I’m working, I’ll put it on in the background and marvel at how weirdo things from surfboards to plastic wrap are made. It’s essentially Sesame Street for adults as it is educational, somewhat elementary, and entirely captivating. There was one episode on how bronze sculpture is made that I watched a few weeks back and the whole time I nodded back to the television, telling it, “Yes, that really is how it’s made!!”
Just so you know, I am not a secret bronze fanatic, one of those people who had a childhood obsession with this very specific subject matter. Quite the contrary, actually: a little over a month ago I attended a small bronze sculpture workshop by Arts Refoundry, a full service foundry that has been helping artists, makers, and the bronze curious. In the class we learned about the bronze sculpting process and participated in an abbreviated version of the How It’s Made episode. So, basically, I am now expert bronzesmith–and I have a bowl to prove it!
AR is located near The Brewery Downtown and is a held within a little caged metalworking wonderland. The class is held early (early) on a Saturday morning, one of those mornings where you break an unspoken vow of abstinence from fast food and stop into a Burger King for tater tots and some form of hot beverage to help wake you up as you drive to class. You arrive at their space and there’s a handful of other people all there to get to bronze making, too. They group was a very diverse cross-section: a woman and her older mother were there, a few older persons with an interest in making were there, a couple of young artists with specific goals in their making, a French tourist curious about the process, and me, someone who was wondering how it all worked.
You sit down at table where you have a few sticks of brown wax and an unlit tea light. Kate and Gordon, the super sweet couple behind AR, instruct everyone to start massaging their wax, warming it up from solid bars to a putty-like consistency. As you sit doing a very tiny shiatsu into wax, you look around the shop and start noticing various metal objects in different points in their process: a little metal lady reclines back as a few bars of metal stretching out from her back; a relief of a man’s face in silver is beautiful but still has some concrete or plaster specs in his pores; a few brass leaves reach off of a bar, waiting to be plucked off; and a lot of other bronze, aluminum, and iron items sit in boxes waiting for their turn or the chance to be refired and made into something new.
Right when I notice the donuts and orange juice, Kate and Gordon assemble the class together to explain what bronze making. We gather around the mechanism that has been (loudly) heating the bronze since we arrived as Kate tells us a few rules, tips, and tricks for making our pieces. As she speaks, Gordon suits up into what could be confused for a deconstructed spacesuit and picks up the bronze heater with a long pair of tongs. With Kate narrating, Gordon begins to pour the bronze into two molds and empty ingots to reuse any excess material. Gordon eventually takes to the pieces with a hammer after they cool down, revealing bronze statues in their first stage of completion. This is the first stage of the final refining phase of these metal objects, a few steps before they become precious art pieces.
The process takes a long time, we learn. However, the class abbreviates it, giving you an express pass to creating what you want. Usually items are cast in wax and then coated with a plaster and *then* filled with bronze. To cut out the initial sculptural process, we made our models out of wax, which is how you spend the class. The real magic happens after you leave: for the next month (give or take), Gordon and Kate finish your pieces by creating their casts, filling them with bronze, and refining them to look as pretty as possible. This is all explained from within their wax and casting trailer, a space with some fascinating and weird objects in transition from wax to casts. There were a lot of incredibly detailed work, too. (For example, the face of Vincent Price made in wax sat on a table: imagine that made out of bronze!?!)
The reality of Arts Refoundry and this class is that it is a microcosmic experience of what they do everyday: they work with artists and makers to make bronze art pieces. Like a more difficult and high stakes pottery studio, Kate and Gordon run a facility where artists can collaborate with them or have pieces they sculpt made in bronze or aluminum or iron. A very recent, familiar-to-many example of their work is that they were the people who helped Erika Vogt and Liz Glynn create their Made In L.A. pieces: they were the people responsible for their metal goods.
As we all sit down to work again, everyone has a set idea of what they want to do. One person makes a dog, another person makes a tiny naked man with a cute bum, one person makes a few faces, and everyone has a set agenda on how to effectively use their time wisely. Me? No idea. I sat down at the table and I had no idea what I was going to make even though I had drafted ideas the week before. I sat there and massaged the wax, trying to squish out inspiration: I wanted to make something natural and simple and minimal, something that was timeless and reflected the process. Using the small tea light to help manipulate and melt the wax, I started to become infatuated with how it melted, almost appearing as if it were crying. Somehow this relationship with the tea light, the wax in my hands, and the wax tears made me think of making an abstract bowl, a la these but in bronze.
After four hours of meticulously making, I felt my work was complete. I placed it on the table, alerted Kate and Gordon, and began the most difficult phase of the process: waiting the month+ wait time for the work to be completed. In this time period, your wax mold is made into a cast in the trailer we toured. After a long cast/dry/recast process, the piece eventually gets filled with bronze and the refining phase begins.
My piece ended up looking exactly as I molded it in wax, a very satisfying result of the work you put into your piece. The only problem is that my piece looks like wax because it was inspired by wax. this is a personal flaw–but I still love it! All the details are there and it looks perfect. It’s surprisingly heavier than I imagined, though. (Duh: it’s metal.)
Taking the small bronze sculpture workshop is a lot of fun and would a great thing to do if you want to do some making that is a little more advanced than pottery. Their facility is nice and it’s ran by some super nice people who attract an equally as nice clientele. Classes are held the second Saturday of each month from 9AM to 1PM and costs $150 each with your piece ready for pick up at the next class. Speaking of, there is an upcoming class held on October 13 and you can enroll here. If you can’t make the class or are a little intimidated by the process, don’t worry: they also make kits you can work on from home. For more on Arts Refoundry, check out their website and get updates from them on Facebook.