Arts October 14, 2010

Metal Sculpture 101

Understanding the Medium

The primary methods of making sculpture include carving, modeling, welding, casting, and assembling existing objects and materials. The two basic types of metal sculpture, cast and welded, utilize a variety of materials and techniques.

In casting, a mold is made from an original, allowing for the making of multiple copies that would comprise an edition. An artist may shape initial versions of a work in wax or clay, and enlarge the scale of the maquette (model) by building an armature (frame) to support it. A mold of the finished artwork is then taken to a foundry for casting. Large works are typically cast in several pieces, and then reassembled. Although welded sculpture also involves many steps, such as cutting, welding, grinding, polishing or sandblasting, the artist works with the actual materials that form the final sculpture.

Many metal sculptors work in bronze, a mixture of copper and tin. Whether cast or welded, bronze will develop a beautiful patina (the oxidation that naturally occurs on the surface of metal and acts as a kind of protection). The color of the patina can be controlled by the artist through the application of chemicals, heat, or a combination of the two.

In a wide, spacious studio next to his house at the mouth of Muldoon Canyon, Joseph Castle moves among long tables filled with plaster forms, tubs of clay, and a shop full of machinery and tools. Facing an irregular framework that nearly matches his height, he leans over, applying gobs of reddish clay. The piece has a skeletal feel, with bits of bones sticking out. It conjures images of a mad scientific experiment, for although it has an organic appearance, it doesn’t look like anything from nature. Castle is working on his most ambitious sculpture to date, citing equal inspiration from Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and time spent outdoors in Colorado and Idaho. Combining age-old casting methods with the advantage of modern technology, this sculptor uses molds in the lost-wax method, but establishes the eventual physical scale of his abstract bronzes on the computer.

Sculptors working with metal require studios with high ceilings and a substantial amount of floor space, to accommodate the massive machinery, hoists, and tools that are required for cutting, moving, and welding large, heavy sheets of bronze or steel. In Rod Kagan’s shop north of Ketchum, a massive car engine (used for many years to heat the space) sits in the middle of a rough-hewn, silo-shaped building that adjoins his residence. His love of welding (he built a hotrod at 15, and early works were made from scavenged car parts) typifies the practical background of many sculptors. Kagan’s works—ranging from finished sculpture to pieces in various stages of assembly as he cuts, grinds, welds, and applies the patina—fill this workspace, as well as the nearby yard and adjoining building. His bronze, totemic forms typically range from eighteen inches to ten feet in size. Casual observers often overlook the significant financial obligation incurred by sculptors in the creation of their work.

The storage and transportation of materials weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds, combined with the cost of casting large pieces at a foundry, easily account for a third of an artwork’s price. Several local sculptors work with foundries in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico, but some of the sculptures available for viewing in the Valley this summer were cast in foundries located in China and Thailand—where, according to Connecticut sculptor Peter Woytuk, it is common to cast “twenty-foot Buddhas.” Woytuk’s massive elephants and bulls resided in the open field along Sun Valley Road last summer.

Metal sculptures on display in the Valley this summer have come from as far away as the Netherlands, Barcelona, and Asia. Robin Reiners of Gallery DeNovo explains, “We ship large crates, some over 900 pounds, via ocean and air. The amount of documentation would make your head spin, and we have to be very careful to have it all accurate and complete for quick customs clearance—especially since 9/11. It takes an average of six to eight weeks to get a shipment here from Spain, once the crates and paperwork are ready.”

Sculpture is not always a massive proposition, however. Sue Jacobsen utilizes a modest room in her Ketchum home as a studio, and carries out much of the final mold-making and other work at a foundry. After many years as a landscape painter, she became captivated by the tactile feeling of manipulating clay, and has been concentrating on figurative sculpture for the past twelve years.

Bellevue sculptor Jeff Whitaker typifies sculptors who balance their fine art with the creation of such functional art as benches, fountains, railings, or gates. Whitaker doesn’t view it as a compromise, just a matter of fact in the life of a working artist. In addition, he welcomes the challenge of customizing specific commissions that originate with a client’s vision instead of his own.

Trained in the relatively fragile realm of ceramics, Mark Stasz became “excited by the outrageous strength of steel” more than twenty years ago. He makes large pieces—four to ten feet—that incorporate rock and steel. His Bellevue studio is filled with slabs of granite (and Pennsylvania bluestone, for a commissioned fountain), hoists, and machinery and tools that allow him to fit the rock into his metal forms. The organic qualities of rock form interesting contrasts with the manmade, curvilinear shapes of the metalwork.

The installation (siting and orientation) and maintenance of a sculpture are aspects that must be considered. A small indoor piece may be easily moved around, but a larger outdoor piece (which may require a concrete pad or engineered supports and the assistance of a crane) should be permanently situated for appreciation from the outdoors—and from the interior of nearby buildings. Gail Severn, owner of the Gail Severn Gallery, observes that maintenance is “no more complicated than what is required for the exterior of an automobile.” Keep the piece clear of landscape sprinklers, and treat it biannually with a wax coating to protect the patina.

Barbi Reed, owner of the Anne Reed Gallery, points out, “One beautiful aspect of sculpture is that you can put it almost anywhere. It is conducive to seasonal changes, and even looks good against a white background. With the change of light and shadows, one begins to appreciate that are many different experiences within a single object. It is a dance.”

A wide variety of metal sculpture can be found throughout the Wood River Valley. Local sculptors often accept appointments with visitors and, in some cases, can direct you to their works in public settings. A steady stream of national and international sculptural work flows through local art galleries, as well.

Mark Johnstone has written about art for nearly three decades in Southern California. Arriving in Hailey almost a year ago, he has jumped headlong into the local art scene.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.