Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lost Wax

I tagged along with painter and sculptor Richard Cecil, friend and former Pine Lake neighbor, when he picked up the latest edition of his beautiful bronze Ball Dancer from the Inferno Art Foundry in Union City. I like to take field trips as part of what you might call my self-directed continuing adult education ad hoc, non-degree, non-career, non-formal, personal enrichment and experiential learning. In other words, I was just curious.

In his East Point studio, Richard Cecil has shown me how he constructs sculpture from sticks, coat-hangers, wire mesh, old socks, anything that can be shaped and formed, secures it with string and duct tape, then covers it with modeling clay. His hands and fingers turn the clay into body parts, and he carves details with x-acto knives and dental picks and files. The Ball Dancer, dressed in a slinky ballerina leotard like a one-piece bathing suit, stands on one leg, the other lifted behind, both arms overhead holding a colored glass ball. According to Richard, producing a bronze sculpture no larger than a medium-size table lamp costs an artist $1,000 to $2,000 in materials and foundry charges. That does not take into account or set a value for the sculptor’s time and talent.

                 Ball Dancer, sculptor, metal chaser

When we arrived at the Inferno Art Foundry, Todd Fuller met us with the casting of Richard’s sculpture, bright and shiny as a newly minted penny. Richard calls Todd the master metal chaser, which is a respected and impressive title. Todd himself describes his work as “the fixer.” If you meet somebody at a party, what would you say your job is? “I’d tell them I am the manager at Wendy’s,” Todd replied as he completed some last touch perfections on the Ball Dancer, including removing any traces of seams or other evidence of the casting process, preparing connections for the marble base, and adjusting the figure to correct perpendicular. Richard and Todd worked together to accentuate details such as the shoulder straps on the ballerina’s leotard. Then the patina chemicals were applied by the patineur, with brush dabs and direct blasts of flame from a large blow torch, reminiscent of WWII combat documentary footage. The patineur wore a respirator like a HazMat first-responder. According to the University of California, Davis, bronze is an alloy composed of copper, tin and arsenic.

                 Patineur, brush, blow torch

Lost wax casting, sometimes referred to as cire perdue by those who do not believe anything is officially art until you say it in French, goes back 3,500 years to ancient Egypt and the region of South Asia that is now Pakistan. Uses included sculptures cast in copper and bronze, as well as jewelry and other products. The modern automobile industry has used a similar casting technique for the manufacture of parts, including engine blocks.

The Inferno Art Foundry in Union City is a warehouse space outfitted with all manner of tools and equipment more fascinating than Home Depot, hammers, drills, grinders, welding torches and masks, crates of 25-lb bronze bars like the gold treasure at Fort Knox, metal rods, kilns, cauldrons, discarded rubber, wax, and plaster molds.

Lost wax casting from an artist’s sculpture is similar in three dimensions to the one-dimensional process in traditional photography: using a negative image to create a positive one. “An image of the original sculpture is reproduced through molds. Flip-flopping of the image from negative to positive is repeated to produce the final bronze casting,” explains artist Richard Cecil.

Here is a YouTube that both shows vividly the Lost Wax process but also explains it clearly.

Famous bronze sculptors have included Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Rodin, and Frederic Remington. Degas and Picasso produced bronze sculptures. The “Charging Bull” on Wall Street in New York was created by Arturo Di Modica using lost wax casting. At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Atlanta, Patrick Morelli’s lost wax bronze sculpture “Behold” was inspired by the ancient African ritual of lifting a newborn child to the heavens and reciting "Behold the only thing greater than yourself."

(Photos from the Union City foundry were taken by the author, and the images of original artwork are used by permission of the artist.  This article appeared originally in Like the Dew, a journal of Southern Culture and Politics)

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