Friday, September 23, 2011
Casting the Bronze Bust of Dr. Lester Wolfson
Recently some folks were invited to see area artist Tuck Langland carry out one of the most dramatic acts of the sculptor’s craft—pouring glowing molten metal into a wax and plaster form in order to cast a bronze bust. We gathered that evening at Fire Arts, one of the hip venues in the increasingly luminous South Bend arts district on the east side of the St. Joseph river. I had no idea what the process of casting would be like.
Back in the studio, the sculptor stood beside a larger than life clay bust of Lester Wolfson, the first chancellor of IU South Bend. Wolfson looked alive, both thoughtful and attentive, traits you’d cherish in a person whose job was to make a public university rise up on the banks of our beautiful river. I’m using the lost wax method of casting, the sculptor said. You make the portrait in clay, then you take a mold of the clay, and with that mold you make a wax version of the bust. Encase the wax version in a plaster matrix shaped like a barrel, with three channels leading up to the top. You pour the metal into the main channel. It melts the wax and forces it out the two vent holes and fills the space where the wax had been, making a beautiful metal copy of the clay original. Now that we have the wax version, we don’t need the clay any longer, the sculptor said with a hint of mischief in his voice. And he reached over and pealed the ear off the beautiful, temporary likeness of his former boss.
We crowded into the furnace room. There on the floor was the hand-made barrel-shaped white plaster matrix into which the molten metal would be poured. Near it stood a small furnace with a hole at the top as big as your fist. A stream of yellow flames roared from this hole and had been roaring for a long time. The metal inside was now over 1000 degrees. The sculptor’s wife cautioned us, If anything goes wrong, don’t rush up to help, back away—if it touches you, the bronze will burn right through your body. With long metal rods, the heavily robed sculptor and his assistant lifted the lid of the furnace and set it aside. With other lifting rods the two of them raised up a heavy bucket that contained the bronze. The bucket itself glowed yellow like the sun. They set it down on the floor. This sand on the floor, the sculptor said, is there for spills. Bare concrete explodes when it comes into contact with molten bronze. Then, using the long lifting rods, the sculptor and Dr. Wolfson’s son picked up the glowing bucket and moved it over to the plaster. We watched the bucket slowly tip, and a stream of golden volcanic metal steamed and flowed thickly into the hole. After a few seconds the glowing metal rose up to the top of the two vent holes—the entire wax bust, hidden inside the plaster, had been melted and evaporated and replaced by liquid metal. Aside from putting the gear away, this part of the process was done.
And then amazingly, 25 minutes later, Tuck Langland rolled the plaster piece out to the parking lot and began hammering on it, chipping away chunks of plaster, coming closer and closer to the bronze. Within a few minutes, most of the plaster was gone, and you could see the general shape of the bust. It had been upside down in there the whole time! And then it tilted over and broke free and fell onto the pavement. There, not yet polished, coppery-black, caked and dusted with plaster, and still far too hot to touch, was a likeness of the first chancellor of IU South Bend, looking at the world with thoughtful interest and humane energy. From the pouring of the molten bronze to the revelation of the man’s face on the pavement it had been perhaps forty minutes.
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