I’m standing at the end of a driveway in Jamaica Plain in Boston getting ready to run for my life, just in case. Foundry artist and instructor Benjamin Todd has let us know that pouring 2,000-degree molten bronze can be dangerous. It can, in fact, cause an explosion. Before he starts to pour the bronze, he instructs that if he says “MOVE,” we better get out of the way, and if he says “f*#k,” then we better RUN! Since I’ve never been a track star, I give myself a head start.
As an interpretation planner at PEM, I often find myself in interesting places, but this is at a whole different level. One of the exhibitions I’m working on is Rodin: Transforming Sculpture. For me, Rodin conjures images of large emotional sculptures in bronze. But how exactly does a clay model sculpted by Rodin become a bronze sculpture? Knowing many of our visitors would be wondering the same thing and would likely be surprised by how many people are involved in the process, we decided to work with local artists to create short videos for the exhibition.
This complicated, multi-step process involves many people. Luckily we were able to work with not only talented local artists but incredibly patient ones as well. We asked many, many questions about the process, wanted to get as close to the historically accurate method as possible, while often asking them to hold things in the opposite hand for the right camera angle or repeat the steps in order to get a better shot.
When we first started to think of who we could partner with for these videos, local artist and professor Marilu Swett came to mind. An artist in our current exhibition Sizing It Up: Scale in Nature and Art, Swett has done wonderful programs and demonstrations at the museum. She invited a whole team of us to observe one of her classes at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, the town next door. Next, we discussed the intricacies of creating this type of process video. Swett would create the clay model and demonstrate the plaster processes and then we would find a local foundry to take it from there.
Swett created a sculpture in clay and demonstrated the plaster casting and piece casting steps of the process. While our media production manager Chip Van Dyke captured beautiful footage, I watched the monitor to check for consistency and the storyline. I couldn’t help but compare each step to food. The dark brown clay looked like modeling chocolate, freshly mixed plaster resembled heavy cream until it gradually dried to look more like a thick icing being slathered onto the modeling chocolate.
Next, we set up a site visit at Stonybrook Fine Arts to talk about sand casting with bronze. Benjamin Todd led us out to the outdoor furnace where we will see bronze poured into the sand molds. Once created, piece molds go to Stonybrook Fine Arts to be cast in bronze. We watch as Todd skillfully creates the sand mold into which the bronze will be poured. As the furnace outside heats up, the excitement builds.
This is where I find myself at the end of the driveway after the warning. But as the team starts to pour the glowing bright orange bronze into the flasks, I can’t help but get closer for a better view. It is actually mesmerizing to watch as the bronze flows into the sand channels.
After the pieces cool, they are cleaned and welded together. Three full days of filming and many hours of work will be edited down into three short videos that I hope convey not only the process but the number of skilled artists involved in creating a work in bronze.