“Iron casting has melted who I thought I was, and has molded me into who I have become.”
Welcome to part two of our 2018 Valentine’s Day Hot Metal blog feature! This week we’re focusing on Life as a Professional Artist Working in Cast Iron, or what I might also refer to as Lifestyles of the Rusty and Dusty, with a look into the experiences of several Franconia iron artists.
Every iron artist’s story is as unique as the individual. For the artists involved and the public who make molds or come to witness the pour, iron strikes a chord on many levels. It inspires a connection to the earth (iron as a core element), to the body (the iron in our blood), and the history of civilization (iron smelting originated thousands of years ago, and the demand for iron since the during the industrial revolution has created much of the infrastructure we have today). Once you Start Seeing Iron, you will find it almost everywhere you look!
As you learned in the first part of this blog series, an enormous amount of labor and love goes into an iron pour – mixing the sand, creating the molds, breaking down the iron and coke, operating the furnaces, pouring the molds, and finishing the sculptures. While bronze and aluminum and other metals might melt lower and faster and require a different type of furnace, as far as iron goes there is almost no way to do it on your own! It takes a community of experienced and dedicated iron artists to make it happen safely and successfully.
Iron pours at Franconia have held a special place in my heart since 2014, when I first visited the park to volunteer for Jim Brenner’s North Star Pour. That was only my second iron pour, but I was already hooked. The opportunity to learn about metal casting came during graduate school at the University of Minnesota where I was originally pursuing an MFA degree in photography. The labor, the trust, the community, and the family I’ve gained through casting iron in particular has been paramount during some of the most difficult as well as the very BEST times of my life so far!
While the August iron pour has been happening since the founding of the park 22 years ago, the Valentine’s Day Hot Metal Pour began in 2010, making this year nine. It began as a way to gather and create artwork and warm up to the world again during the doldrums of winter in Minnesota. This year will be my fourth Valentine’s Day pour at Franconia, and we can’t wait to share the love with all of you!
I recently caught up with lead iron artist, Tamsie Ringler and a handful of our dedicated iron crew: Ronda Wright, Rose von Muchow, Cassi Rebman, Stephen Edstrom, and Kelly Ludeking, and to share some of their experiences and inspirations in cast iron art. You’ll see several of them in action here at the park on February 17th!
And to fellow iron artists throughout the country and around the world, the deadline for our summer Hot Metal Program is approaching March 10th!
What is your background in metal casting and with iron in particular? How many years; where and with whom did you study; and how long have you been involved with pouring iron at Franconia Sculpture Park?
Tamsie: I’ve been casting metal since undergraduate school with George Cramer and Peter Flanary at the University of Wisconsin (BS, Art, 1986), continued at the University of Texas at Austin (MFA, Sculpture, 1991) with David Deming and Mark Hethmon. My first iron pour was with Coral Lambert at the 2nd US/UK Residency at Franconia Sculpture Park in 1998. I have been pouring iron at Franconia even since then, returning from Oregon (Mount Hood Community College) every summer to Franconia where I was an intern mentor, resident artist, and iron artist. Currently I teach foundry and iron casting at the University of Minnesota, and I lead the Valentine’s Day Hot Metal Pour and Community Collaboration Hot Metal Pour at Franconia Sculpture Park.
Ronda: In my undergraduate school at University of Tennessee Knoxville, I was in a pre-veterinary program (almost done), when I saw an iron pour and it changed my life… literally. I took a while to decide to come out as an artist. My first time participating in an iron pour, Rian Kerrane was a visiting artist and I spent every moment possible soaking up information. I was HOOKED. I’ve been involved with Franconia Sculpture Park iron pours since 2012.
Rose: This 2018 Valentine’s Day pour at Franconia will be the third anniversary of my first taste of iron. Since that first time, I have participated in several pours there and at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where I am pursuing my BFA in Studio Art. I entered the program as a painter, and now my practice revolves around sculpture, including metal arts. My professor Tamsie Ringler has been instrumental to my obsession with metal casting, as well as the love and support of all of the amazing folks that visit, live, and work at Franconia who have taught me so much about community.
Cassi: I started metal casting at Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD) in 2014 in Don Myhre‘s bronze casting class. I started learning about iron casting in 2015 with Ironhead Sculptural Services with Kelly Ludeking, Brad Hertko, and Justin and Karen Peters. My fascination with the medium of cast iron began as a park intern for Franconia Sculpture Park in 2014, as I got to witness their annual iron pour with their resident artists. I did my first iron castings with John Poole at Smith Foundry and my second set at the Fire Festival at Lunarburn Studios in Chicago. I have inserted myself into Franconia pours ever since.
Stephen: I was introduced to metal casting from an intro sculpture class with Aaron Dysart at Anoka Ramsey Community College. That was about five years ago. I have been casting iron for about two years, starting at Franconia.
Kelly: I learned to cast in college under Michael Bigger at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD). Kurt Dyrhaug invited our class to participate in an iron pour at his college in 1994. I was so blown away by what we were doing… melting iron! Iron is a material that I worked with growing up, all over the farm on pieces of machinery. It is such a solid, hard material, and I never thought it was possible for me to turn this metal into liquid flowing like water.
Think back to your first metal casting (whether iron or another metal). What was it?
Tamsie: My first casting was an aluminum arm, carved out of foam and buried in green sand. I still have it. My most recent casting, Rīta Zieds is a six-foot saulite, the Latvian symbol for the sun, cast in eight sections molded from the landscape at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and formed in a satellite dish.
Ronda: I had NO idea what I was doing. I cast a solid basketball! It was still glowing 30 hours later when I opened the mold. Most recently I cast a pair of classic Converse tennis shoes, to begin a new journey.
Cassi: My first metal castings were two bronze light bulbs and a bronze balloon end. My most recent casting was my sculpture during the 2017 Hot Metal Residency at Franconia, the Souped Up P-6 Horsebarn.
Stephen: It was a scratch tile of a gear cast in bronze. My most recent cast sculptures have been works with the human figure and wolves.
Kelly: My first casting was an open face sand cast of snakes with a roller chain embedded into it. Most recent pieces are cast iron armatures that I then blow class into to create unusual lights.
What attracts you to iron as a material and to this process in particular? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the process?
Tamsie: Iron is necessary for existence – it carries oxygen throughout our body. The same quality that makes it rust allows us to live. The communal nature of iron casting has always attracted me – without others, the process is almost impossible (and not very enjoyable). My favorite part is looking around the pour floor in the middle of a full-out pour and enjoying the presence of all of the people: students, artists, and the public, appreciating their contribution to the pour and feeling great love for all of them and this fragile iron planet we live on. My least favorite part is the coke fumes.
Ronda: Community engagement and community building draws me to this process. The gathering together with a common goal… there are so many ways to achieve this goal and each person’s knowledge and questions are valued. This community creates a place of acceptance, growth, nurturing, understanding, and security that often so many do not have in other areas of their lives. Knowledge sharing. The transformation from the discarded to this liquid beauty, transferred into this creative space. My least favorite part is how dirty it is and its negative impact on the environment.
Rose: Casting iron is the most enticing, exciting, difficult, dirty, and effortlessly beautiful thing I have ever experienced — it makes me feel strong and capable, and yet it constantly reminds me of my own hubris. Nothing compares to the complete silence during the first tap of a furnace, the whole room watching with bated breath as drops of liquid fire begin to spill out into the ladle. It is alchemy, magic, folklore, and science. It requires you to trust the process, and to trust others.
Cassi: The sheer work ethic it takes in preparation is a huge draw; it pushes your boundaries in a way that always promotes growth, especially in failure. My least favorite part is chasing (grinding) the castings, but only if they are particularly finicky.
Stephen: The community that surrounds iron casting is what draws me to this process. My favorite part of the process is working on the furnace and keeping up the repairs. My least favorite part is sometimes large molds push you up against tight deadlines.
Kelly: I’m a process-driven artist and iron is very labor intensive. It also requires you to be well-versed in many different other materials. I also love the fact that I have a hand in creating tools that help me make my art. From the very beginning, building the furnace, to resourcing the fuel and iron and breaking it up. Making the patterns and molds for casting. Next, lighting the furnace and running so we get the best out of it. Finally, the clean up of the sculpture and the art exhibition. I like all stages of the process, but the grinding and clean up is probably my least favorite.
What has casting iron taught you about yourself or about the world?
Tamsie: Iron casting has melted who I thought I was, and has molded me into who I have become.
Ronda: Iron is needed by every living creature on earth to survive, and the earth at its core is mostly iron… wow there is a lot.
Cassi: It has taught me that I am more capable than I thought I was and also illuminates my limitations. Iron has given me a lot of goal oriented tasks in the lessons learned in the community dynamic and the way I approach the artistic process. I know that in the absence of iron casting, life ends up lacking in intensity, which as exciting as intensity is, is also a necessary part of being a grounded individual.
Stephen: Iron casting has taught me that I really like process-oriented art. Metal casting has become part of my way of life and is usually on my mind at most times.
Kelly: Iron casting has taught me how small the world really is. Through this community I now have friends and family all over the world. I have also learned how much of the world around us is iron or made from iron.
How does metal casting factor into your artistic practice?
Tamsie: All the time in big and small ways: www.tamsie.com
Ronda: Artifacts of Home explores the intersection of art and community activism through a series of workshops throughout the country as part of Social Action For Equality (SAFE). The premise of these workshops are that we all have a relation to home, and iron is an elemental necessity to sustain all life. Workshop participants sculpt a brick of wax (while engaging in conversation) into an artifact of home, I cast it into iron, and the artifact is then added to a larger installation of Home. Thus each person’s artifact evolves the (Inter)Active conversation while linking themselves not as “others” but to others throughout the country.
Ronda Wright “Artifacts of Home” detail
Cassi: Iron allows me to transform objects into other materials in a manner that suits my assemblage methods and aesthetic.
Kelly: Metal casting is the bulk of my artistic practice right now. Between making, hosting, and teaching it, I stay pretty busy with 12 to 18 iron pours per year. I’m blessed to be able to do it this much, but it does wear on me.
How often/where else have you participated in iron pour events, and what else do you work on in between pours?
Tamsie: All the time, in many places: Latvia, Wales, UK, all over the U.S. In between pours I work on raising my 13-year-old son.
Ronda: Several pours each year. In no particular order: Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis, TN, Birmingham, AL, Denver, CO, Buffalo, Rochester, and Salem, NY, Chicago, IL, Latvia, the U of M Foundry in Minneapolis and Franconia Sculpture Park.
Cassi: Lamberton, MN Hot Iron Days, the Down on the Farm Pour in Decorah, Iowa, Pourin’ Your Heart Out in Madison, WI wiht American Skillet Company, and the University of Minnesota Foundry.
Stephen: I have started to get around a little bit for iron casting. Usually if someone needs an extra hand I’ll jump on the opportunity. Franconia Sculpture Park, Caponi Art Park, The North Shore Iron Pour, and the University of Minnesota Foundry have been the local pours I’ve participated with. I’ve also been to a few of the iron casting conferences that have brought me to different parts of the country.
Kelly: I participate in iron pours all over the midwest and occasionally beyond: Down on the Farm Pour in Decorah, IA, Pour’n Yer Heart Out in Madison, WI, Midwest Fire Fest in Cambridge, WI, Carnival of Fire in Chicago, IL, Lamberton Hot Iron Days in Lamberton, MN, Little Pour on the Prairie in Vermillion, SD, University of Minnesota Iron Pours in Minneapolis, and most of the regional and national cast iron art conferences.
How do you stay cool under pressure / throughout the intensity of an iron pour?
Tamsie: I become very calm during an iron pour, in the eye of the storm.
Ronda: I teach students that everything breathes, and this process is about staying calm and getting in sync with the furnace, no matter your role, listening to it breathe, and that it’s a dance, with the furnace and your community. You constantly look out for each other and that means making sure everyone is drinking water and staying hydrated. Sometimes you have to walk away and take your gear off to cool down.
Cassi: Lots of water and mindful awareness.
Stephen: I like to think I stay cool under pressure. I tend to have an attitude of whatever needs to get done I’ll see that it happens.
Kelly: Lots of water and I continually take my silver suit off to air out… the thing that holds the heat in as well as keeps it off of me. I’m also always trying to keep it mellow and fun.
Tell us about one of your favorite cast iron sculptures by another artist:
Tamsie: Some of my favorite cast iron sculptures are by my students. They do amazing work.
Ronda: Wow, there are so many, I appreciate each person expressing their voice.
Cassi: Karen Peters makes beautiful castings of hand knit forms that are inset with vibrantly colored felt. They are a feast for the eyes.
Stephen: One of my favorites is probably Samantha Leopold-Sullivan‘s hand sledgehammer.
Kelly: Justin Peters makes really great boats and wind turbines. He is able to get these to cast at 1/8″ thicknesses with no inclusions, shrink tears, or imperfections. They also are beautiful objects.
Do you have any especially memorable iron pour experiences you would like to share with us?
Tamsie: So many – join me and the other artists after the pour around the bonfire, and we’ll share them with you over hot tea and brandy.
Ronda: Each one has been incredible and has its own story.
Stephen: One moment that stands out in my memory is pouring my first iron mold with the newfound friendship of Louie Darang. There was fire, smoke, and a little bit of iron spitting and I knew I was in the right place.
Cassi: I made a two-part reaction mold by routering my pattern into two pieces of lumber and glueing and screwing them together. I happened to be mold captain at that pour standing in close range of the lumber mold as it was being poured. I was surprised when the iron shot out the backfill vent about 15 feet in the air. It sounded like a jet engine and made it rain hot iron. No one was remotely injured, and it was more awe-inspiring than frightening.
While at the Glenfiddich distillery, I convinced them to giveme an empty whisky barrel that I could use in an art project. That weekend at the iron pour we poured 100 pounds of molten iron into the barrel, which the barrel was not happy about. It started on fire and started to spew iron back out at us as we tried to pour more in. Finally we emptied the pot of iron and I started to roll the barrel around the yard trying to coat the walls of the barrel with iron. It was acting like a blow torch with a large flame shooting out the hole we poured into. After five minutes of this I was tired and quit rolling it. The sculpture that came out of it once it stopped burning was really great. It looked like a lacy turtle shell. That sculpture resides permanently in Scotland.
What are you casting next?
Tamsie: Always a good question. At this pour, all of my students’ work and over 100 community relief molds.
Ronda: More shoes, and I’m creating a new body of work with character forms that need shoes.
Rose: In 2018, I’m excited to incorporate cast iron work into my thesis show in May at the Nash Gallery in Minneapolis. I will also be curating an exhibition at Franconia in the City @ Casket entirely comprised of works cast in iron made by women. In the future, I plan to attend an MFA program that can facilitate the process of casting iron, so I can continue learning and making art with my community. No matter where life takes me after graduation, I am forever grateful for the promise of iron to be poured, and forever grateful to Franconia for being the place where it all started for me.
Cassi: Custom pipe flanges of odd sizes and angles and another pony hammer.
Stephen: I’m thinking of casting a paired set of figures, one being more of a warrior with a hammer of sorts and the other a science-y scribe.
Kelly: More armatures and some of my crazy animals.
How can you learn more about iron and become a part of the iron community?
Tamsie: University of Minnesota – ARTS 3850/5850 Foundry and Metal Sculpture
Ronda: A good resource for students especially is Wayne Potratz’s book: Hot Metal! A Complete Guide to the Metal Casting of Sculpture. Also the Western Cast Iron Art Conference.
Cassi: Franconia Sculpture Park’s mold making workshops would be the first resource I would recommend for someone just starting to get into casting! The Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center is a good resource for fire related art making (including metal casting). Iron casting will be coming soon. Tamsie Ringler at the U of M is always a great resource. Ironhead Sculptural Services does mold making workshops for hire, and Igneous Metal Arts sometimes holds workshops and pours. One might also try checking out the Friends of Cast Iron page on Facebook.
Kelly: Ironhead Sculptural Services. Contact me!
This activity is funded, in part, through a grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council through an appropriation from the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the State’s general fund. Thank you!