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Mead: The art is in the fire

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The technique of casting bronze stretches back three millennia and is a hallmark of human technological evolution used to create weapons, tools and decorative sculptures. Today, casting bronze is a continuum form of artistic expression for students at the College of William & Mary.

New technology has emerged, yet much of the process remains unchanged, says Associate Professor of Art Elizabeth Mead. The interaction of alloy consisting of primarily copper, a 2000-degree-plus furnace, and the clamor of chisels and hammers against metal, has endured the test of time. Minus the integration of a few electric-power tools.

Mead, who’s studied art around the world, has previously taught at distinguished institutions such as the Slade School of Fine Art in London and Japan’s Youkobo Art Space. She is passionate about William & Mary students learning the artistic process of casting bronze.

“Bronze has attitude, a personality, and this ability to assert its presence into a space in a way that’s unlike any other material,” said Mead. “A highly polished bronze piece sort of has a way of pushing at you – kind of like when someone walks in the room, and before they get there, you know they’re there.”

According to Mead, there’s a tendency for institutions to hold off on casting bronze until the senior year. But not at William & Mary. Mead has made it a priority to introduce students early on to the process through a freshman seminar course. Advanced sculpture classes give upper-level students the chance to hone their artistic skills and refine the transition of materials.

“Teaching the process early on gives our students a broader vocabulary,” said Mead. “If I’m a student who’s deciding what it is I want for my work, and the qualities I want it to have, I want as broad a vocabulary as possible to choose from – and bronze should be one of those choices.”

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Junior Stacy Lewis, a double major in art and psychology, has taken four of Mead’s classes. She is driven to explore new materials, which she hopes will influence her future artwork. 

Her latest piece is a small bronze sculpture with bone and joint-like features symbolizing the human ribcage. Lewis says she had no intention of casting the mock up, which was originally constructed from wooden dowel rods and hot glue. But as she delved deeper, Lewis started to envision a skeletal form stretched back with the ribs and spine splayed outward.

“I see the world differently. I see forms everywhere. And I really like the way things connect,” said Lewis, who recently completed an anatomy lab. “It’s not just about understanding the physical presence of the human body; it’s about understanding how the skeleton, the muscles and the tendons interact and overlap to create the human body.”

Casting bronze is an intense, time-consuming, yet extremely rewarding process, says Mead. Before an artist can even begin to think about pouring the molten fire-red metal, several steps are required.

First, a wax mold is created, she said. Added next are a series of “gates,” or routes allowing the metal to flow into the mold, and “vents,” which allow gases to escape. A large cup is attached at one end, which captures the molten bronze as it's poured.  The cup also acts as a reservoir and provides additional metal as the poured metal cools and shrinks, added Mead.

The next step is to create an “investment,” akin to a mold, consisting of one part Ludo, one part sand and one part plaster, says Mead. The investments then undergo a “burnout,” which takes several days to complete. During this time, the kiln is set on low allowing the moisture to slowly evaporate from the investments. 

Over the next 24 hours, the kiln is gradually brought up to a temperature of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.  The kiln remains at that temperature for another 24 hours before it’s shut off.  At the same time, the furnace is turned on until it reaches 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit – the maximum temperature for melting bronze, says Mead.

Before a pour, students dress into thick, protective gear.  The pour team operates in sync – hoisting the crucible full of hot bronze from the furnace to pour into the cups.

“Once the metal is poured, all the glory is over and it’s back to square one,” said Mead.

Lewis’ skeletal piece has been wire-brushed and sandblasted. A couple of joints were lost during the bronze cast, but she’s not worried. They can be welded onto her piece to hide the imperfections. 

For Lewis, the casting was a success. She’s discovered the artistic uniqueness of joint-like forms and intends to cast more bronze next fall.

The patina, or coloration, is the final step of the process. Not all bronze pieces undergo a color treatment. Lewis says she wants “nothing fancy” and plans to complete her piece with only a polish. 

“The piece is non-functional and exists solely for the purpose of existing,” she said.