Iron-Clad Education

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

A nationally recognized kinetic sculptor and installation artist in her own right, Hope Assistant Professor of Art Lisa Walcott has worked in a wide range of mediums over the years. Yet as she notes, “sculpture is a field that encompasses many diverse processes. There is always more to learn.”

For her part, Walcott had long wanted to learn more about sculpting with iron. Here’s a great example of the wisdom and ingenuity of Hope faculty: What to do when there’s a hole in your experience? Turn learning itself into a lesson: create a special workshop and sharpen your skills alongside your students!

Supported in part by a grant from the Hope College Patrons for the Arts, 14 students from Walcott’s Sculpture II course — and Walcott herself — participated in a month-long exercise that featured multiple classroom prep sessions and culminated in an all-day, off-campus, “big pour” iron foundry casting event in October.

“I created this workshop and applied for this grant partly so I could learn more about the process,” Walcott acknowledges. “I have done casting before. We have the ability to do aluminum and bronze casting in-house. But I had not done the exact process of iron, and it’s a huge setup and a team effort. So it was an opportunity for all of us to learn something new.”

Walcott concedes she may have frustrated her students by the vagueness of her assignment. “I just said, ‘Make sure it’s interesting,’” she remembers.

“I didn’t care to see something that had been previously cast in metal before, like a Gatorade bottle, unless it was significantly altered. It was a chance to explore form, objects and their meaning. There are many ways to go about this, so I left the direction they wanted to push this exploration in their hands. And they were like, ‘But what are you looking for?’

“I must have been a funny facilitator, because I was learning a lot alongside them,” Walcott says. “I often try to push myself to learn in the development and teaching of my projects because it keeps it exciting for me and hopefully more fresh for them. I think it’s good for them to see me pushing myself and finding the edge of my knowledge and engaging in a new process. Overall, it was a really good experience to go through with them.”

There were restrictions on the objects to be selected for iron immortality. For one, they could not be larger than a loaf of bread. “Just based on material costs, we couldn’t do any massive things,” Walcott explains. She also wanted her students to consider items “that would be visually striking and conceptually interesting in the translation. So, many of them chose ephemeral or soft objects so we could change them into something cold and hard and dark.”

In order to develop the pattern — that is, the object that was to be cast in iron — Walcott says she and her students “did a series of object-based sculpture exercises, trying to understand how artists have used objects in their work as well as exploring ideas of appropriation and cultural meaning.”

“Sculpture is a field that encompasses many diverse processes. There is always more to learn.”

Lisa Walcott, assistant professor of art

In some cases, the thought process behind the choice of object was almost as interesting as the object itself. “The first thing I thought of when I heard we were doing iron casting was suits of armor,” recalls senior Abby Brummel, a double major in studio art and communication from Hudsonville, Michigan. “I joked with my friends that maybe I should make one for myself. That got me thinking about modern ‘suits of armor’ that we wear.

“I decided to cast a scarf I had created myself. I had no idea it would end up going from a one-pound scarf to a 100-pound iron object, contained inside a 750-pound sand mold!”

Junior Sarah Sanders, an art education major from Grand Haven, Michigan, went for the ultimate in soft-hard contrast. “I tested a bouquet of flowers,” she says. “The process was very interesting because about halfway through they said, ‘We’re going to have to cast yours vertically instead of horizontally because it’s so veined and detailed.’ It was harder, but this was my first time doing a casting and it was a great experience, especially at an undergraduate level.”

In the cavernous workspace inside the De Pree Art Center, Walcott and her students spent weeks making sculptures of their chosen objects (Walcott selected a pair of crumpled, seemingly discarded pants, in line with her developing series tentatively titled “Positions of Utility”), then encasing their art in a specially engineered, industrial-strength binder made of sand and resin to create a mold of their work. It is into those sand molds that 2,700-degree Fahrenheit molten iron would be poured to make their finished metal masterpieces.

Early on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 12, the sculptors met at De Pree to gather their molds and materials and head to Chicago Crucible, which incredibly is not located in Chicago. It’s the second-city branch operation for sculptor and owner-operator Lloyd Mandelbaum, nestled in the woods of Hamilton, Michigan, southeast of Holland. “It’s not too far from Chicago, which is my first location and remains my primary market,” he explains. “It’s just delightful out here in West Michigan.”

The Hope contingent included one budding sculptor who already knew the process better than Walcott: senior Krisia Rosa who studied under Mandelbaum last summer at the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Saugatuck, Michigan, and impressed him sufficiently that she now works at Chicago Crucible part-time.

“I really like it. It’s very cool,” says Rosa, a double major in studio art and English literature who made two intertwined snakes in the shape of the caduceus from Greek mythology for the project. “It’s like 3-D drawing for me. I like the process of making the molds, figuring out what’s going to work and how the metal will flow best. And I got a chance to be on the furnace team for this pour. Before this I had only been part of a pour team. It was very exciting to be so close to the action and the heat.”

Mandelbaum, who works with the Art Institute of Chicago and other educational organizations at his primary location, recruited a crew of experienced ironworkers from the institute and Chicago-area foundries to assist with the pour. He likens the process to the way engine blocks are produced, or, for a less mechanical metaphor, to photography.

“You’ve got a negative and a print, except that it’s three dimensional,” he says. “So instead of a negative you have a mold and instead of a print you have a casting. Basically, it’s a matter of jumping back and forth between the two.”

The sculptors arrived at Chicago Crucible at 10 a.m. but didn’t begin the pour in earnest until almost 4 p.m., so extensive was the setup and practice required. “I think my most vivid memory was just the amount of joy on everyone’s faces throughout the day,” says Brummel. “Yes, it was a long nine hours, but it didn’t feel like it because everyone was there to just have a great time and learn something new.”

Senior Hannah Bugg, a studio art-psychology double major from Urbana, Ohio, enjoyed living in the iron age as well. “The most memorable moment for me was when I got to take a step back after my team finished pouring the last molds,” she says. “I was so hyper focused on directing the ladle and trying not to catch anyone on fire that I couldn’t think about what was happening. Once I pushed my mask up, that’s when I realized the pride and accomplishment I felt from working with iron.

“I was pleasantly surprised to find that the weeks of hard work, the long day and singed hair were worth it,” Bugg reflects. “Really, working with hot iron is so cool.”

Photos by Andy Terzes

Photos by Lisa Walcott