Sculpting in Bronze

Originally published in Cape Arts Review, Vol.1, 2001


Positive-negative-positive-negative, back and forth -- this is how master mold-maker Carolyn Bennett of Sandwich simply describes the complex process of reproduction known as casting and practiced by artisans and artists for many thousands of years.  Their skills are what distinguish the Bronze and Iron Ages from the Stone Ages and lead directly to the work of today's Cape Cod sculptors, artists still using the oldest method of casting metals called "lost wax."   


At his small foundry in a bend of the old route 6 that loops through Truro, founder and sculptor Digby Veevers-Carter walked me through the lost wax process. It goes like this:  the sculptor creates the original form from wax, clay, plaster, or wood.  The mold-maker then makes a plaster shell of the original.  A rubber mold is made by pouring rubber into that plaster shell.  Only a finely wrought mold can capture expressive details of the work.  Next, the hot wax is pored into the mold, reproducing the original image.  This image, to which gates and vents are attached (the circulatory system that allows the molten bronze to flow evenly and unhampered into the most intricate details of the shell) is then dipped in a ceramic investment.   In illustration, Veevers-Carter holds up a waxy sienna stack of his bony, snuffling hound dogs, skewered on a sprue like shiskabob, ready for dipping.  Built up layer upon layer, this investment can require as many as 15 dippings, with four hours of drying between each layer.

When the ceramic shell dries, the piece goes into the kiln for an hour at 1800°.  The wax burns out, leaving the hard empty shell with its vents and gates. Veevers-Carter designed his kiln so that as much as 95% of the wax can be reclaimed.  Meanwhile the blast furnace is heated to 1950° and the bronze ingots placed in the crucible. The still warm ceramic shell is anchored in sand, and the molten bronze is poured into the empty shell, cooling to a solid state within minutes, time depending on the weather, the shell is cracked off leaving the "rough casting.” The gates and vents, now also cast in bronze, are cut from the sculpture and the sculpture is thoroughly cleaned by sandblasting, ground smooth, sandblasted again to a super clean surface. If the sculpture has required casting in pieces, these are welded together and joints are chased smooth.  Patina is applied and rubbed off, adding color, emphasizing the highlights and shadows of the form.  The colors created vary depending on the particular acid recipe and how it reacts with the bronze.  Usually the sculpture is then waxed and buffed, which protects and preserves the colored surface.  Then the base is constructed and the sculpture secured to the base. 

Digby Veevers-Carter figures there are 26 steps in the process, start to finish.  He notes the hours and hours of work he has invested so far in his 4-foot Giacometti-thin couple, standing in the sun, arm in arm, between the workshop and the furnace room.  He built this backyard foundry two years ago, adding onto the garage of the home that belonged to his grandmother, where he spent happy summer hours as a child.  By day, he is a carpenter; at night, he casts bronze.  His interest grew through several courses with Ellen Sidor, a stone sculptor, herself a student of Joyce Johnson at Castle Hill Center in Truro.  "I got obsessed with stone," he says, but once he saw the fragility of stone and that it did not bring as high a price in the galleries, he turned to bronze. "In the art world, for some reason, bronze is legitimizing."  He started the foundry with the idea of casting his own sculpture, but since then, other sculptors on the Cape, some of them artists who had not previously worked with bronze, have begun to come to him for casting, and there has been a kind of renaissance of bronze casting on lower Cape Cod.

Veevers-Carter likes the collaborative nature of running an art foundry.  It can be a rewarding symbiotic relationship, he says, the artisan-founder and the artist working together.  “Sometimes, if there's welding involved, for instance, you really need the presence of the sculptor to get the positioning right."  Still, some sculptors, according to both Veevers-Carter and Bennett, don't really want to have anything to do with the casting process.  "They just make the original and we do the rest."  But Veevers-Carter's small operation and easy access tend to promote the continuing participation of the artist. 

With larger work, explains sculptor Gil Franklin, now living year round in Wellfleet, technical innovations make it possible for the foundry or stone yard to reproduce the work faithfully and quickly.  "Now they can take 360° photo images and highly sophisticated measurements of the smaller original (maquette) and transcribe it in exact proportion.  There's a lot of craft in it."  Franklin worked with larger, well-equipped art foundries, particularly Paul King Foundry in Rhode Island, while he was Professor of Sculpture and Chairman and Dean of the Division of Fine Arts at Rhode Island School of Design.  Bennett often makes his molds.

To create the lyrical Sea Forms, which stands in the garden outside the Wellfleet Public Library, Franklin combined bronze and marble. The dark, opening shell rests on the rise of wave in the curling white stone, conveying through contrast of color and material and line, the rhythm of sea life that surrounds us on the Cape.  The foundry artisans cut the original plaster model into two pieces to make molds.  In this case, the pieces were hollow cast.  Franklin explains that one can't get a true form if the bronze is more than1/4" thick because as it cools, metal shrinks considerably.  Shrinkage distorts the shape, and ruins the surface. The thinner the bronze, the truer to the original.  "If this piece were solid, it could shrink as much as 2 inches," explains Franklin. There is also the consideration of weight.  Even hollow, monumental sculptures require chains and pulleys to move them through the stages of assembly and finishing.

For the marble portion, Franklin visited the stone yard to choose just the right piece of marble. There the stonecutters take the marble down, using compressed air chisels, until they get close to the desired size. Then, using sophisticated calipers to measure the maquette, they create an exact, enlarged replica.  Franklin chose gray granite as the pedestal for Sea Forms, again for the contrast, but also for durability.  Marble wears away over time; granite is tougher.

Both Veevers-Carter and Franklin speak of the challenge of cost facing sculptures. Veevers-Carter spent $75,000 setting up his small foundry, and for those making monumental work, “the cost is prohibitive," says Franklin.  "It's impossible to make a large sculpture without a commission."

Franklin went to Rome in 1962 to make his Orpheus Ascending Fountain now at the Frazier Memorial in Providence.  "Roman art foundries were the best in the world and the least expensive.  I went over there, lived for a year, paid for materials and casting and shipping the work home, all for less than what I would have paid the foundry in New York.  Today that sculpture would probably cost $400,000 to cast."  With a commission, the sculptor recoups all the costs plus the artist's fee, which, according to Franklin, could be one-third of the cost. (A younger sculptor interviewed said he wished he could get such a nice fee.)

One who knows well the extreme challenges of bronze sculpture is Romolo Del Deo, a Provincetown native who now lives and works in New York. Del Deo's highly praised figurative works are expansions of the theme of contemporary antiquities, rooted in classical mythology, interpreted from a post-modern vantage point.  It was a perfect artistic match when he was awarded the commission in the international competition to design the massive doors of the newly built Church of the Transfiguration, which overlooks Rock Harbor in Orleans. The 3,000 lb., 15 feet high double doors portray Adam and Eve, fresh from the moment of creation, beside a flourishing Tree of Life.  Del Deo speaks more in terms of the costs in time and energy of such a big project than the finances.

It takes tremendous endurance, just to keep going.  It can be brutally difficult work, the physical attrition.  You really have to love the physicality of it.  The time-line was unrealistic.  I had a year to do the work, but I really needed two years - a year to sculpt, a year to fabricate.  The gestation of art takes time. The last month, I worked 12 hours a day every day. 


"Most artists are inventors," remarks Del Deo, referring to the technological innovations informing the project. For Del Deo, who doesn't design on paper, the early maquette is more a loose idea than a smaller exact original.  "Nothing can make you prepared for a 9 foot figure. You have to stay open and let the image develop. Otherwise it's static; it doesn't have that organic, living quality to it."    That process required Del Deo to develop a special plastic clay with the right combination of adhesion and malleability that would allow him to work on the entire piece at once.  He worked


800 lbs. of that clay in creating the original.  Although in most projects Del Deo handles the entire process of reproductive himself, "from A to Z," the monumental size of the doors required him to involve other specialists, such as the engineers who could insure that the doors were functional as well as art objects.  The doors and their supporting framework weigh over 4,000 lbs, yet have been carefully engineered to open easily.  And once sculpted as a piece, the infrastructure of the doors had to disassemble to make the molds for casting.


While all this is going on, the flow of bread and butter stops, remarks Del Deo. There's no time for the smaller works that go into the gallery and bring in some income.


The finish work is Del Deo's genius.  He is a master of patination. His extraordinary range of blues, reds, yellows, greens and browns echo the sacred art of alchemy and imbue his figures with an intense emotional resonance.  His Adam and Eve express both the pathos and the promise of the human condition. 


"My hands know what they want to do," he says. "I just have to follow my hands." Del Deo gives full credit to his mentors - his own father, Provincetown painter Salvatore Del Deo; the artisans at Pietrasanta, Italy, where he traveled at 18 to study marble carving and bronze casting as apprentice to Rin Ginnanini; sculptor Dimitri Hadzi, with whom he studied for six years at Harvard; and especially, Truro sculptor Joyce Johnson whose course he took at Castle Hill when he was just 15.  "As soon as I picked up the clay, I felt like it was what I was meant to do."


From Provincetown, to Truro, to Rome, to Cambridge, to New York, and back again to the Cape -- the circle of sculpture goes around.  Sculptor Joyce Johnson works daily in her studio in N. Eastham and although her favorite sculpting process is carving in stone and wood, she has had some relatively small pieces cast in bronze, most lately at Veevers-Carter's foundry.  Johnson cast her largest bronze, Young Girl with Hat and Bird, a half life-size figure measuring 20" x 10" x 10", in Boston several years ago.  Once she experimented with casting in Mexico, where it was cheaper, but found it didn't work.  "You really have to be there." 


Although Johnson's preferred media are wood and stone, working on small bronzes is, again, often a matter cost, time, space and energy.  She can make many small pieces in an edition; they're cheaper to cast, easier to finish, and more likely to sell. Johnson creates her original with sculpey, a commercial modeling compound that can be baked in a conventional oven at 275°.  Carolyn Bennett makes her molds and Digby-Veevers rough casts them. "Once you get beyond a certain size, you have to worry about maneuvering it, moving it around the studio, storing it.  The 'Young Girl' piece weighs just under one hundred pounds, which I can manage. But the physical labor can be daunting. It's a lot of labor. You kill yourself."


Sometimes, artistic intention must override cost.  Johnson agrees that casting a large piece in bronze can be prohibitive unless the work is commissioned, but in some cases, she says, it is a necessary investment.  "I did not have a buyer for the 'Young Girl" piece," she says.  "The main reason I had it cast was because the original material was plaster of Paris which I do not consider permanent and can be damaged easily.  There is a permanency and special visual richness about bronze not found in other materials -- an inner glow that is hard to describe and makes the cost incidental to the final product.  I have had a number of other pieces cast in bronze for those same reasons -- their permanence and for the beauty of the material."


There are serious occupational hazards associated with sculpting.  Del Deo suffers painful bursitis in the shoulders from working with his arms over his head so long and he has torn ligaments in his wrist in the process of modeling the clay. There can be nerve damage in the hands from the relentless vibration of sandblasting, or using a pneumatic chisel or grinder.  Carolyn Bennett, who makes her molds on a tabletop in the basement, sometimes works in clouds of plaster dust.  She stopped working in a large foundry in Boston because they began making fiberglass molds to use in cold casting. Digby-Veevers speaks of heat, fire, chemicals, and, potentially, explosion, while Johnson says fumes from contemporary catalytic casting compounds, which are a less expensive casting alternative to bronze, can be lethal.


Money, time, energy, health -- bronze sculpting is a costly art. 


Johnson remembers that Truro sculptor Sidney Simon once told her that if sculptors seeking commissions are not sure of what they're doing, they'll go bankrupt, because the cost is prohibitive.  It's easy to underestimate the costs, particularly of transporting a large work and mounting it in a site.  Asked how it would affect her work if money were no object.  "Well," she ponders, "energy is an important commodity, too - just to be able to hire someone to help me. But to be an artist," Johnson concludes, "and to go on evolving in your work, you really can't think about money and selling.  You have to live cheaply and do the work; be true to your creative instincts.  Get the work out into the world." 

Joyce Johnson exhibits at Addison-Holmes in Orleans and Robyn Watson in Provincetown.  She was the founder of Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro and served as its director for its first ten years. 

Gil Franklin and Romolo Del Deo exhibit at Berta Walker in Provincetown.  Digby-Veevers exhibits at Davis Gallery in Wellfleet. Mold-maker Carolyn Bennett, former Alaskan fisherman, mother of three, works with sculptors and foundries throughout New England. 

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved