["Best of Chicago Art Magazine" re-post. Originally appeared 6/27/10]
The School of the Art Institute was founded in 1866, making it one hundred and forty-four years old. Originally intending to train fine artists in the techniques and styles of painting, drawing and sculpture, the school now offers courses in performance, film, video, new media, fashion design, architecture, art therapy, sound and metal work. The school’s foundry has been in operation for approximately twenty-five years, allowing students to work with aluminum and bronze in the basement of the Columbus Street building. In addition to introductory and intermediate skills-based courses, taught by Caroline Ottmers and Gabe Akagawa, advanced cast metal art students can register to use the space to develop ongoing projects and new ideas. Because of the particularly large-scale and heated nature of iron pouring, as opposed to aluminum or bronze, however, it has been impossible for students to work with the metal on school grounds. And yet, iron pouring has garnered a more than fair share of interest among the student body and the faculty alike, leading to the development of more creative, “outside of the box” opportunities for working with the contentious metal.
Iron pours are often hosted by those with access to large bodies of land and unfazed by the protectively clad men and women working with thousands of pounds of metal heated to approximately 2600 degrees Fahrenheit. Space is especially necessary as it usually takes a good ten or more bodies to run an iron pour effectively. Four or five individuals are needed to constantly man the furnace, an additional person to work the tuyeres, which allow air into the furnace to create blasts, another to tap the well when the hot metal is ready to be let out and at least two more to carry the metal in the ladle and pour into the molds. Iron pours also take time to set-up—the metal workers build their own furnaces or “cupolas” as well as gather the necessary coke and pieces of solid metal to work with—and cleanup usually takes a couple hours as well. Cooperation and teamwork is necessary for success, and, because of this, wherever iron pours occur, friendships tend to develop. As 2010 SAIC alumnus and Molten Metal Group student leader Derek Russell recently told Chicago Art Magazine, “It takes a community to make a pour happen.”
SAIC recently celebrated its 20th annual iron pour in Lake Bluff, Illinois. The largest and most regular of SAIC iron pours, from May 6th-9th, hundreds of students, faculty and alumni gathered to pour 8,000 pounds of iron over the course of two days. Due to the celebratory nature of this year’s event, there were additional fun features to the four-day gathering. Students built and demonstrated experimental furnaces, including cupolettes (smaller versions of the traditional cupola) and furnaces designed to run on alternative fuels. For five weeks prior to the event, twenty or so current students, under the guidance of SAIC alumnus and visiting faculty Hans Wolfe, built a spherical cupolette on a four by twelve foot railroad-style pump handcart, and towards the end of the gathering performed a “Cirque de Flambé” for their fellow pourers.
Travelling hundreds or even thousands of miles is not unheard of for those passionate about making cast iron art. In spring 2009, a SAIC cupola-building class saved up to travel to Birmingham, Alabama for the first National Conference of Cast Iron Art (previously Southern-specific conference), where out of fourteen student groups they and their cupola won the iron-pouring contest. Similarly, SAIC students and faculty regularly attend a biennial Iron Casting Conference held at the Indianapolis Art Center. The 2010 conference is scheduled for October 7th-10th. Next month, Russell and other recent SAIC alumni are heading to Iowa for a privately organized annual “down on the farm” pour. Even more highly anticipated is this July’s International Conference of Contemporary Cast Iron Art in Wales, where practitioners of the art from around the world, including SAIC students and alumni, will gather for five days of panels, demonstrations, performances, exhibitions and competitions.
Events such as these are important for anyone serious about working in cast iron. Because it takes a team to run a pour, networking and building friendships is key. SAIC faculty member Gabe Akagawa has made it his pet project to encourage and document such partnerships through a photography project called the Foundry Tree. As he travels to iron pours around the country and the world, Akagawa brings with him his camera and backdrop, photographing the artists in their leathers in a uniform manner and documenting with whom and where they have learned to pour iron. It is one of many efforts currently being made meant to facilitate the development of iron pouring communities.