Arts & Culture » Travel

Casts of Thousands

These Parts--Artists from all over the world flock to a small foundry in Oregon, Illinois, to have their works bathed in bronze.

by

comment

It looks like a party for supersize time travelers: Abraham Lincoln, eleven feet tall, raises his arm sternly, as if to emphasize a point, while a nine-foot-tall Senator Stephen Douglas, hand on his hip, scowls. At his elbow is a thoughtful ten-foot Dr. W.W. Mayo; at a diminutive eight feet, Mother Alfred Moes, the nun who persuaded him and his sons to staff what would become the Mayo Clinic, looks on serenely. Across the warehouselike space, a ten-foot-plus Native American warrior reclines in a huge nylon sling, waiting for his ride back to Cincinnati.

Amid their guests--bronze statues they've recently cast or restored at their foundry, Art Casting of Illinois--Harry and Karly Spell look positively tiny. Two decades ago the couple, who'd spent most of their working lives in academia, couldn't have imagined themselves in such company. But over the past 13 years, since they bought the foundry on the bank of the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois (about 90 miles west of Chicago), they've grown accustomed to life among giants.

Among the ten largest fine-art foundries in the country, Art Casting produces over a ton of bronze sculpture per month. About 300 artists from all over the world bring sculptures executed in clay, wood, stone, and papier mache to the foundry, where the Spells and their ten employees cast them in bronze.

The statues of Lincoln and Douglas, for instance, are Chicago-area artist Rebecca Childers Caleel's representation of the 1858 debates that launched Lincoln to national prominence and killed Douglas's designs on the White House. They're headed for Ottawa, Illinois, where the first of the seven debates took place. The statue of Moes is the recent work of Urbana sculptor Mike Major. Moes's companion, Dr. Mayo, was sculpted by Chicago artist Leonard Crunelle in 1915. After nearly a century weathering the elements--and pigeons--of Rochester, Minnesota, the older statue was sent to Art Casting for refurbishing. The two statues will soon stand together on the grounds of the Mayo Clinic.

Perhaps the most famous bronze the Spells have cast is the 16-foot-tall Michael Jordan statue at the United Center. They also cast the annual trophy for the Iditarod dogsled race--a figure of an Inuit musher holding one of his dogs. They're presently working on a fountain commissioned by the DuSable Museum of African American History. The work of sculptor Rene Townsend, it will memorialize the 1839 uprising aboard the slave ship Amistad.

There has been a foundry at this site since 1827. Originally an ironworks, it produced bronze cannons during the Civil War, and local lore has it that Lincoln himself used to stop in to inspect the arms.

From the 1930s through the '50s, Harry says, the foundry made iron piano plates (the metal frames across which the strings are strung). It was converted into a fine-art foundry in 1980 by Dan Reed, who inherited the plant from his father.

Harry, now 60, first learned of the foundry in 1988 from an old college friend, Stanley Castleman of Dayton, Ohio. (They'd been cadets together in the early 60s at the Citadel, where Harry majored in physics and worried about being "rounded up for the Cuban invasion.") The foundry then belonged to Castleman's brother-in-law, James Thomas, but it was close to bankruptcy. When Thomas died in 1988, his family wanted to keep it running. At the time, Karly was an administrative assistant and Harry a professor of music and music history at Bradley University in Peoria. Passionate supporters of the arts, they took up the cause of keeping the foundry alive.

The Spells' original plan was to persuade a university to purchase the foundry for an extension campus. They began educating themselves about foundries and casting techniques, the better to promote the idea. But no school took the bait. "They didn't want faculty and students so far away from a main campus--too little control," says Harry.

So they came up with the wild idea of buying the foundry themselves--even though, aside from a less than successful bust of Julius Caesar that Harry had carved in high school, neither had any relevant experience. Nonetheless, they dived in headfirst. Keeping their house in Peoria, they rented an apartment in Oregon. Karly resigned from the university to run the foundry. Harry continued to teach in Peoria, commuting back and forth three or four times a week. At first they had only one employee, a metalworker inherited from the previous management, and one client, Wisconsin sculptor William Jauquet. Gradually they built up the business, doing everything from the bookkeeping to the actual casting and finishing themselves.

"It's just like a family," says Rebecca Childers Caleel of her relationship with the Spells. "Harry and Karly try to help all of their artists. They go out of their way to see that everything works out right for you. If you're working on a project and committed to a time limit, they'll do everything they can to see you make that time limit. If they see something isn't quite right with the work, instead of just casting like most places would do they'll call your attention to it and correct it."

Seven years ago, Harry decided he was fed up with commuting. "So I asked my sweet wife for a job and she gave me one," he says. Once closely involved in the casting, he now leaves most of that work to the staff and devotes his attention to running Adagio Fine Art--a gallery the Spells opened in 1997 on the top floor of the foundry building to sell old masters and contemporary art. (Their present inventory includes a Renoir bronze and a 1497 wood-cut by Albrecht Durer.) Karly mostly keeps the books and handles other administrative tasks but does some foundry work too.

The foundry uses the lost-wax process perfected by the ancient Greeks. "The technology is different, but the process is really still the same as it was thousands of years ago," Harry says. "If the ancient Greeks were to walk in here today, they would recognize the process we're using."

Lost-wax casting involves five steps. First the object is covered in liquid rubber (the Greeks used clay), which hardens into a mold. The mold is peeled off and filled with wax, to create a model. Then the model is covered with a ceramic shell and fired in a kiln. The wax melts away, leaving a second, heat-resistant mold. Molten bronze--from ingots heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit--is poured into the shell. After a day of cooling, the shell is broken away to reveal the bronze. Large sculptures like the 11-foot Lincoln are cast in smaller pieces--forearms, biceps, thighs, torso--which are then welded together.

The new bronze is exposed to a combination of acids and other chemicals that give its surface a finished texture and color, called a patina. Different chemical combinations produce different patinas, from deep smooth red to bright green to mottled brown. Some patinas make bronze look like wood or marble. Most patina solutions are no more caustic than orange juice. The Italian old masters used to get brownish patinas by rubbing raw potatoes on the bronze. Other finishes required the use of urine.

The Spells learned everything they know about foundry work from books and from trial and error. "We're academics, so our approach would be to go to the library and get a book about patinas," says Harry. "We both just learned it as we went," adds Karly. "We were a little hesitant when we walked in the building the first day, but then we just did it."

The day before Valentine's Day 1996, disaster struck: the foundry was destroyed by a fire that started in a wax pot. Lost in the blaze were all of Harry's musical instruments, recordings, and books; all that survived were a few bronze pieces, including an ash-blackened owl that now guards the entrance to the rebuilt foundry. "It was devastating, devastating," says Harry. "But I just had to keep telling myself that it's only stuff."

The Spells have recently made a big investment in new technology called haptic software, which allows sculptors to make and modify three-dimensional digital models. These can then be turned into physical objects using manufacturing tech-nology called rapid prototyping. Artists can either create shapes from their imagination or capture a 3-D likeness of a person or object using a laser scanner, then modify it freely before giving it a physical form. Harry is convinced that digital and industrial technologies hold enormous artistic potential, and wants Art Casting to be at the forefront of the field. "We're the only fine-art facility in the country using that particular combination of laser scanner and haptic software," he says. Harry rubs his hands nervously when talking about the new technology. "We've bet the ranch on this one," he says.

Haptic software and rapid prototyping seem a far cry from the ancient art of lost-wax casting, but to the Spells they're both a means to the same end. "We're making beautiful pieces of art for people to see for a long, long time," says Karly. "This is exhilarating."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

Add a comment