From the outside, the Fire Arts Center is an unassuming place. It's located on the second floor of a homely factory building on Honore just north of Berteau, on a stretch of road squeezed between the Metra's Northern line and the el tracks. The center's main entrance is through the loading dock.
Inside, the shop literally roars. Most of the noise comes from a furnace at the back of the room. Flames swirl inside as the temperature climbs to more than 3,000 degrees. A graphite crucible sits inside the furnace, and inside it a small pile of metal glows red and sinks into a formless soup.
Equipped for all manner of cutting, welding, forging, melting, and pouring of metals, the Fire Arts Center is one of Chicago's few remaining foundries. A metal saw, an arc welder, two kilns, a sandpit, and an anvil, among other things, are scattered around the room. Vince Hawkins, a sculptor and School of the Art Institute alum, has built or modified most of the equipment in the shop himself--with the exception of the anvil and something called a throatless shear, which can can slice through sheet metal like a knife through butter. "That's the first thing to go when a metal shop goes out of business," he says.
Hawkins started the center in a garage in Wicker Park with fellow sculptor Jian Kim roughly a decade ago. They originally called themselves the Artists' Sculpture Cooperative. "We both got the idea of creating a place where basically artists
could do their work," says Hawkins. "We had a trash can with K-wool we used for a furnace. Real basic."
After the place was burglarized several times--"They'd steal drills, things like that"--they moved to a building in Ravens-wood about a block south of where the center is now. Then Kim moved out of town about six years ago, but the co-op went on; it was incorporated as the Fire Arts Center in 1997 and settled in the building on Honore in 1999. Members continue to come and go; there are typically half a dozen at any given time. Every year about 35 people seek out the center to take classes in welding and the foundry arts. Another 80 to 100 come for onetime demonstrations and other events.
Tonight the core members of the center are gathered for what they are loosely calling a bronze melt. Besides Hawkins, there are architect and furniture maker Bryce de Reynier, plumber and self-taught sculptor Bill Anders, and Zera Holladay, who studied foundry at the School of the Art Institute and now works as a computer programmer. Absent is Nancy Phillips, a fiber artist who serves as the center's executive director and who often stands in as Hawkins's second in the pour.
Conventional bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, with small quantities of other metals mixed in to bring out particular metallurgic virtues in the finished cast. But tonight the group is melting something called "Bill's Funky Mix," made from two buckets of plumbing parts Anders hauled in from his day job. He's making a dozen copies of an antique coat hook he found at a junk shop, and he's got two molds to fill. With their elaborate system of sprues--channels arranged to carry metal to each part of the mold as quickly and smoothly as possible--the molds look like a pair of chandeliers.
The ceramic shell used to make those molds is one of the most high-tech materials in this low-tech shop. It was developed for making the precision parts required by the aerospace industry. The finished molds are only about a quarter of an inch thick, and they'll be filled with metal that's been heated to 2,000 degrees.
They're made from colloidal silica gel mixed with refractory (heat-reflecting) powder. There's a great tub of the stuff being rhythmically stirred by a mechanical agitator to one side of the shop; it looks like wallpaper paste. A student named Jim Graham is using it to make molds for a set of meditation gongs. Amid the din of the furnace and the general rush to prepare for the pour, he quietly paints layers of the slurry onto a wax pattern. He'll alternate those with sprinklings of refractory powder, gradually building up a thin coat of stucco. When the ceramic material is dry, the wax pattern is melted out in the kiln, where Bill's molds now wait to be preheated before the metal is poured. The preheat will help prevent the molten metal from starting to cool before the molds are filled.
Hawkins, a kinetic man in general, seems to be moving faster than usual tonight; in fact, the whole studio is in a flurry of activity. Holladay is showing a prospective student around. A student from the Thursday welding class moves between the arc welder and a saw, cutting iron bars with a shriek and a burst of sparks, while another is busy sorting out the heavy parts from Anders's buckets to feed the melt. There are two sets of exhaust systems roaring, and every seven minutes or so an el train crashes past the windows on the west wall.
Fire Arts actually has two furnaces. The iron furnace is a new acquisition, donated by Hinsdale South High School. The bronze furnace is homemade, built from a steel barrel lined with refractory cement. Two tanks of propane feed into a duct with an electric blower at one end; the duct enters the furnace just beneath the spot where the crucible sits. When it's lit, the flame swirls around the circular interior, reflecting off the cement and heating the crucible evenly on all sides.
"When you're melting metal you're dealing with the raw elemental forces of nature," Hawkins says. "Everything is kind of barely under control. You're pushing everything to its utmost limit of what it can handle.
"We've done silver, we've done Monel [a nickel-copper alloy], we've done every kind of bronze. I want to do some stainless. That's our next project." Melting stainless steel takes extreme heat. "I want to see if our equipment can handle it."
Forty years ago there were almost 200 foundries pouring metal in Chicago; today there are about 25. Hiring one out to cast metal sculpture can be prohibitively expensive, which is one reason a lot of sculpture students don't work in metal when they get out of school. Casting metal is also time-consuming: Hawkins says he might do 100 figure drawings and mold a dozen studies out of clay before he decides to pour a piece in bronze. He estimates he's poured 10 to 15 bronzes in his career as a sculptor--"maybe three that I think are really good."
He built his first sculpture in high school in Washington, D.C., using polyester resin, which "is carcinogenic to the touch after it's set. You add a drop of catalyst to it; if you add too little it won't set, if you add too much the whole thing shatters. It never sets completely, so whatever you make out of it has a limited life." He hated it.
"The worst thing that's going to happen with bronze is that you get horribly burned over some part of your body. The worst thing that can happen with polyester resin is that you're brain-damaged," he says. "If you have to choose between having your arm horribly burned or being a brain-dead moron in an institution, which would you choose?" In 15-odd years working in foundries he's never seen an accident. "Everyone I've known who works in wood shop cuts a limb at some point, but fire inspires respect."
What really won him over to metalwork was an outdoor melt he attended as part of a sculpture convention the summer after his high school graduation. "They just stacked crucibles with metal in them, and just built a cone of firebrick around it, put venturi burners in it, which is just like what you have in your stove, but bigger. They had propane and melted it. It took like a day and a half or so. That was great. It was just such a grunt operation, and I knew that was something I wanted to do."
He went on to study at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, propelled by a fascination with nature and form. "Back then Tyler was very much into performance, and very much into abstract expressionism. There's not a lot of nature in either one of those things. Foundry was a good place to be because you could pretty much do whatever you want."
He spent a year studying in Rome, where he hit it off with an Italian sculptor. When he returned to Tyler "with all these ideas," he discovered the school had a turn-of-the-century figure-sculpting studio that no one was using. "It was beautiful--two stories high with north light and big boxes to roll your whole sculpture stand in. In the basement they had this thing called the plaster pit, which had a power hoist. You could lower your stuff down there, and [there were] big chutes with plaster for mold making." He cast bronze, aluminum, iron.
"It was great because there was also this grant money that you could get, specifically for students like me to hire models to do figure work, and no one had applied for it in like 20 years. So I applied for these grants to work from the figure, with absolutely no interference from anyone in this giant-ass space, to do all the work I wanted."
Hawkins had lived in Chicago before he and his mother moved to D.C., and a couple years after graduating from Tyler he began to consider moving back. "The figure models in Chicago were legendary. This one, Joan Smith, we heard about her in Philadelphia. It was like 'I want to work from this Joan Smith person.'" So he applied to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute. He received his master's in 1987.
At the melt, things are going full blast. All of the equipment is in use and the furnace is roaring when Hawkins realizes they've run out of Borax. The laundry additive is used as a flux: it bonds with impurities in the metal and rises to the top of the melt as a gray scum. Holladay runs out to Walgreens to pick up a box. In the meantime Hawkins throws a handful of sand on the melt, creating a sizzle and a cloud of sparks--"The sand makes the Borax goopy, so you can skim it," he says. Then he starts looking for a box to use to hold the ceramic shell upright while the metal is poured into it.
There's one metal box in the sandpit already, but they need two: one for each mold. There were more, but apparently de Reynier threw them out. They seem to go back and forth like that: Hawkins working in controlled chaos, de Reynier straightening up behind. Hawkins checks the Dumpster downstairs, then makes a pass by the loading dock. He checks with a neighbor, to no avail. Finally he settles on a cardboard box. It seems too flimsy to withstand the intense heat, but "it'll work as long as the box is square," Hawkins says. It'll get filled with sand, and any metal that spills will be contained as the sand presses against the square sides. They've had metal break out of the shell in a cardboard box before, and it held.
Upstairs a stench is rising off the melt. It's more noxious than usual because of the motley nature of the metal. Hawkins points out a vapor rising off the top and says it's from the zinc. There's not a lot to do but wait for the metal to melt, so de Reynier retreats to the little terrace that juts out over the first-floor roof. There are trees in pots and an old car seat for a sofa.
In 1995, when de Reynier moved to Chicago, he was looking for a wood shop but found the Fire Arts Center instead. Its members, generally speaking, were a less settled bunch when he first arrived. One of them wanted to move the center to Schaumburg because a psychic had told her it would be a good move; there was another who played drums on the street for change. These days it's achieved a certain stability. Student fees pay for the space, and the members themselves have settled into steadier careers.
For a long time de Reynier didn't do much metal casting--he welded and built furniture. He's just beginning to try foundry now. His first effort was a small cube with the sides squashed in. Now he's making another object, a shell-like abstraction he drew during a dull meeting at work. He'll cast that one in solid copper. He says a lot of the work he sees his peers in the art world doing is all about concept; the Fire Arts Center is about technique. "I think that what Bill and Zera and Vince and I have in common is that [when we make an object] it's not about something. It's just about making something beautiful."
Holladay describes trying to learn foundry at the School of the Art Institute, with its handbooks and manuals detailing exactly where the students should stand. At Fire Arts, he says, you're there to think through problems from beginning to end. Take the silica slurry, for example: "I'm there to see it mixed, I'm there to see it applied; I know that the machine that stirs it is made out of a drill found in an alleyway and a laundry-machine motor with a two-dollar timer."
The furnace has been burning for an hour and a half, and the metal is ready to pour. Everything will happen quickly, says Hawkins, and must be absolutely precise. Hawkins, Anders, and Holladay help each other suit up in protective leather--they wear aprons, shin guards, gloves, and shields over their faces. They turn off the kiln, and Anders and Holladay reach in, each using an extra pair of leather gloves as pot holders. They lift out the superhot shells one at a time and carry them to the boxes in the sandpit. One of them holds the shell in place while the others shovel sand in around it as quickly as possible. You can smell the leather scorching. One of the gloves used to carry the mold has been dropped to the floor, and it smokes like a crumpled hand that's been horribly burned.
Hawkins gives a countdown before he shuts off the furnace. Holladay is poised on the other side, holding a long steel rod. "He doesn't look like a computer programmer, does he?" says de Reynier. The inside of the furnace glows red as Holladay reaches in with a long instrument and skims the slag off the top of the melt. It sticks like clotted honey, and he whacks it into a metal box. Hawkins described the scum as looking like snot, but since it's red-hot as Holladay scoops it out, it's hard to figure out how he can tell it from the metal underneath.
They lift the crucible out of the furnace with a pair of elaborate iron tongs and set it into a pouring shank, a long bar with a cradle in the center to hold the crucible and handles on either side. They lift the shank, carry it over to the sandpit, and start to pour.
Suddenly it's clear how they tell the metal from the slag: It isn't cherry red, or white-hot, either. It looks like light; it spills like syrup from a cup. A train clatters by, and the exhaust fans roar. First they fill one shell, then the other; they pour the remainder into a makeshift trough. Thirty seconds and they're done.
Hawkins uses tongs to fish for a brick that fell into the furnace when they lifted the crucible out. It's luminous red. De Reynier presses a copper penny into the glowing top of each mold with tongs for luck. A small green plume rises over each melting penny.
After the pour everything else seems anticlimactic. The metal at the top of the molds turns darker and darker red and grows a mottled earthy scum on top, like hot lava turning to rock. The molds lose heat at a rate of about 100 degrees a minute. When they're cool enough they get transferred from the sand to the floor, and after about 20 minutes Anders starts whacking them with tongs, impatient to crack the shells and see what's inside. The first mold filled completely, but only one or two of the coat hooks in the second mold received the molten metal--the others are hollow. The group speculates on what happened: it might have been the way the sprues fed the metal into the mold, or it might have been that the shell was on the cooler side of the kiln during the preheat.
Each cooling coat hook has a fine detail of fish scales on the surface, just like the originals. A mottled brassy color, they are pretty objects. But you can't help but think Bill's Funky Mix achieved its most perfect state in the moment it spilled between crucible and mold.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.