Friday, December 13, 2013
Lost wax bronze casting is a 5000 year old art form but it is getting a new twist at the Grossmont College Sculpture Department. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando visits the foundry to speak with Professor Jim Wilsterman about teaching art in a public context.
The second installment, "The Desolation of Smaug," of the Hobbit Trilogy opened last night reigniting interest in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth with its hobbits, orcs, elves, and dwarves. I visited the Grossmont College Foundry where one student decided to try and forge an orc sword.
The cruel blades of the merciless Uruk-Hai were forged by Saruman in the foulest pits of Isengard but sculpture student Joshua Sprague had to settle for the furnace at his Grossmont College Foundry Lab to craft his version of the orc scimitar. The weapon was made famous in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and then in Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" films. The blade is distinguished by the ingenious addition of a spike on the end on that could pull a rider from his horse with minimal effort. Since Grossmont College Sculpture department has a foundry, Sprague decided to fashion his weapon out of bronze.
Jim Wilsterman, professor of sculpture at Grossmont College invited me to the foundry in May to observe an end of semester bronze pouring and the forging of the Uruk-hai scimitar. Wilsterman is proud of the school’s state of the art sculpture facility that was built in 2007. It includes one of the largest operating foundries of any educational institution in the state with much of the equipment acquired through donations and grants. It’s designed to teach students about sculpture and techniques like lost wax bronze casting.
"What we do here is rather high tech," Wilsterman said, "We use a ceramic shell medium which is a form of silica and it is a material that can resist heat very well so we make waxes for the lost wax process, waxes are then encapsulated in these molds and then we take the molds and heat them, the wax runs out and we can replace it with bronze or another metal."
Sprague’s project employed a slightly different technique that required first making a sword out of wood and clay.
"I’m making the ridge," Spargue explained as he pressed clay onto the wooden template for the sword, "There’s a little part that goes out in a triangular form from the blade and it forms the blade part going down. Just little detail stuff."
The template is then placed in a wooden box, covered with powdered graphite that is carefully pounded so that when inverted, it creates a mold into which the liquid bronze could be poured.
Bronze runs about $8 a pound and requires such intense heat that anyone working with the molten alloy has to wear the same protective gear as a firefighter.
"We use a Mifco furnace, it is a very hi-tech, high velocity furnace, it runs at about 1.2 million BTUs," Wilsterman said, "And we take it up to about 2300 degrees to melt the bronze and then we pull the crucible out which is the container that the bronze goes into, then we take and clean the mold, the material by scraping the dross, which is the contamination on top of the metal and then we take and pour it into the molds."
The molds can be either ones made through the lost wax process or ones like Sprague made for the orc sword, which took a little extra care setting up and casting.
Wilsterman encourages his students to take on fun projects like this. He is a mixed media artist whose Helix/Padre Dam Cloud Project can readily be seen off the 125 freeway. Public art projects like that have long been a passion for him, and he wants to pass that on, which is why he has been working on new curriculum so a new and more fitting degree can be offered to students.
"Where it is more specific to the facilities and that we can offer students because now have these new capabilities. So the degree is going to be called Sculpture and Public Art, it’s been a long time dream of mine to sort of weld those things together and teach about them, there’s not a lot of people that train artists to be public artists they learn about how to make sculpture or about how to make paintings and other things like that but they don’t really teach them about how to function in the public context and that’s been something that’s my specialty," Wilsterman stated.
Sprague’s project may be more personal that public but it’s providing him with a learning experience as he takes his sword through all its various stages.
"I am about to continue cold forging the Uruk-hai scimitar," Sprague said as he repeatedly hit the sword with a ball pein hammer, "And giving it a few more hits, the texture there is all cold forging and just going to straighten it out a little bit more but it’s all part of the process."
This process and many others available at Grossmont’s Sculpture department aren’t taught on many other campuses. Plus, where else can you get extra credit for forging an orc sword.
You can also check out my NPR story about preparing all 7 hobbit meals for a "Lord of the Rings" movie marathon. This year, the orc sword made an appearance and guests passed the scimitar around with loving care.
Companion viewing: "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy"