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Building Community with Molten Metal

Gianofer Fields

When Lake Effect's material culture contributor Gianofer Fields was a kid, her father worked at Pelton Steel Casting Company in Milwaukee. Very simply put, casting metal is the process of melting iron, pouring it into molds, and letting it cool. Her father was a Finish Grinder and it was his job to clean up the cast objects after they were pulled from the molds.

It was a dirty and dangerous job. There were times when Fields' father would come home with a patch over his eye or a bandage on a new burn. But, as dangerous as his job appeared to her young eyes, his stories about wacky work buddies dissolved her fear for his safety.

Her father worked in a building large enough for trains to drive through but now she's visiting a much smaller place on Madison’s west side. At FeLion Studios, a group of artists are pouring molten iron. As she pulls into the driveway, she sees two men busting up an old cast iron radiator into bits with sledge hammers. Others are milling about putting on work clothes and chatting. Fields says they are all here for one thing...the pour.

Megan Burditt is standing a safe distance from the flying bits of metal. She says she hasn’t been working with metal that long and she hopes to learn a few things.

"They start with initially the wood molds, and then from there they make a silicon mold, and then from there they make a plastic mold, and then from there this sand gets set," she says. "And see the pipes that they're putting in? Those are kind of the seep holes where they're going to be pouring the liquid metal into. It's very exciting."

But the hot temperatures and chaos of the pour are anything but exciting to Fields. She says being inside the studio is like being in an emergency room, but instead of yelling for sutures and suction, people are saying stuff like "Hold the resin!" and "Bring me the catalyst!"

Alisa Toninato says while nobody’s life is on the line, everything has to be done quickly.

“So we have about 20 minutes before the mix in the sand gets hard and creates, like, the rigid sand mold that holds the molten metal," she says. "There's a lot of little steps, like some of the patterns are really detailed. So we want to make sure that we don't put any product in there that's starting to kick and get cookie-crumbly on us that it won't really bind, like, homogeneously as a big mold. We don't want to have any loose bits in there and stuff."

Toninato says casting iron is a lot like baking a cake - you have to sift all the lumps and bumps out of the mixture. When the cake - also known as the object - is removed from the mold, you want a pristine smooth surface and not a bunch of craters everywhere. To do that, you need a lot of help.

That's something metal-casting newbie Aaron Laux is seeing firsthand. He's a woodworker and he says pouring metal is a huge undertaking.

"My take on this being from the outside is that ...there's a lot of camaraderie here," he says. "It's a group-oriented effort to making art, and you just wouldn't do this yourself."

Metalsmith Kelly Ludeking says a successful group pour is not just about how many hands it takes to pour the metal - it’s also about to whom those hands belong. He says you have to make sure you click with the different personalities at the pour - and when you do, those are some strong ties.

"I can go to anybody's iron pour, and even if I don't know the specific person putting it on, I'm like one person removed from that person probably, and it's that tight of a community, that you're family, instantly," Ludeking says. "If you say, 'Oh I cast metal and I've been with these people,' you're automatically kind of in."

Ludeking says, while it's definitely a group thing, the work of the individual is not lost.

"Well, you're still making your own pieces," he says. "Everybody that's in this has got their own piece of art that they're actually bringing in that they're working on, but they need the greater community to make that piece, so everybody's in it with the same kind of lust for the material and for the finished product. They want their piece to come out, and the only way their piece is going to come out is if everybody's else's pieces come out, you know, also, and we all work together as that community."

"It's that tight of a community, that you're family, instantly." -Kelly Ludeking

Margaret Bobo-Dancy is a student at the Art Institute in Chicago who made the drive to Madison just for the pour. She says that while it’s fun to work with folks, there is a practical side to group pours.

"You can have an iron pour with less pieces to cast," she says. "It's just it's not energy-proficient, so on a very technical level you want to have a big iron pour full with lots of people getting ready to work, because you need to have a lot of iron going down for it to even be worth it to start it up, because it's a long painful process."

Part of Fields' work is asking artists about the transformative aspect of working alone on a single piece of art. Bobo-Dancy says a group pour changes that dynamic of solo work.

"I think that in the metal casting process, there's a lot of time when you are by yourself and it's slow and it's meditative, you kind of have to get into the Zen of creating molds and creating objects to be casted," Bobo-Dancy says. "And then you get together and it's this really exhilarating, exciting experience where you get to pour metal, and then after the next day, you clean up, you pick up your pieces and you take them back to where you're working or where your shop is, and then you go back to that sort of solitary work method."

As they get ready to begin the pour, Burditt, Toninato, Laux, Ludeking and Bobo-Dancy all don their protective gear and get ready for a lot of hard work. But Fields says they are still smiling and laughing, and that helps her "get" it.

She says while she will never really experience exactly what her father went through at work, she now understands he didn’t suffer all the scars and eye patches alone.

Contributor Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "It's a Material World" - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts. Fields introduced us to some metal casters at FeLion studios.

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