Last week, I was in Birmingham, Alabama, for the National Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art & Practices (NCCCIAP). The backdrop for this biennial event was Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a truly a remarkable venue that stands out as America’s only blast furnace from the last century being preserved and interpreted as an historic industrial site. There was a great slate of activities for the NCCCIAP, including hands-on demonstrations, mold making workshops, student cupola competitions, guest furnace demonstrations, panel discussions, and art exhibitions. The grassroots, intergenerational character of the NCCCIAP was incredibly inspiring, and I hope to get back to Sloss for the next iteration of this event.
In summer 2016, I received Myers Foundation research funding from the WVU School of Art and Design to create the Character Generator series, my first body of work made entirely with 3D scanning and 3D printing processes. I began this series by scanning small temporary studies made from clay, metal, wood, and other found objects, a process which unified each of these disparate constructions into a cohesive whole. This aspect of the process was quite liberating, as it allowed me to work in a direct, improvisational manner, much like creating a digital collage. My preconceived notion of 3D scanning was that it would be just like making a mold to reproduce an exact replica of an object. However, I found this process was more akin to taking a fleeting, snapshot impression of an object, and I fully embraced the distortions and digital chatter inherent to these technologies.
In fall 2016, I had the pleasure of discussing this research project at the annual Southeast College Art Conference (SECAC) in Roanoke, Virginia. My presentation, entitled Fragments of Signifiers: 3D Printing & Scanning As Digital Collage, was part of the panel discussion No Hands?: Digital Fabrication and Craftsmanship chaired by artist McArthur Freeman, with fellow artist panelists Kelly O’Briant and Ryan Buyssens. All in all, I think The Character Generator series marks a significant and very exciting step in my artistic growth. The process of assembling these sculptures imbues the Character Generator series with appealing qualities of memory, humor, and cryptic beauty, and I have no doubt this research will lead to more ambitious art making endeavors using new technologies.
In 1956, sculptor Milton Horn created carved stone pylons for the West Virginia University School of Medicine Morgantown Campus. These four towering columns contain eight carved relief scenes celebrating the history of medicine. As a tribute to his late wife Estelle, Horn donated his original plaster studies of these pylons to the West Virginia University School of Medicine Charleston Campus in 1982. In a collaborative effort between West Virginia University Health Sciences and the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts, I was commissioned to reproduce these panels for display at the West Virginia University School of Medicine Eastern Campus in Martinsburg, symbolically linking our university’s three medical school campuses. I delivered and installed the first panel in August, and the second panel was delivered in mid-October. I am on track to finish and deliver three more panels this academic year, and I expect to fully complete this project by fall 2017.
The Eastern Pylons project is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever undertaken, and I’m really pleased with the results. This project has allowed me to combine my knowledge of casting and metal fabrication methods to create large scale finished artworks, while also affording me on-the-job training in the use of new art-making materials, such as Winterstone-casting mix and Smooth-On Equinox silicone rubber mold putty. Working at this scale is certainly not a one-person job, so I am forever grateful to my student workers Cornelius Hugo, Kevin Brennan, and Matt Jarrett, as their hard work and camaraderie has been instrumental in the success of this project.
This past semester, I participated in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics ) education project at Morgantown’s North Elementary School. Sponsored by a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, this project had three primary components, one of which was to create a garden environment for attracting regional birds. My WVU School of Art and Design colleague Joseph Lupo helped the North students use their bird research to create mini comics, while my sculpture students and I focused on designing and building a birdhouse structure.
To begin the birdhouse component of this project, my sculpture students were tasked with creating steel butterflies, flowers, snails, and leaves, which tied into our classroom study of forging, welding, and other metal fabrication techniques. Meanwhile, 4th grade students from North were utilizing their bird research, drawing these creatures onto steel panels with chalk. I took these panels back to our studio and cut them out with a plasma torch, and then these bird panels and my sculpture students’ flora and fauna were cleaned up and painted in multiple bright colors.
I set wooden posts in concrete and built the final birdhouse structure with my friend Aaron Lutz, a WVU forestry program student working at North this year with the AmeriCorps VISTA program. The completed piece contains approximately nine birdhouses, 33 steel bird panels, 33 steel items created by my sculpture students, and a stainless steel nameplate. This project gave my students and I the opportunity to collaborate with students, teachers, and administrators at North in a truly unique manner, and out of the things I did in this amazingly busy school year, this was probably the most enjoyable project to take on.
In fall 2015, I taught an advanced sculpture course in the West Virginia University School of Art and Design focusing specifically on metal casting processes. One of the assignments for this class involved creating both a cast bronze sculpture and a customized container for this sculpture. I asked the students to think of this project as a 21-st century reliquary, engaging broader conceptual issues of memory, belief, history, family, spirituality, and time. There was also a strong writing and research component to this assignment, which enabled students to develop their ideas more fully over the course of the term.
For this project, students were required to make their bronze patterns using 3D printing and scanning processes. Most of these students had never cast bronze before, so 3D printing their patterns forced them to work at a smaller, more accessible scale. This technology also helped students get intricate pattern detail much faster than conventional pattern making. In addition, PLA plastic patterns can be burned out of investment molds just like wax patterns, which allowed students to learn the most fundamental principles of lost wax casting.
Students began this project by gathering family heirlooms, memorabilia, keepsakes, and other personal objects they deemed important. Next, they used a rotational tabletop 3D scanner to record these objects. Some students worked directly, scanning items imbued with personal significance & sentimental attachment, while other students invented or modified objects that evoked these strong qualities of memory. From these scans, PLA plastic prints were created using a MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer. To offset the material needs of this endeavor, I was happy to receive an Academic Innovation Technology Integration Grant from the West Virginia University Teaching & Learning Commons Sandbox.
Students then assembled these patterns onto wax sprue systems & embedded them in traditional plaster and sand investment molds. After the patterns were evacuated from the molds in a burn out kiln, these hot molds were transported to the foundry area and filled with molten bronze. Students then explored finishing and patina processes to clean up their bronze castings, while resolving the final version of their sculptures using a variety of fabrication, construction, and display methods. I think my students successfully bridged the gap between traditional sculpture making processes and emerging technologies with this project, resulting in some excellent solutions to the idea of a contemporary reliquary.
Here are two recently completed cast iron school desk sculptures, from the 39 & Holding series. To create these sculptures, I first placed sunflowers on the desk tops, and then resin bonded sand molds were packed around these forms. After the molds hardened, the desks & sunflowers were removed and the pieces were cast as open-faced molds. The first piece in this series collapsed during casting, but its irregular form was incredibly intriguing, so I decided to work with the casting in this raw state. After being cast, these pieces were heated & finished with a brass brush & paste wax, which gave them a rich, lustrous finish.
The title of this series references the classic Jerry Lee Lewis song “39 & Holding,” a tune about the inevitable cycles of aging which became considerably more relevant in the past couple of years as I transitioned out of my thirties. I decided to carve thirty-nine hash marks into each of the molds, creating a deep, gestural tally to signify the passage of time. Sunflowers have long been featured in both art and religion as symbolic markers of growth and decay, and they were a prominent fixture in the rural landscape where I grew up, so I had a range of conceptual, art historical, and auto-biographical reasons for using these flowers as imagery.
This past month has been a period of great activity in the West Virginia cast iron community. Shepherd University hosted their fall iron pour early in November and a week later, the sculpture program at West Virginia University hosted our fall iron pour. I am pleased that Shepherd University sculpture coordinator Christian Benefiel, Fairmont State University sculpture coordinator Jeremy Entwistle, and myself have continued to collaborate and get our student involved to make these events run in a safe and efficient manner. The palpable teamwork and camaraderie exhibited by all participants has affirmed my belief that a vibrant cast iron community is emerging in our state. Here’s some images and videos from our events, big thanks goes out to students Violet Goode and Hannah Hicks for documenting our iron pour at WVU.