By MICAH DREW, flat head beacon
The deafening roar strikes first. It’s a barrage of deep, all-consuming noise that spills over from Kalispell Art Casting’s studio and permeates the freezing November air outside.
Inside the building, the roar increases as the reverberations drum against the walls. The room is dark except for a cauldron of fluorescent green flames in one corner, the source of the thunder.
Between the noise, the intense heat emanating from the corner, and the scorched, acrid air, it’s easy to feel like a character from the climactic final chapter of The Lord of the Rings standing near the entrance to Mount Doom.
Foundry co-owner Mike Stephan and two employees stood around the hell in leather aprons, thick gloves and face shields.
“Good warning, it splashes and it comes out at 2,000 degrees,” Stephan told a Flathead Beacon reporter, as he stopped the blaze and attached a six-foot metal frame to a thick crucible of melted soup.
It took two men to walk through the 380-pound crucible a few feet to an elevated sandbox filled with plaster moldings. Carefully, Stephan tilts the crucible over each mold and pours a stream of white-orange liquid bronze. A few splashes of shiny metal fly across the foundry floor, rapidly cooling into drops of blackened metal.
As a dozen molds are filled to the brim, the exposed bronze exhibits an entirely chromatic range, darkening with each cooling instant.
“You can tell how hot the bronze is by the rate at which a penny will melt,” Stephan said as he tossed a coin at one of the recently cast statues.
For a moment, the room only appeared as a black circle against a dull red background. But soon it started to glow and shine, a mini firework display that served as the finale to a fiery process.
Kalispell Art Casting – part studio, part foundry, part gallery – sits on two acres of space in Evergreen, just off US Highway 2. With 20,000 square feet of floor space, it is the largest foundry in the state and one of the largest west of the Mississippi. Stephan recently took partial ownership of Kalispell Art Casting from Jack Muir, who founded it in 1979.
In the age of digital art and NFTs, bronze may not seem like the most popular medium for artists, but Stephan said around 20-30 artists are actively working with the foundry and he sees nearly 3,000 different artists at some point each year. .
Bronze has been used to cast objects for millennia. A skilled craftsman can use the alloy of copper and tin to replicate a model with enough detail to capture all of the intricacies of the design.
“I can mold a fingerprint,” Stephan said. “I could shape every strand of your beard. We can be very, very complex with this process.
The actual casting of the metal is the midpoint of the process, called the “lost wax process,” of making a bronze sculpture, which involves many people and several stages, each arranged in a different room in Kalispell Art Casting.
The artists will approach the studio with a model sculpture they wish to see in bronze. Models can be made from anything Stephan said, but wax or clay is the most common medium.
From there it is photographed and, depending on the size, cut into pieces depending on how it will be cast. Stephan says the largest pieces that can be cast in place are around two feet wide, which means large-scale creations, such as the life-size elk that keeps Sportsman and Ski Haus in Kalispell, are assembled from many pieces.
After the model is sized, the clay is covered with a silicone rubber with a hard plaster shell. From there, he goes through a series of commutations between the wax copies and the plaster molds.
“It’s a series of positives and negatives until we finally have a full positives which will be bronze,” said Stephan.
Inside Kalispell Art Casting, there are hundreds of statues at one point in the process.
The penultimate positive is a wax print that is dipped into a paste and then smeared with three types of sand with increasing levels of coarseness. This sand shell hardens in an oven and the wax melts and flows out leaving a hollow negative, ready for bronze. Stephan said the smelter will process a metric ton of bronze in about a month, which, based on the global bronze economy, can cost anywhere from $ 4 to $ 6 a pound. Depending on the foundry’s schedule, the firing will take place several times a day to once or twice a week.
Before pouring, the final molds are baked a final time in the oven, the white shells giving off a cherry red glow before being placed upside down in the sand while awaiting their molten filling.
Kalispell Art Casting staff will then work to weld the sculptures together and make further improvements to the bronze, chipping, sanding and polishing imperfections. Each part is evaluated by Stephan throughout the quality control process.
“It’s a unique process and I know way too much about it at this point,” he said.
Stephan does not see what he does in the foundry as “art”, instead of presenting himself and his colleagues as intermediaries in the artistic process, although he renounces this humility when he is. This is the final stages of adding patina – liquid chemicals torched into the metal to add color – which he has been doing for just over a year.
“This is one of the hardest parts for me because I really have to be on the artist’s mind to see what they want the final statue to look like,” Stephan said. “What the artist has in mind in terms of the color of an eagle’s plumage may seem different to me, but it’s fun to understand that part.”
Kalispell Art Casting has shipped statues all over the world – and the work produced there is on display in museums and public facilities across the country, including Glacier National Park, Jackson Hole National Museum of Wildlife Art , Wyoming and the Denver Zoo.
“The work is so much fun and cool, but the reason I got upstream of the business now is that I love dealing with artists,” Stephan said. “Artists are just super cool people with a different way of thinking. I like working with smart, quirky people like that.
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