Students make art at 2,800 degrees

Rick Childress

Glowing globs of gooey metal seeped from a fiery furnace into copper-colored cauldrons manned by teams of leather-clad art students.

Sparks and flames shot through the air as the teams poured their molten metals into meticulously-designed molds.

Framed by an industrial setting, the whole event looked like something out of a steampunk fantasy world or a high school chemistry project on steroids.

“This is kind of ancient technology,” said Michael Bell, a graduate student working at the UK School of Arts and Visual Studies’ 24th annual Iron Pour. “This has been happening since the 1700’s—making this process of caste iron.”

The pour took place at night on November 4 at the Metal Arts building which sits behind the SA/VS building and Tolly Ho.

The iron pour process is a long and somewhat complicated way of making cast-iron sculptures.

“It’s hot, it’s exciting,” Bell said from under his flame-resistant face shield and leather suit. “We usually try to do (the iron pour) at night time so you can see the sparks and all that stuff. The best part of it is that you get an object. You get a sculpture at the end of it.”

Professor Garry Bibbs, head of sculpture at SA/VS, said the process began almost a week before the pour. For several days before, students designed molds of the sculptures that they wanted cast.

On the day of the pour, Bibbs said the tall cylindrical furnace that is used to melt the metal is heated by throwing “flames of fire” into the furnace for about two hours. The furnace is heated with coke—a coal product.

When the furnace was properly heated, and blue and orange flames were billowing from the top, the crew started throwing metal down the tall cylinder.

“Basically, we’re dumping in broken radiators and bathtubs and kitchen sinks and brake drums,” Bell said. “So, it’s a real good opportunity to recycle material. Everything we run up there is donated to us.”

Eventually the furnace filled with a hot liquid, and when the crews were ready they opened a hole in the bottom of the furnace. A molten mixture, that Bell said was about 2,800 degrees, spilled out into ladle that were specially designed for the iron pour.

Bell said, that their largest ladle—called a bull ladle—carries about 600 pounds of hot iron.

After catching the iron in a ladle from the furnace, the students carried the several hundred pounds of molten iron to the pour floor where they poured the hot metal into molds that sat on the ground.

Many of the molds will be incorporated into student sculpture projects. Bell said that some were going to become iron busts and benches.

“It’s really incredible what we’re able to get done out here,” said Delaney Bal, a senior studio art major.

Bal said she had seven molds to be poured. One of them was a figure that she digitally designed, laser cut and—as a result of the pour—was cast in iron.

“It’s so cool when you put in the work for something,” Bal said. “And suddenly you have this hard metal object that you’ve created.”

Having many people carry around several hundred pounds of lava-like fluid is risky business. Bibbs said that without teamwork and communication the pour can quickly become “a big mess.”

“It is a high-risk activity,” Bal said. “But we do as much as humanly possible to eliminate risks where they may exist.”

Bal became interested in the Iron Pour after she saw other student’s projects in the hallways and said she joined “as soon as I could because it looked so cool I wanted to be a part of it.”

“I always look at it as an outreach program,” Bibbs said. “Where we can get people interested in not only sculpture, but also so we can get people here to take sculpture one day.”