It's Getting Hot in Here


This week, my adventure-seeking took me to historic Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, AL. Part of me has always wanted to try working in metal. I attribute this mostly to watching metal artists at Penland and partly to "Flashdance." In both cases, there were killer outfits, lots of sparks, and that seductive quality that comes with bending iron to your will.

I'd seen demos at Sloss, and I'll admit, the lure of the leather aprons and welder's goggles was strong. (I can't explain my affinity for uniforms and unusual protective gear; for all I know it goes back to knights and dragons.) When I saw some of the work coming out of the classes, I thought, hey, this might be the right time in my life to give this thing a shot. So I signed up for a weekend class and agonized over what I might make and how it might fit in with other projects in the works, and how I might ensure that I made some decent pieces and got my money's worth. I tossed and turned for a few nights, drawing plans in my sleep and wondering if my lack of insurance would come back to bite me in the form of a third-degree burn.

Somewhere in my planning stage, I talked to one of the instructors at Sloss, who kept referring to the old "foundry." The more he talked, the more it sounded familiar, like a fuzzy sort of deja vu. What followed was one of those moments where slivers of your past come back and align themselves into a mosaic of a picture--one that sometimes makes you feel like an idiot for not putting things together sooner. I'd heard my grandmother and her sister talk for years about a foundry where they worked. I remember finding cast iron bookends shaped like dogs and roosters everywhere in their house, and they would always say, "We got those at the foundry." After enough brain cells collided in my head, I realized that the foundry was this same kind of place--a dinosaur of a steel plant that was cranking out things that I was just days from learning how to make. Unfortunately this great epiphany happened while I was talking to the instructor, and I told him as much. It felt sort of magical to me, but he looked at me as if I'd just learned that the earth rotated around the sun.

This knowledge had me even more eager to take a walk around Sloss and make the wax patterns for my very first cast-iron pieces. I'd already felt like I'd be learning a historic craft and getting a peek into a vital part of history, but now the history was more personal. It seems that as I get older, I want to know more about what was happening in the world before I was in it--even the world that is the five-mile radius of Birmingham. Part of me felt like I'd learn a little more about my family by getting my hands dirty again, and part of me thought I'd learn a little about myself, too.

When I told my grandmother I was taking the class, she said, "Just don't burn any fingers off. That metal's hot." She then went on to tell me not one, but two stories of men who lost limbs due to contact with molten iron. She also told me that she was banned from the foundry after nearly stepping into one of the molds as the metal lay cooling on the ground. "They were just laid out in rows like beans," she said, and I pictured some leather-clad man grabbing her as her high-heeled shoe hovered over the mold.

I wondered then what sort of history I'd make for myself. I fretted some more about what to make--would I be surrounded by metalsmiths who made these incredible sculptures while I made something that looked vaguely like a biscuit? Would I be that one out of place person that makes everyone wonder how she got there? I mean, I'm a printmaker. My last foray into sculpture was in art school, when I made some hideous structure out of forks and made ceramic vases that looked like elephant ears. Something about that third dimension always threw me off. I had a bad flashback to grade school and pictured all the other artists in their cool goggles and spiffy leather jackets laughing at me between drags on their cigarettes. But I pushed these thoughts away and threw away my plans. I'd just go and see what happened. Open myself up to the creative spirit. And what followed was even better than I expected.

Next time: the molds are broken and cast iron is born...

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