Working in a Sculpture Foundry

Casting Iron at Carrie Furnaces at the 26th International Sculpture Conference in Pittsburgh.

Casting Iron at Carrie Furnaces at the 26th International Sculpture Conference in Pittsburgh.

Cynics like to claim that a studio art degree is training for a life of unemployment, but many graduates of BFA and MFA programs find that they can put their technical skills to use, even if not directly towards their own fine art careers.

For instance, Sheryl Hoffman’s main interest at Cleveland State University (where she earned a BFA) and at Ohio State University in Columbus (where she received an MFA) was her sculpture, but the process of creating her mixed media pieces required her to learn welding and various casting techniques (plaster, sand and wax), which enabled her to find work in sculpture foundries after graduation. “While I was waiting for a teaching job to come along, I took up casting, because I knew how to do this,” she said. For eight years, she worked at several different Ohio-based foundries–Studio Foundry in Cleveland and David R. Kahn in Athens, among others–working with artists in their studios to create rubber molds of their work, then at the foundry making waxes and the investment that resulted in editions of their artwork. During those years, she earned between $20,000 and $30,000, depending upon how many jobs came in.

There may be two or three thousand foundries in the United States, although only a fraction of them are involved with the creation of fine artwork, that is, using the lost wax (cire perdue) method of casting. Most others produce industrial, utilitarian objects (grill-work and railings, for example) or plaques, emblems, medals and building reliefs, which require little experience or training and pay accordingly. “It’s not necessary to have an art degree if all you do is pour metal,” said a customer service representative for Sheldow Bronze Corporation in Kingwood, West Virginia. The company employs four artists among its 150 employees to sculpt bas reliefs, emblems, medals and plaques as well as draw flat reliefs and generate designs on a computer.

At some foundries, there is a prejudice against those with fine art backgrounds, because owners want employees who see the job as a career and not as a gig. “We work with artists,” said Domenico Ranieri, owner of Ranieri Sculpture Casting in Long Island City, New York. “We don’t hire them.” Michael Petrucci, president of Fine Arts Sculpture Centre in Clarkston, Michigan, noted that the “problem” with artists as employees is that “they tend to be creative. In this job, you need to follow someone else’s work, and you don’t want them to put their own touches on things. We don’t want creative work here.” Working with other artists’ designs may be difficult for those people who are bursting with enthusiasm about creating their own work: selflessness is not the first attribute ascribed to artists, but art foundry work requires patience, maturity and tolerance as well as technical skills. Dick Tuna, former owner of Mesa Bronze in Center Point, Texas, noted that he has had to rein in employees with art backgrounds who “want to correct an artist’s work.” Bill Gold, owner of Excalibur (foundry) in Brooklyn, New York, said that he “once had an employee who was an artist. He worked on one piece that came in, making one copy–it was very good. I told him it was an order for eight copies and he had to make seven more. He told me, ‘I’m an artist. I don’t do production work.’ I had to let him go.”

The complaint against artists by another former foundry owner, Wally Shoop, Sr. of Shoop’s American Bronze Casting in Osceola, Wisconsin, was that “foundries know they will be temporary; one year is about as long as artists tend to stay. Who wants to train people who are just going to leave?” That view of artists also extends to most people with college degrees. Phyllis Borges, a sculptor and former owner of Mystic River Foundry in Mystic, Connecticut, said that “I prefer not to hire college graduates. They think they know everything (I have to teach them everything), and then they leave.” The current owner of Mystic River Foundry, Sher Hertzler, stated that periodically she is contacted by young people who tell her “’I am an art student and have a semester off, and I want to hang around the foundry and see how things are done.’ Well, I don’t want people to come here and hang around. They get in the way, and they can get hurt. Everyone here has workmen’s compensation, and I’m not going to pay for that for someone who is just hanging around for a semester.”

The salaries that foundries pay is wide-ranging but generally on the lower side. Shoop’s American Bronze Casting pays between $35,000 and $45,000, and “our newest employee has been with us for 11 years,” said John Shoop, the foundry’s president, and Mystic River Foundry pays its “jack-of-all-trades” employee $21 per hour. Ranieri Sculpture Casting pays its employees between $15 and $30 per hour, according to foundry manager Ralph Ranieri, but they also receive health insurance and a pension. Salaries in the Southeast and Southwest are generally lower than in other areas of the country.

A distinct benefit of working in a foundry for a sculptor is access to tools and equipment, which some owners will allow their employees to use on their own time for free or at a greatly discounted rate. The difference between whether one does or does not continue to be a sculptor is often access to a large space and equipment; certainly, one’s skills will be enhanced by an ongoing exposure to the processes involved. Different foundries, of course, use specific processes, and artists should look for those that correspond to their particular interests and experience. Both the National Sculpture Society and the International Sculpture Center have information on their Web sites about foundries around the United States. Neither site is inclusive of every foundry, but each offers some, and it would be advisable to look at both. The National Sculpture Society’s Web site and the International Sculpture Center’s Web site list foundries alphabetically, with links that describes the types of sculpture processes used at each foundry. One might also examine the Design-Production Link database at the Industrial Technology Assistance Corporation, which includes design and production services available to manufacturers.

Training is part of employment situations at most foundries, especially those that do not require or desire college degrees or an artistic background. There is plenty to learn, especially at the minority of foundries that cater to artists, including a wide variety of casting processes, as well as patination and conservation, eventually learning how to work on projects with professional artists. One also learns that foundry work is unrelenting hard, sometimes hazardous work. Sheryl Hoffman noted that, after eight years of foundry work, she “couldn’t breathe anymore because of all the silica, and I couldn’t lift another 100-pound bag. I decided to go into another line of work” — in her case, coordinating special events at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

By Daniel Grant

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