Durham News

Artists work molten magic in Durham Central Park

A worker protected by a heavy suit and face mask pours liquid iron into a mold. The nonprofit Liberty Arts sculpture studio and foundry and Durham Central Park held a public iron pour in the park Friday night, Nov. 18, 2016.
A worker protected by a heavy suit and face mask pours liquid iron into a mold. The nonprofit Liberty Arts sculpture studio and foundry and Durham Central Park held a public iron pour in the park Friday night, Nov. 18, 2016. mschultz@newsobserver.com

It’s not every public art event that comes with its own hose and fire extinguisher.

But Durham’s public iron pour Friday night wasn’t an ordinary public art event, as hundreds gathered in Durham Central Park to watch a Kevlar-coated, safety-goggled militia turn solid metal into liquid.

And while they weren’t forging swords or that tricked-out chair from “Games of Thrones,” it was still otherwordly.

Or in a word: primal.

“Bright white-orange hot,” said Nick Verna, executive director of the nonprofit Liberty Arts Sculpture Studio and Foundry. “It’s just cool to watch.”

Preparation begins well before the pour, with workers collecting 1,500 pounds of donated scrap metal and coke, a byproduct of coal used to fuel the furnace in which the iron melts.

“We’ll get bathtubs, sinks and sewage pipes, and we’ll have to break it up with sledgehammers,” Verna said.

It takes 20 to 30 hours to chip the metal into palm-sized pieces for the furnace; if the pieces are too big, or too small, the metal won’t burn properly or can clog the furnace spigot.

And talk about suffering for your art.

“You can do a hundred pounds, and then you’re done,” said Pete Katz, a Liberty Arts board member.

“You’re swinging a (a 16-pound) sledgehammer, busting it up,” he explained. “Some pieces, you hit it and it doesn’t break. My back felt that the next day.”

Like soldiers loading a cannon, workers carry buckets of the busted-up iron and gray, porous coke briquets to the furnace. The fire must be kept between 2,700 and 3,000 degrees, higher than required for the bronze and alumnium pours that Liberty Arts does in its foundry across Foster Street from the park.

Flames shoot up from the furnace when the lid is opened to pour in each new bucket of metal.

In about 15 minutes, the iron melts and flows out a hole into a giant ladle. When the molten stream subsides, workers plug the hole with a clay stopper, which they’ll chip away for the next pour.

On Friday a crew carried the ladle to a table where ceramic “scratch molds” sat. The molds were a fundraiser for Liberty Arts, with about 90 people paying $30 each to carve insects, holly leaves and abstract designs for future decorative iron tiles, each weighing about 7 pounds.

Artist Jackie MacLeod, a former surgeon, took a level and made sure each tile was flat on the table before the cradle crew carefully tipped the bowl over each mold. The liquid metal bubbled as the mold began to set, and after a few minutes, MacLeod and another worker carried the tiles one at a time to a patch of sand on the grass where they would cool overnight.

The tile makers knew what their designs would look like. But a handful of artists created knee-high wood molds whose final shapes would not be fully revealed until the iron burned through.

“It’s more the process than the end result,” sculptor Kimberly Foytlin said of the iron pour’s appeal.

“It’s not something you get out of bronze or aluminum,” she explained. “(Iron) brings people together, just a really obscure group of people, very artistic, very intense.”

Verna agreed the dense metal requires a group effort.

“You can get three people together and cast anything else,” he said. “But you need an army for this.”

On Friday, the army kept the crowd at a safe distance from the roped-off site as they loaded and ladled.

But the hose and fire extinguisher remained close by, Verna noted.

They haven’t had to use them yet.

Schultz: 919-829-8950

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