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Photo of students wearing protective gear pouring liquid metal into moldsFired-Up for Their Art

by Jeff Worley

It's a chilly mid-November evening in UK's open-air metal arts studio, but the assembled group—teachers and students—don't seem to notice. This is because they're outfitted with heavy leather foundry jackets, thick leather aprons, fireproof gloves, and leather boots. With screen mesh drawn over their faces, silver helmets and plastic visors, they look a bit like moon walkers, or a special fire-fighting unit.

But they're not fighting fire; they're using it to make art.

At this yearly iron pour event, the artists are standing at a respectful distance from the blackened, five-foot-tall steel furnace. For two hours, it's been cooking a concoction of coal (called coke), recycled iron and crushed limestone. The furnace volcanoes up a plume of yellow-gold flame, takes a breath, then bellows up another. The furnace is loud, so loud that if you close your eyes for a second you can imagine it's a small jet plane, gunning for takeoff a few feet away.

As the coke burns, superheated by a charge from a blower through an interior chamber, it melts the limestone and iron. The melting iron runs to the well at the bottom and, now that the temperature of the mixture has reached 2700 degrees Fahrenheit, it is ready to be poured.

Art instructor Brad Connell and undergraduate Molly Moran approach the furnace with a ladle—a seven-foot-long metal shank with a bucket ("vessel") welded to its center. They place the preheated ladle under the tap hole near the bottom of the furnace, another student uses a tap spike to knock out the plug (or "bott" in the lingo of the sculptor), and liquid iron rushes into the vessel.

"The ladle, when full, weighs about 200 pounds," Molly says, "which means you not only have to have some body strength and good sense of balance, you also have to trust your partner in this process."

Brad and Molly maneuver the ladle over a mold, Brad turns the two handles on the "live end" of the ladle, and the iron sloshes into the mold.

Photo of Teresa Koester

Teresa Koester, a graduate assistant in art, prepares a resin sand mold.

Photo of students moving heavy concrete molds

Lining up sand molds for the iron pour

Photo of students pouring molten iron in molds

Pouring molten iron in resin sand molds

Photo of Jerry Masse skimming the slag

Jerry Masse (left) skims slag from the top of the molten iron to keep impurities out of the mold.

"This dance with molten iron is probably the most dramatic thing we do in the metal-casting process," says Jack Gron, an associate professor of fine arts and chairman of the Department of Art at the University of Kentucky. "But it's only one step in what is surely the most process-intensive of all the arts."

In fact, the finished sculpture—whether iron, aluminum, or bronze—that you see in an exhibit or gallery is the result of dozens of steps, beginning with an idea. "Unless you've made a piece yourself or have been a student of the art, there's no way you realize just what it takes to get to the finished sculpture," Gron says. He stresses that each student's finished work is just one piece, adding that many sculptures consist of dozens of various kinds of forms, sometimes different materials, that make up the finished work of art. "In this process, patience is one of many tools the metal sculptor can't do without," Gron says.

Photo of Gary Bibbs and Jack GronProfessors Gary Bibbs and Jack Gron

"In the casting process, you might live with one image you're trying to build for a year or more," says Garry Bibbs, also an associate professor in the department. "You model something in clay first, take the mold off, transfer what was in the mold to wax, then burn out the mold to leave empty cavities, and so on. There are lots of steps; it's very process-oriented."

Because Bibbs doesn't like "living with one form too long," as he puts it, he takes another approach. "What I do is called direct metal work," he explains, "which is based on a pattern: you start with pencil-and-paper drawings, go to cardboard templates, and then transfer the cardboard images into metal, bending these forms and filling all the gaps." Bibbs's métier is working with stainless steel.

Since returning to UK in 1990 from Chicago's Black on Black Love Art Cultural Center, five years after he earned an MFA here, Bibbs has created dozens of steel sculptures. One of his artworks, a commissioned piece called "Life Family and Good Health," has graced a small, landscaped area outside of the Kentucky Clinic on South Limestone Street since 1992. This sculpture, made only of stainless steel, measures 16 feet by six feet by four feet.

Photo of Molly Moran's "Toy" sculpture"Toy," cast iron and bronze, 15"x12"x5" is one of several pieces Molly Moran included in her recent exhibition at UK. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree earlier this year.

Gron describes the Metal Arts Building where he and Bibbs and their students work, and the much larger Reynolds Building adjacent to it, as "fantastic, old, dusty buildings in marvelous disrepair." The Reynolds Building contains over 100,000 square feet of space, and Gron adds that their off-campus location (three blocks from the edge of campus) seems to suit everyone just fine.

Gron, a bearish man, is unassuming, direct, and funny. His abridged curriculum vitae, listing research, solo exhibitions, selected group exhibitions, major commissions, and grants, runs five pages. He's exhibited his art in galleries and at universities across the country and has been an artist-in-residence in England and Poland. Last year he became the first American sculptor to be included in the permanent collection at the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture in Coalbrookdale, England. And the energy and enthusiasm he brings to his art spill over into his teaching.

"Jack as both an artist and a teacher is a role model," says Molly, who completed her BFA here in art last semester. Brad, who finished his MFA in sculpture at UK last spring and is now working as a part-time faculty member in the department, says, "Jack is excellent at encouraging people to do what they want to do, then letting them go with it. I'd characterize his teaching style as 'minimal direction with maximum help.'"

Gron and Bibbs are almost singularly responsible for attracting many undergraduates and graduate students to the program. For example, one student new to the program, Isaac Duncan III, credits Bibbs for enticing him here. "I knew of Professor Bibbs and his work through a mentor we shared—the renowned sculptor Richard Hunt. He gave me a studio to work in when I was recently in Michigan," says Duncan, who worked as an artist and also taught art in elementary school before coming to UK. "Hunt put the bug in my ear about UK, and when I visited here I found that the facilities were great—not only a foundry but also a good fabrication facility."

Duncan, who received a fellowship in his first year at UK, says that one unique aspect of the metal sculpture program here is the focus on the technical side of making things. "In contrast to some programs that are more conceptually based, UK's art department is rooted in the tradition of creating pieces that are form based: the tangible end-product—and how you get to it—is what's most important," he says.

Photo of Isaac Duncan and sculptureIsaac Duncan, a graduate student in the MFA program, with a recent, as-yet unnamed work he made using stainless steel. "This piece is based on forms and how forms interact," he says. "I like to work with the illusion of movement. By placing certain forms at different angles, I challenge weight and gravity."

Bibbs and Gron are pleased to have "furthered along," as Bibbs puts it, dozens of students over the years. "Quite a few of our BFA graduates have gone on to the most prestigious graduate schools in the country," Gron says. "Cranbrook Academy, the Rhinehart School of Sculpture, Syracuse University, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Art Institute, to name just a few." And several of these former students now have national and international reputations as metal sculptors, designers, and consultants, he adds.

"Jack and I are working artists ourselves, and we're helping to produce new artists," says Bibbs. "I believe this is a serious contribution to society—what we're all about is helping to foster and preserve the human instinct to create. My whole purpose is to help to register who we are as humans on this earth."

Gron, who has been at UK for 19 years says, he's proud to be heading up the largest sculpture program in the state and one of the largest in the region. "I want our program here to prepare students for their next step in life. It's all about hard work, about getting students to be creative with their hands and their minds."