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While artists are known for maintaining urban workspaces, many forgo downtown apartments and greenways in favor of the studio outbuildings and green-everythings of the boondocks.

The iron is hot 

A long day at a country foundry

click to enlarge Sculptor Kevin Eichner - PHOTO BY FRANK HYMAN

While artists are known for maintaining urban workspaces, many forgo downtown apartments and greenways in favor of the studio outbuildings and green-everythings of the boondocks. Recently, Kevin Eichner, art director at the Moncure Museum of Art and resident of Moncure, opened a door into that workstyle for close to a hundred artists and guests at the Chatham Studio Tour last month.

Eichner, a 39-year-old native of Buffalo, N.Y., is a sculptor and professor at Central Carolina Community College in Siler City. With chiseled features and sunglasses, he calmly directed the feeding of his homemade furnace in Moncure to melt enough scrap iron to make about 60 small sculptures—an event called an "iron pour." He figures he's done about three iron pours a year over the last 18 years, many of them with sculptors who, like him, also came through Eastern Carolina University. Some pours consumed 3 tons of iron and lasted from "dusk to dawn." Eichner has built and left behind perhaps a dozen such furnaces across the country over as many years in his life as student, professor and itinerant sculptor. Made from old water tanks lined with heat resistant concrete, Eichner's furnace liquifies iron into a hot, runny metal smooth as milk, orange as Tang and heated to an undrinkable 2,700 degrees. Even a small drop will ignite anything flammable.

The means of shaping metal that most of us are likely to see—cutting with a saw or bending with a hammer that generates lots of sweat, sparks and loud banging—has the aura of masculine activity. Rendering metal molten and flowing, on the other hand, has a more feminine feeling, like softening chocolate in a double-boiler or melting wax for candles. Behind the museum we witness sculptors talking recipes, tying on aprons and portioning ingredients. On this afternoon three of the baker's dozen of sculptors and students suited up for the pour are women. Eichner tells me he has heard of iron pours that have been women-only affairs in Wisconsin.

click to enlarge Sculptor Kevin Eichner pouring iron into a sand mold clamped to a table, with flames coming out of vents. - PHOTO BY FRANK HYMAN
  • Photo by Frank Hyman
  • Sculptor Kevin Eichner pouring iron into a sand mold clamped to a table, with flames coming out of vents.

By dark they started pouring about 1,000 pounds of iron, 100 pounds at a time. A crew of three under Eichner fed the furnace for a couple of hours. Another ECU grad, Michael Waller, facility manager at the Liberty Arts Bronze Foundry in Durham, directed the rest of the work—arranging the molds and pouring the iron from the crucible. While Eichner and his students preheated the furnace and crucible with a shower of flame from propane gas torches, Waller's crew lined up ingredients. Pouring iron calls for 5 pounds of coke for every 35 pounds of iron and a little bit of oyster shell to help clear out the impurities. The crew lined up a long double row of paper bags: one row of broken pieces of cast iron tubs, steam radiators and even parts salvaged from a piano; the other, paper bags full of coke, a material that answers the question, "What if you treated coal like wood and heated it partway to make it lighter and smoke-free, like charcoal?" But even without charcoal, the atmosphere is like a cookout, with food on tables, people walking beer-in-hand and a bright sun sliding down into the tree line.

As the sky darkens, the sculptors pull on their heat resistant gear. Pretty soon a dozen people are wearing enough leather to channel a herd of cows: leather gaiters wrapped around boots, a leather apron from shin to chin, spaceman-like gloves thick enough to handle hot metal (briefly), and supple welder's jackets with a Nehru collar. To let us know we're not in the 19th century, everyone is topped off with a hardhat and clear visor to fend off heat and splashing metal.

click to enlarge A finished sculpture being liberated from a sand mold. - PHOTO BY FRANK HYMAN

In the twilight, bags of coke and iron are pitched into the volcano-like top of the furnace. With the lid back in place, an electric blower forces air into the furnace, driving the temperature up and expelling an orange light from every seam. With this new, hot light dancing on the faces of people next to you, the mood changes from afternoon BBQ to a pagan ritual on a winter's night.

When the iron has melted to the bottom of the furnace, Eichner pulls a plug and Waller literally catches a stream of liquid metal in the crucible. Waller and a helper grip the crucible with a yoke-like handle so they can pour the iron into a series of sand molds.

As the metal is poured, fumes and flames escape from vents in the molds and Eichner's crew recharges the furnace. After repeating this dance nearly a dozen times, all the molds are filled and Eichner busts loose the bottom of the furnace, dropping the burning coke into a pile of searing coals on the ground. The cookout mood returns as someone calls for marshmallows.

Aside from the cleanup the only step left is to take a hammer to the sand molds to liberate the now solid iron. Eichner says, "After the pour it's a bit of excitement, like it's everybody's birthday and we're opening all these presents. I get a rush outta that."

The Moncure Museum of Art is located at 631 Old U.S. 1 and is open to visitors by appointment only (542-4304). The Liberty Arts nonprofit casting facility, located at 538 Foster St. in Durham, offers classes in iron casting. Visit www.libertyartscasting.org or call 682-2673.

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