A Changing Relationship Between Sculptors and Foundries

The relationship between sculptor and foundry would seem a relatively uncomplicated affair. "The tradition has been, artists wheel something in and say, 'we want that in bronze,'" said Paige Tooker, president of Manhattan's New Foundry, said. That is to say, the artist brings in a model - a maquette - that he or she put together back at the studio, and the foundrymen do the technical stuff (enlarge, make molds, pour metal, polish and patinate the surface) to the sculptor's specifications. Voila, an edition.

There is less and less of that nowadays. "Artists come in here with a very rough sketch and say, 'I have this idea for something, how do I make it?'" Jeffrey Spring, president of Modern Art Foundry in Queens, New York, said. "Part of the services we now provide to artists is brain-storming." That wouldn't work well with the old style foundrymen, but things are different with them, too. The old foundrymen now are apt of be called fabricators, and many of them have degrees from art schools; their job is not just to pour metal for an edition but to build or carve or assemble something based on the artist's specifications. One speaks more and more of fabricators "partnering" with artists, helping to conceptualize a project and then to devise something that can be built, figuring out the materials, time and cost along the way. Tooker noted that "it's our job to be sensitive to what the artist is trying to convey." She claimed that foundry staff work with those rough sketches and with the artists to make a maquette, often on the computer. When that is approved, the foundry will take the next step by making a three-dimensional model - followed by more discussions and potential changes - and, finally, the finished artwork.

That itself is perhaps too much of an abbreviated version. The Digital Atelier in Mercerville, New Jersey regularly works with artists who are making proposals to public art agencies, and ensuring that a project costs what a predetermined budget will allow is a primary concern. "A lot of our work is job costing, working within the parameters of a public art committee," said John Lash, chief executive officer of the Digital Atelier. "Once we scan the data into the computer, we can look at the project in many ways. Say, the budget is $100,000 and the design so far calls for 500 square feet of surface area. If the project won't work with the budget, we might scale the project back - we call it cube backwards - to maybe 280 square feet of surface, and see how that work." The Digital Atelier may substitute different metals to bring the price down, then estimate costs of shipping and crating, engineering, footings, mold-making and other foundry work. Pouring metal and assembling the finished project is the end of a long process of collaborative work.

"Foundries are different now," Tooker claimed. "Other places will just pour bronze. We are artists' assistants on an extreme basis, figuring out what the artists are trying to do. It doesn't really matter what the material is, like the beeswax cube we made for a Terence Koh performance. The artist decided he wanted actual bees stuck onto it, and there was a lot of discussion of how many bees and where to put them. I feel like I'm making art with these people, and that's the fun."

It is also part of the challenge. Christoph Spath, co-founder and vice-president of the Digital Stone Project in Mercerville, New Jersey, which scans maquettes into computers that mill stones into sculptures, noted that "a lot of our clients have never worked with stone or with any materials." Clearly, the relationship between artist and foundry has changed. To a degree, the shift stems from artists themselves whose training in schools now is more focused on conceptual issues than with hands-on making things. Artists don't even need the experience of actually making objects, because the Digital Stone Project will take the idea, make a model and then produce the sculpture in stone. In many instances, the artists know almost nothing at all about stone (Spath explains to them that there are over 100 types, some more fragile than others) but just like the idea of producing a stone sculpture. "We get requests that really wouldn't work in stone," he said. The models may be "very fragile or have interior forms that couldn't be made in stone, things that are too thin or couldn't stand up - a figure on one leg, for instance. Traditional carvers wouldn't know that, but I'm working with quite a few younger artists who have never carved anything or even worked with clay." Approximately half of the projects there, and almost three-quarters of the company's revenues, are public artworks.

Partnering with artists on their projects has its own pleasures and drawbacks. Clearly, helping sculptors put ideas into a tangible form is more stimulating than the wholly artisanal job of making molds, melting wax, pouring metal, assembling parts and coating metal. Artists like the idea that they are working with people at the foundry who appreciate and understand what they are trying to do. Still, at the end of the process, the artists receive the praise and the big money, and their "partners" back at the foundry just get their regular paychecks. "We don't really get credit for what we do," Spath, a sculptor in his own right, said, adding that "I made a choice of doing this for the time being." Dylan Farnum, director of special projects at the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State, noted that artist-clients expect foundry staff to show complete dedication to the projects they bring in and don't hold resentments: "If you are bitter about anything or thinking mainly about your own career goals, you wouldn't be giving the job your all," he said.