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Iron in Winter

Iron in Winter

Students in a Sculpture studio learn about the surprises of working with molten metal during a full-day “iron pour.”

Students in the IRON IN WINTER Sculpture studio work outdoors with molten metal during a full-day "iron pour.”

Feet firmly planted in a swirl of glittering sparks, a group of students wearing leather jackets and face shields remains focused while working outdoors in the bitter cold behind the Metcalf Building. They’re ladling scoops of molten-hot metal into molds during a full-day “iron pour”—part of the Wintersession Sculpture studio Iron in Winter. Even as some of the vessels erupt into flames, they soldier on.

“Molds made from wood and other experimental substances feel dry to the touch but there’s water trapped in those organic materials,” explains faculty member Chris Sancomb 93 SC, who taught the course with Megan Tamas MFA 15 SC. “So when 3,000-degree iron hits [the molds], the moisture rapidly turns to steam—which desperately wants to escape into the air. That’s the physics behind those loud pops and shooting sparks.”

Suddenly, a ceramic liner in one of the buckets melts away, allowing liquid iron to seep onto the ground. Remembering what they’ve been taught, students pour sand on the molten metal while an especially handy student runs up to the Hot Shop to repair the defective container. In less than 15 minutes, he returns with the bucket—almost as good as new.

“It was a heart-pounding moment when the iron escaped,” explains Jenny Rachel Sparks 15 SC, a Brown-RISD Dual Degree student who’s majoring in Sculpture at RISD and Geology at Brown. “Fortunately, we rehearsed an action plan in case something like this should happen. We kept calm and pushed on.”

Near the end of the day, two female students race up to the third floor of the Metcalf Building, crack open a window and lower a hose to the ground. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hose,” quips one spectator as other students grab the end of the hose and turn on the water to extinguish the smoking furnace.

While the iron pour is the most dramatic part of the studio, students also learned a lot more about the process during the five-week crash course in ironworking. Weeks earlier they made small molds out of ceramic composites, wood and dried mud, hollowing out cavities in the shapes desired. They pounded on old iron radiators and bathtubs with sledgehammers to break them into baseball-sized pieces that were then loaded into the “cupola”—a homemade blast furnace heated with coke, which is derived from coal but has minimal impurities.

“This is my first time holding a sledgehammer,” explains Alessia Arregui 15 GL as she crushes a neat pile of metal with the heavy tool. “It’s been a treat to explore the strengths and limitations of iron while participating in such a labor-intensive studio.”

In early February, students cracked open their molds to unearth a diverse collection of captivating metalwork. Wisconsin native Joe Fellows 16 SC made a collection of foot-long fish he’ll incorporate into ongoing three-dimensional projects inspired by bodies of water and tidal patterns. He made his molds using large herring preserved in formaldehyde.

Also moved by natural wonders, Sparks made a pair of bulky doorknobs she'll use as props when directing photoshoots in the depths of New England forests. “I imagine these pieces will represent humans’ desire to access and control forces of nature,” she explains. “To me it’s beautiful to see fine metalwork and the outdoors come together.”

–Abigail Crocker

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