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Copper in the Arts
Yoshitomo Saito: The Bronze Weaver
“I like the fact that bronze can look like stone, mineral, wood, fabric or plastic,” says Denver-based sculptor, Yoshitomo Saito. "It can become something else."
And something else is what Saito does best, taking his cues from the stunning terrain of Colorado where he lives.
“Bronze is like a language to me,” he says. “After Japanese and English, there’s bronze and I speak this language.”
His older works have included a seeming juxtaposition of works cast from copper; pillows, canvas and cardboard. However, his recent solo show at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco (his eighth solo show there) saw a plethora of unique work in bronze, from Rip Rap, a collection of varying sizes of rocks hung on a wall to his iterations of tumbleweeds, titled When the Wind Stopped, a form he's been toying with for years.
"It's like making a nest," he says of his nature-inspired creation. "Technically, I'm welding the twigs together, but it's more like weaving."
“I think that’s one of the best pieces I’ve done,” says Saito. Each piece is original, burned inside of an investment mold.”
His works are in the public collections of the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Hawaii State Foundation of Cultures and Arts, and the Oakland Museum of California, among others. He’s also enjoyed solo and group exhibitions in Germany, New Mexico, Colorado and extensively throughout California. He accepts private commissions and received one from the Haines Gallery show, where he works sell for between $3,000 and $60,000.
Originally born in Japan, Saito started out as a glassblower as an entrance into the arts movement in Japan. But, it was the unfettered practices of the American Glass Studio Movement that attracted him to this country.
"I was quite taken with the attitude and freedom of expression and wanted to learn something from Americans," he recalls.
He studied in the Bay Area and moved into bronze; having been trained in using the lost wax, or investment mold, process, something he still uses to this day.
"It just happened to be that the foundry I worked at was set up for investment molds," says Saito.
He's used the process for decades and prefers it to the more precise shell casting. Certainly many artists drop off their work at a foundry and are not involved directly in the process except to pick up the piece when perfectly cast.
"But I have to wonder, what does perfect mean?" Saito asks. Ultimately it is the "imperfections" that can create unique art. "Flash is quite charming and can add characteristics and language to the expression of the form," he adds. There are other benefits to the lost wax method, too. "I like the fact that I can recycle the mold materials. It's economical and environmentally polite," he notes. Saito only uses three coloring elements in his castings. "I use ferric nitrate for brown, copper nitrate for green and potash for black,” he says. “I change the sequence and combinations to get my colors."
When he moved to Colorado recently, he set up his own foundry. "It's been my dream for 20 years,” he says, adding that, although it is small in scale, it allows him to cast whenever he wants. Additionally, he was enthusiastic that he would be near his copper supplier, Atlas Metal Sales in Denver. Saito had been buying bronze ingots from them since 1975. "I thought, great, I can save on shipping costs. I used to buy bronze for just over $3,000 a ton." But, when he walked into Atlas the price increases caused him to "nearly faint." Now bronze is close to $9,000 per ton. "I don't know what's going to happen," he pondered in response to higher prices and more competitive buyers. In one sense, his Rocky Mountain Winter piece, "probably unconsciously came out of the current economic situation." It affords small pieces, but on a large scale, allowing a minimal use of supplies, though time consuming.
However, ultimately cost is not a driving factor.
"The priority of my life is to do something I really want to do.” Says Saito. “I have no doubt that I compose interesting poetry with bronze. I never get bored or uninspired. I want to keep the positive spirit of copper alive."
The Patriotic Roots of Valley Bronze of Oregon
You will also see Valley Bronze’s work at the National World War II Memorial and the spiral staircases at the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. In 2004, the company won an excellence award from the Washington, D.C. Building Congress for its work on the WWII Memorial and was presented with a craftsmanship award last March for structural steel framing work in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Besides their work in Washington, Valley Bronze created sculptor Walter Matia’s Spirit of the Bull monument for Houston’s Reliant Stadium and artist Veryl Goodnight’s sculpture The Day the Wall Came Down, depicting the Berlin Wall, which was given to Germany as a gift from the American people. The original resides at the Alliierten Museum in Berlin, and an exact copy is displayed at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Houston. Another example of the company’s ornamental work can be seen in the bronze bas relief cathedral doors at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral in Spokane, Washington, which were designed by internationally renowned sculptor Dorothy Fowler.
Started strictly as a casting facility in 1982, Valley Bronze is now run by David and Christine Jackman, who got into the business by accident. David was a lawyer, and the company was his only corporate client. When the owner at the time wanted out of the business in the late 1980’s, the Jackmans seized the opportunity. Today, Christine is the company’s President, and David is the CEO.
The company is located in the rural area of Joseph, Oregon, where it is one of the county’s largest employers with a staff of about forty. Nearly all of its employees were trained by the company, and some have become adept at design.
“Everyone on site,” says Christine Jackman, “is an artist themselves to do this kind of work.” If someone needs a complicated sculpture or monument, however, the company will commission an artist to design the work, and Valley Bronze will complete the piece at the foundry, as well as install it on site.
One of the company’s main services is casting for artists, which sometimes involves taking a small scale sculpture and creating a faithful “point-up” larger-than-life-size version. Artists bring in their originals, whether clay, wood, or stone. Valley Bronze then makes a mother mold from the original, using coats of liquid rubber or silicon backed with plaster or fiberglass. Hot wax is poured into the mother mold, and a second ceramic shell mold is created by repeatedly dipping the wax duplicate into a vat of liquid slurry followed by coating the mold with silica sand. This takes a few days, after which the shell is fired in a kiln to melt the wax and harden the ceramic. When the wax has melted, the mold is hollow and ready for the molten bronze to be poured into it. After the bronze has cooled, the ceramic shell is broken away, and any additional pieces are welded to the metal to complete the sculpture. The work must then pass the company’s stringent quality controls to make sure it matches the original sculpture before the final patina process is begun.
Valley Bronze is sometimes called upon for especially challenging projects. The skill required for the National Archives case renovations was so great that the company’s employees had to design and build new tools. Two other companies were hired before Valley Bronze, but due to the complexity of the project, the cases produced by the other companies were unacceptable. The old cases from the 1930’s had a 30-foot long classic leaf pattern that needed to be duplicated.
“We had to have those sent off and digitally enhanced because they weren’t good anymore,” Christine says. “And then, it’s been a combination of casting, machining, and fabricating.”
The finished product is a credit to the company’s ingenuity and determination to find a way to produce excellent work no matter the circumstances.
“We pride ourselves on our quality,” Christine says. “We like people to come back.”
Copper in the Arts: HISTORY
The Not-So-Lost Art of Lost Wax Casting
The casting itself is an involved process that varies with different foundries, but all pieces start with a sculptor or artist who create original artwork from wax or oil-based clay. Both of these substances retain their softness.
A two-piece mold is created from the original sculpture and within that mold is an inner mold of latex, vinyl or silicone supported by the plaster part of the mold. The original artwork is destroyed during the making and initial deconstruction of the plaster mold because the originals are usually solid and not easily bent when the plaster mold is removed. Once this process is finished, molten wax is poured onto it for an even coating until the correct thickness has been reached, and it’s at that point that the hollow wax copy of the artwork is removed. The hollow wax copy is then ‘chased’ using a hot metal tool that rubs out the parting line marks where the mold comes together. Next, the wax is ‘dressed’ to hide imperfections, and at this point, the wax appears as finished bronze.
But, that’s not all. Other steps include spruing, a process that provides room for molten bronze to flow and air to escape, then slurrying, where the sprued wax copy is dipped into a ‘slurry’ of liquid silica, and then a sand-like stucco, or dry crystalline silica of a controlled grain size. A ceramic shell coated piece is placed in a kiln where melted wax can be recovered and reused. The process after that includes testing, pouring, release, metal-chasing, and patinating until the bronze is created to the artist’s liking.
David Carradine, who demonstrated his work on the popular Do-It-Yourself Network, first began sculpting after his parents took him to see Fantasia.
“I got the book, sculpted all the dinosaurs in clay, and put them on the windowsill in descending order of size---up to the Tyrannosaurus Rex,” he explains. “When I was a child, I sculpted a lot and always had a ball of plastaline. In school, I’d make stuff instead of taking notes and always had a piece of clay in my pocket.”
Carradine’s great uncle, Will Foster, was known for his paintings and Carradine studied with him as a kid, when he could, then studied music formally at the San Francisco State College of Theory and Composition. His goal in life at that time was to write operas.
“I think anybody that has a creative drive could go any one of these ways,” he explains. “You (take a) look at contemporary art and it’s all inspiration. I actually sold some paintings for $50 each when I was 22 or 23, and color-coded them to people’s houses. But, I didn’t care for that. I had a little house in the Hollywood Hills full of my work, but one day I just decided that I’m getting out of here.”
Three decades later, Carradine is still a busy actor as well as a talented musician, painter and sculpture. His life still embodies the mysticism of the East in many ways, like Kane, his character in Kung Fu.
“Regarding my passion for sculpting, I want to examine the fabric of the universe, to understand it better,” he says. “And, you can do it with your hands.”
Copper in the Arts: NEWS
Stellar Collection of Renaissance Sculpture Promised to National Gallery of Art by Robert H. Smith - May 15, 2008
“Robert Smith’s connoisseurship and generosity will bring our bronze collection to the level of the great princely collections formed over centuries in Europe,” says Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “The ivories will enhance our holdings in a medium we have only begun to collect in the past decade. Boxwood is a completely new medium for us; like ivory, it lends itself to fine and delicate carving.”
Assembled over three decades, the collection consists of 67 bronzes, five boxwood carvings, and three ivories, and is still growing. Of these, 47 bronzes and all of the boxwood and ivories were on view in the exhibition Bronze and Boxwood: Renaissance Masterpieces from the Robert H. Smith Collection through May 4. The collection has greatly expanded since part of it was on view in 2002 for the opening of the ground floor Sculpture Galleries at the National Gallery of Art.
The Robert H. Smith Collection is comprised of exceptionally fine works by major contemporaries and successors of Michelangelo. Among these are four masterpieces acquired since 2002: a superb cast of Giovanni Bologna’s Cesarini Venus (late-16th or early 17th century), which was once in the French royal collection; the finest and earliest version of the same sculptor’s famous Birdcatcher (late-16th century); the Seated Nymph (1503), one of the most exquisite bronzes made in the early 16th century by the celebrated goldsmith and sculptor Antico, whose real name was Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi; and Giovanni Francesco Susini’s David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1625–1630), which, like many of the works in the collection, invites admiration from any angle. Giovanni Francesco Susini is the nephew of Giovanni Bologna’s bronze caster, Antonio Susini.
The bronze sculptures are complemented by boxwood and ivory carvings, including the largest grouping of works outside Germany by the sculptor Leonhard Kern, one of the greatest masters in these media. A virtuoso carver, he cut his figures out of a single block of wood or ivory. Works in boxwood were often tinted to resemble the colors of bronze sculpture, while the gleam of ivory evoked the purity of white marble on a miniature scale.