Copper in the Arts

January 2011

Cast in the Imagination: The Large Format Bronze Work of Susan P. Cochran

By Michael Cervin

Susan P. Cochran with her Large Bronze Earwig Sculptor Susan P. Cochran with her Large Bronze Earwig

Photograph courtesy of Susan P. Cochran

From giant bronze ants weighing half a ton to seven-foot tall African stick fighting men, there is no doubt that bronze sculptor Susan Cochran thinks big. Her witty perception brings the viewer into a world that is larger than life, by magnifying the everyday through bronze.

Based in West Palm Beach, Florida, Cochran came to bronze casting in 2001 when she was already 60 years old. Since then, she has received international attention for her large-scale sculpture installations from art fairs such as The Art Form International Fine Art Exposition, The Miami International Art Fair, and The Palm Beach International Sculpture Biennale, as well as expositions in Chicago, New York and Santa Fe. Her work is also represented in public collections including the New York Fire Department Museum, The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, the Perry Ellis International Building in Miami, and private collections in Maui, England and Dubai, among others.

But it didn't start that way.

Giant Bronze Ants at the Bellagio. Giant Bronze Ants at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Photograph courtesy of Susan P. Cochran

"My father was a very gifted artist," she recalls. "When he was growing up, he was taught by (Welsh painter) Augustus John how to draw and paint," says Cochran. That creative bent touched the family. She took art classes in high school and received an A for her efforts. "My father always said any idiot can get an A," she adds laughing.

Cochran was definitely good at knitting and beadwork, something she did mainly for her own pleasure, though she did some work of American Indian ceremonial dresses and headgear and realized the work was rather flat. "I wanted to step it up a notch and started doing it dimensionally, which is common now."

In 2001 she moved into the world of bronze when her friend, artist Helmut Koller, asked her to create an art piece for the local hospice for a fundraising event called Chair-ity.

Putting the finishing touches on a giant bronze ant. Putting the finishing touches on a giant bronze ant.

Photograph courtesy of Susan P. Cochran

"Go to Goodwill, get an old chair, paint it and put a feather on it," Helmut had said to her. "I won't do that," Cochran responded, "but this is what I will do, I just don't know how to do it," she remembers. "I had in my head a pair of bronze overalls which are floating just above the ground, but you can sit on it," she says, pulling in the chair theme for the event. Koller knew exactly who did that type of bronze casting, so he took her to the Robert St. Croix Studio and Foundry in West Palm Beach, Florida. And there began a new adventure in bronze.

"Robert very kindly taught me what I wanted to do," Cochran says of her first bronze creation - the ethereal floating trousers. But did it ever occur to her that a large format bronze exterior sculpture might be a little ambitious right out of the gate for someone with no experience in casting?

"I don't listen to negative talk and if anyone said anything to me about not being able to do it, I didn't hear them," she says defiantly. "I think every 10 years one should challenge oneself."

More the idea person than a welder, Cochran begins her work by making a maquette, always working in clay first. St. Croix then provides the armature for her pieces, which are produced using the lost wax method.

At work on her Fighter series. At work on her Fighter series.

Photograph courtesy of Susan P. Cochran

"We do a mold on it, and get wax in the pieces which goes into a slurry," she says. A thick silica wax is heated, and poured into the molds before the bronze is poured. In the case of the giant ants, individual pieces of the body were cast, then welded together for the six foot creations. She does very little of her own chasing, instead she directs others citing health concerns. Instead of using a traditional patina, she uses only shoe polish to accent her work.

"You heat the bronze then apply the boot polish using different colors and the heat sucks it into the metal for a nice patina. Plus it's easy to fix," she advises. To coat the exterior pieces she simply paints on wax then buffs it off. "I like the classic patina—the dark brown, like the Greek bronze statues," she says.

The St. Croix Foundry buys their bronze in bulk from Sipi Metals Corporation in Chicago. Both Cochran and St. Croix are keenly aware that the price of copper and bronze is going up all the time. Regardless of costs however they will not skimp on quality copper and bronze even though there is less expensive bulk metal on the market. "There's no point in buying cheap copper and bronze, you always get the best, otherwise it's full of holes," she says.

Resources:

Susan P. Cochran, Palm Beach, Florida, (561) 371-7902

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