The 23rd International Sculpture Conference: Iron Pour

Photos by Layton Ehmke

Where sledge hammers meet recycled iron radiators, there’s an iron pour nearby.

The 23rd International Sculpture Conference took place over the weekend in the Chicago area with workshops, lectures, tours and pots of 2700 degree molten iron. Next to a cornfield, on the campus of Governors State University  there’s more space for fiery-beast cupolas–hand-fabricated miniature smokestacks– to burn hot and melt recycled iron. I was invited to be on a crew taming one of the cupolas.

It’s always impressive the amount of waiting that happens at an iron pour. Even as a crew member, I wait. Most often it’s waiting on the cupola to preheat. Before the cupola is switched on though, everyone runs around chaotically checking that all jobs are done. Then comes the waiting. And more waiting. Until someone yells, “Iron!” and all crew members rotate into a beautiful interpretive dance because the once-iron radiator has now become molten metal, ready to be recast into new molds.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago hosted this ISC iron pour. And of course, there was a chalkboard. Brilliant. Most of the molds were called open-face molds where a person can carve any design into a hardened block of sand. The molten iron is then poured into the recess, filling in the carved image. Whereas some other sand molds (featured above) are built in parts for casting three-dimensional objects.

Over 800 pounds of iron were melted and cast into new shapes from cupolas built by many of the crew members working on them. Each one is different. And each one has its own personality making all cupolas a little different from the next. All of the iron was broken by hand, also by the crew members that morning and in the week prior. Around 50 students, alumni, faculty and other pyromaniacs spent their Saturday making art and being part of a collaborative art practice.

As with almost all iron pours, the weather is one extreme. It’s either rainy and cold or it’s so hot you will have to dunk your head in a Home Depot bucket. So although the weather chose to be cold and miserable, standing next to a cupola of 2700 degrees isn’t such a bad spot to be waiting.


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