A friend of mine teaches art at the University of Tennessee, and I pick his brain from time to time about art. I’m really interested in art but don’t really know much about it, and knowing an artist is really neat, though sometimes I worry that by turning chat so often to art, I’m being sort of a jerk (maybe he’d like to talk about sports or politics or parenting or television sometimes). I’ve also always been fascinated by industrial things. For example, I’m really interested in things like factory tours, although I never actually manage to go on any. Mechanization — or really human innovation in general, with things like mechanization as just one example — is really amazing to me. So too is the fact that one day somebody figured out probably more or less by accident that molten iron could be molded into useful forms and that, as our species began to be able to allocate more resources to culture than to survival, people started practicing this skill with a more artistic than pragmatic purpose. So when my friend mentioned that the UT sculpture club was going to be holding an iron pour, all my little fascination alarm bells started dinging.
Iron pours, it turns out, are a pain to put on, and so they’re fairly rare. Some sculptors will basically go on road trips from one iron pour to the next, and so sculptors from at least as far away as Minnesota were visiting to help throw this shindig. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when we (my family came with) arrived. There was a big kiln or perhaps you’d call it a furnace, maybe a bit smaller than a 50 gallon drum, sitting on a stand. A few people stood around while others began loading the furnace with what I guess was maybe coke. It would be a couple of hours, my friend told us, before they would begin pouring any metal. Other people were filling sacks with salvaged iron and still others were breaking larger pieces of salvaged iron into smaller pieces that would then be put into the sacks.
The club was making sort of a fund raiser of the public event, selling shirts and the opportunity to make scratch tiles. This stuff wasn’t set up yet when we first got there, so we walked to an anthropology museum on campus and let the kids run around some in the lovely Fall weather and came back a couple of hours later to get started making scratch tiles.
To talk about scratch tiles, I first have to talk about how you make a mold to begin with. I imagine there are several methods, but the one in evidence today used molds made of sand. What? Yes, sand. Well, it’s sand mixed with some kind of chemical that makes it hold its shape and that I suppose might impart some properties to the sand that prevent it from turning to glass under extreme heat. The artists pouring iron had brought many molds, some of whose shapes you could discern and some of whose shapes were buried inside the molds with holes for pouring the iron in. So, say you’re making a bowling ball: the whole thing has to be encased in a mold with something like a periscope hole for pouring the metal into; a piece with a flat exposed surface (like, say, a relief) needs no such contrivance, and so its negative shape can be seen in full; these tend to look like oddly misshapen bowls. A scratch tile uses a shallow square mold with a recess in it, as if you had taken a square brick of hardened light brown sugar, which is what the stuff looks like, and pressed a tile into it. You then scratch your design into the recessed area, and when the iron is poured in, it fills the scratched design and leaves you with an iron tile basically scarified with your design.
We’re not accustomed to carrying much cash and were ill prepared, but borrowing four bucks from my friend (which made me feel like a real tool — some patron of the arts I am — though he was very gracious about it), we were able to scrounge enough cash to let the kids each scratch a tile.
Since our departure and return, a bunch more people had showed up, many of them wearing what looked like suede protective outfits and helmets with face shields. The furnace shot a point of bright orange fire out its top, and one of the holes near its bottom spit occasional sparks. When I say a jet of fire, I don’t mean that it was a flame; I mean that it seemed like the kind of thing that you imagine shooting out the back of a fighter plane’s engines. One guy climbed a little platform beside the furnace occasionally and dumped in buckets of iron scraps. Things were really getting exciting! Well, they were exciting for me. My kids were pretty bored by it after they were done designing their tiles, which sort of blows my mind. At some point, some of the folk working the event turned what I guess is probably called a crucible upside down over the fire, I suppose to heat it gradually so that the sudden introduction of super hot iron doesn’t break it, though I’m really not positive that’s why. And then all of a sudden, two people in their fancy suede duds were carrying the crucible on a pole between them over to some of the molds. They pretty casually poured the iron into the various little periscope holes like some thick psychedelic orange juice. They didn’t get much of a pour, it seemed to me, but then I suppose that’s why the event was scheduled to last all day.
Before and between pours, some people worked on keeping the crucibles hot by pointing what seemed like basically an industrial hairdryer into the vessels, only instead of air, it blew flaming gas until the inside of the crucible glowed.
My daughter in particular was really sick of the affair by now (both kids were put off by the smell, which was a little acrid but not so bad, really), but I wanted to see one more pour, and they were going to pour the scratch tiles next, which I thought the kids might find interesting since they had more of a stake in it. I was wrong. It took a few minutes to get the iron back up to temperature, but when they did, they had two crucibles going for a couple of minutes, and watching those carrying the hot metal navigate around one another and around the various obstacles (people, pallets of molds, the ground made irregular by mounds of sand used for dampening any spills) was like watching a sort of dance.
The tiles flamed as they were poured and even after, and we could see the orange molten square glowing for minutes after. I’m not sure how long it takes them to cool and harden, since we left shortly after this second pour. We’ll retrieve the tiles later.
Watching this event made me wish I were artistic. Or, as I said wistfully on the drive home, I’m artistically inclined but not artistically talented, so that while an event like this has a whole lot of appeal for me, it’s not the sort of thing I could ever have hoped to attend as more than an interloper. Interloping was fun, though. I would have gladly stayed and watched, pretty well mesmerized, for the whole time. If there’s another iron pour in the next few years, I’d love to go and would for sure make a scratch tile of my own. I’m grateful that my friend let me know about the event. It was a real treat.