As Good as Bronze

By Beacon Staff

The idea of a huge moose with metal-plated armor is disturbing, but thankfully the one outside of the new Sportsman Ski Haus isn’t alive. The foundry where it was created, however, is full of life.

Welders, screeching grinders, clinking metal and ovens burning at 2,500 degrees make for a lively atmosphere at Kalispell Art Casting, the largest art bronze foundry in the state, according to co-owner John Olson.

Many fine art foundries – factories where artists work with various specialists to create metal sculptures – have come and gone over the years in Flathead Valley, Olson said, with as many as eight at one point. Kalispell Art Casting, in its 28th year, is the only one left today. If you see a bronze sculpture in a local gallery, it was likely made in Olson’s foundry.

“We’re the only ones stupid enough to still be doing this,” joked Jack Muir, the foundry’s other owner.

Olson and Muir started the foundry in 1980 with four employees: them and two relatives. Today they have about 40 employees and would have at least twice that many, Olson said, if it weren’t so difficult to find help with the specialized skills. Their more than 200 clients include award-winning sculptors Burl Jones and Bigfork’s Bob Stayton. Monuments made at their foundry are scattered throughout North America, though the moose at Sportsman Ski Haus is surprisingly their first one in Kalispell.

Stayton, who has a studio in Bigfork’s Buffalo Trails Gallery, moved to the Flathead from Portland, Ore., in the 1980s to be closer to Kalispell Art Casting, he said.

“(The foundry) had a long-range reputation even then,” he said.

Stayton estimates that the foundry is the second or third largest of its kind west of the Mississippi, pointing out that the larger ones in the East often do industrial work too. Kalispell Art Casting does only fine art, a fact he respects.

Today the foundry’s business stretches out across the nation, throughout Canada and even into the selective European art market. Office Manager Marian Ellison said she has a bid from an Italian artist on her desk right now.

Shipping Manager Steve Gilbody said the casting process used at the foundry is called the “lost wax method,” which he said is credited as a 600-year-old Italian invention, though the Chinese used similar methods thousands of years earlier. It involves a complicated series of steps to produce a bronze sculpture based off of an original sculpture, which is often wax or clay.

First, a plaster mold – or foam mold for larger pieces – with a rubber inner lining is formed around the original sculpture. The mold is in two pieces, so it can be removed in halves. The sculpture is taken out of the mold, hot wax is poured in and allowed to cool. The result is a wax replica of the original sculpture. Workers touch up the wax figure and check every detail.

“We try to police ourselves through the whole process,” Gilbody said.

The wax figure is dipped into a liquid and then coated multiple times with three different silica-based sands. Once dry, this coating forms a hard shell that is placed into an oven, which melts the wax out of holes in the shell. This is the “lost wax” of the process’s name.

Bronze is then heated to above 2,000 degrees and poured into the shell. After it cools to a solid form, the shell is hammered or blasted away, leaving the bronze sculpture. Specialists touch up the sculpture, welding on pieces – like tails or heads that were formed with the same casting process – and “matching the texture” of the original sculpture. Colors can be added with chemicals. A small piece is a “miniature” and a large one is a “monument.”

Though the process is complicated, Gilbody said the concept is feasible enough.

“It can’t be rocket science if it’s 600 years old,” he said.

Usually artists work with the foundry throughout the process, but other times it’s all up to the foundry. For the artist who helps, the final bill is cheaper. The bill is also affected by details discussed during the original bidding process. Ellison said size, degree of difficulty and occasionally freight costs factor in whether the foundry accepts a bid or not.

“We work with the artists to help them reach their vision,” she said.

Both Muir and Olson are quick to point out that Ellison and shop manager Colby Johnson run much of the foundry’s business today. While Ellison said that she and Johnson do indeed run day-to-day affairs when the owners aren’t present, Olson and Muir still do a lot.

“It’s really a democratic process we run here,” she said.

Though Muir and Olson may not be as active in day-to-day business affairs, they still like to get their hands dirty. Stayton said Olson does a lot of metal work and Muir, a sculptor, doesn’t mind getting wax on his clothes.

“I’ve admired that from the beginning,” Stayton said.