Casting Traditions in Bronze

By Beacon Staff

If you ask 15 University of Montana fans why they support the Grizzlies, you’ll get 15 different answers. For some, it’s their alma mater. For others, it’s their hometown team, or just the best tailgate party around.

For Coby Johnson, it’s his son.

“My son is 11, and he loves Griz football,” Johnson said. “It’s just fun to be there and see the excitement in my son’s eyes.”

It was at one of the Grizzlies’ football games when Johnson, owner of Glacier Bronze Works in Kalispell, decided to give back to the team. He crafted a trophy for the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, Colt Anderson – a bronze bust of the grizzly bear sat atop a pedestal of walnut wood, with a small plaque that said, “Go Griz.”

But Johnson felt he could do more, and not just for the football team. He approached the Grizzly Scholarship Association to see how he might be able to contribute.

GSA Executive director Greg Sundberg said Johnson’s offer was something of a serendipitous moment.

“It was perfect timing,” Sundberg said. “We were literally at that point in time looking for what would be a significant award to these special student athletes.”

Starting this spring, Johnson will donate two of his trophies as the “Grizzly Cup,” a long-dormant tradition in Grizzly athletics honoring the top male and female student-athletes at the school.

The Grizzly Cup hasn’t been handed out for 15 years, Sundberg said, but the athletic department decided to bring the tradition back. The recipients are successful athletes, but are also strong scholars and contributors to the community, Sundberg said.

Johnson also gave the GSA permission to sell the trophy to help fund athletic scholarships.

“I hope they move a lot of them and make a lot of money for those kids,” Johnson said.

The trophies will be sold for $595 a piece, but Johnson will not see any profit. Half of the price covers the cost of making the trophy and the other half will go to the GSA. He’s already seen interest in the trophies, with a dozen sold so far.

The cost of creating a bronze statue is significant, Johnson said, even for the smallest creations. To start, the price of bronze is up to anywhere from $3.50 to $4 a pound. That may not seem like a lot, but it certainly adds up when you have to buy bronze bullion by the ton. That can top $7,000, Johnson said.

“It’s way more expensive than it used to be,” he said.

The casting process is also labor intensive. Johnson and his wife, Adrienne, begin sculptures with clay. This forms a rubber mold for a wax version of the sculpture. After the wax sets, it is coated several times with sand layers of varying coarseness.

The sand-silica mixture creates a shell, which is fired at 1,400 degrees to melt the wax out and harden the outer layer. It’s into this layer that the bronze, molten at 2,100 degrees, pours in from the crucible.

Once the bronze is set, the outer sand shell is cut and sandblasted off and any separated pieces are welded back on. The sculpture is sandblasted again for maximum shininess, and given a wax or chemical finish to protect it from the elements.

Aside from their own sculptures, the Johnsons cast bronzes for other artists from their molds, as well as produce commissioned pieces. Johnson said their work can be found in California, Las Vegas, Canada and all through Montana.

Though he didn’t go to the University of Montana, Johnson said he felt at home after great experiences at Grizzly football games.

Sundberg described it as catching “Griz fever.”

“His energy and what he’s done for us already is awesome and that’s what makes our program tick,” Sundberg said. “There are a lot of people who say they want to get involved and help, but he has really stepped forward and put a lot of time into it.”