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The following tells of our adventure of getting Rachelle cast. This is something I wanted to do for the longest time. The idea of capturing my wife's beauty in immortal bronze really appealed to me. When it became financially feasible and I was able to convince her we decided to do it. We inquired to a few places all of which were far away. There was a really neat place I knew of locally (from a long time ago) that cast artists' work and I thought maybe he would be able to suggest a possible body caster. After a quick search I located the studio, "Lost & Foundry", of Dale Dunning. When I inquired he stated the he would be more than happy to do it. This was fantastic because if you think about the logistics of what we were about to undertake it was very convenient and having seen his work in past I knew he was very talented!
This is the day that we were going to make a mold of Rachelle. We drove out to Dale's place which, in itself, is a postcard setting in the country. We arrived about 2:00 in the afternoon. It is such a delightful place for all around the house and yard are various pieces of art, some prominent and noticed right away while others, like hidden Easter eggs, provide visual surprises at nearly every vista.
Dale had prepared for our arrival and had previously told us of the things we would have to do so we quickly got underway. The first thing was to prep Rachelle. After she had undressed clay was applied. This is done to prevent plaster from adhering to any hair. Then baby oil was applied to any skin that might be exposed to the plaster, again acting as a mold release agent. While this was being finalized Dale prepared the plaster and cheesecloth that would become the mold. The plan was to mold from her upper thigh to part of her raised arms and her face. Because of the size of the mold it was to be done in two parts, the body and the face.
Above you can see the mix of plaster and cheese cloth being applied to Rachelle. The cheesecloth was dipped into the pail of wet plaster then applied to Rachelle. Dale worked quickly and with confidence and the mold took shape quite quickly. Soon the plaster was fully applied and we had to wait for it to set up. Anticipating Rachelle having to wait while remaining motionless I brought some Sting and Blue Rodeo to help her pass the time while under the plaster. In fact it really doesn't take that long to set up, probably 20 minutes. When it was set the plaster shell was carefully pulled away and set to one side
Here the facial mask is underway. When this is done you have to find a method to breathe and so straws are used. You'd think it's hard not to laugh at your wife when she has straws up her nose but getting to the business at hand makes you overlook these ignominies. Initially a similar mix of plaster and cheesecloth was tried for the facial cast however it was found that it was not conforming to the fine contours of Rachelle's face so pure plaster was applied. Being pure plaster the mask was applied very quickly then again, the wait.
While the facial cast was setting up Dale worked at touching up the body cast. Here he is applying plaster to minor imperfections where air was trapped or where the mold had been disturbed on removal.
This is the inside of the facial mask. Note the embedded eyebrows and eyelashes. Here is where the change of plan on the fly kind of got us. The pure plaster tended to envelope the eyebrows and eyelashes. As a result the removal of the mold took quite a bit of time as we were trying to be as gentle as possible and even then a small amount of hair was removed.
Here is the final clean-up, mainly removing residual bits of plaster from around the eye area.
Inspecting the Waxes
When the plaster mold is finished hot wax is poured into the shell. The resultant wax is what the ultimate bronze will be like. This is the day we went to see the wax positives that had resulted from the plaster molds. We had no idea what to expect. When we saw the rough waxes we were very pleased.
There were a few things the wax revealed that we originally never expected. One was the pose we did was that of Rachelle with her hands over her head (in her hair), arched back looking down, a bit classical. Since the arms were not fully molded for their full length the effect was a little like a crucifix so we decided to further truncate the arms. Dale showed us how the face would be placed and how he would build up the neck. We all stood and looked at the two pieces together and agreed the face looked disproportionately small compared to the body.
This was due to the fact that the sides of the face were not molded. If you look at a person the sides of the face add considerably to the overall perceived size of the head. This is where Rachelle & Dale came up with a complete change of plan. At first it was to cast the face separately but then Rachelle wanted to have my face beside hers. I was reluctant. I don't even consider myself photogenic much less castable. This was to be about capturing her beauty and all of a sudden we're talking about doing me. Casting me was something she proposed before we even started but at the time I had flatly rejected as ridiculous. Looking at the wax model of her face she really wanted the two of us together and apart from what I thought I might look like I could see the merit in her idea. It was only my face after all and we could pass it on to Shawn after we're gone. I knew what she was thinking because she had seen a somewhat similar concept (different in medium and form) in the Carlen Gallery and she had commented on it at the time. The idea was to have two shell-like face casts together on a single base.
Dale also said that he could smooth the body cast up to reflect a "literal" copy but suggested he could also put on a slight texture to it which would be more interesting. He hinted that while he could do it, a completely smooth literal cast would tend to look plastic and less interesting. Rachelle loved the idea but it was not what I had originally envisioned. He showed us other bronzes around the shop so we could see the effect. He also mentioned the end patina would also be more interesting and that the end result would be more "organic".
The more I thought about it as I walked around looking at the different bronzes (such as the one above) the more I agreed and could see what he was getting at. This is where the wisdom of a skilled artist can lead you to a better end result.
So there it was, I walked in the door with one set of perceived notions and left with a completely different set. I think the plan, while now different, had changed much for the better.
Casting My Face?
The day had finally come where I was to get my face cast. The Friday night before I had stopped at a few fast food places to get some large straws for breathing (McDonald's were the biggest). It was a little nerve wracking to know I'd be buried under plaster with only straws to breathe through. I started to get ready by applying baby oil to my face and Rachelle helped by putting Vaseline on my eyebrows & lashes & edge of my hairline.
Dale had prepared a metal table with some comfortable foam insulation for me to lie on. I laid back and tried to insert the straws into my nose. I found they ticked like crazy because of the light touch. Dale then slumped the wet plaster over my face and instantly the straws felt comfortable. Breathing was no problem at all. The plaster felt cool and a bit heavy, not overly so though, but I could feel the weight of it. All I could do at this point was lay back and wait for it to set up.
For a fair amount of time it felt cool then slowly but surely it was like a flush was coming over my face. It wasn't hot but you certainly could feel the warmth of it as it went through the final stages of setting up. Dale reinforced the cast at this point with a bit of plaster and cheesecloth. I found that in laying back and trying not to move my mouth was collecting saliva. I think I swallowed at one point and this is where the small crack in the chin formed from the movement. In the final stages the mask was feeling quite stiff and was now quite warm, what one might call a hot flush. Dale felt around the edges a bit and decided it was time and started to lift it off. There was a slight suction but it lifted off easily. With the mask off there was some dust around my eyes which I rubbed out and in a minute or two I was back to normal. I went to look at the mask and there was indeed a small (easily repairable) crack around the chin but otherwise it came out great.
It's kind of weird to look at a negative of your face but if you play with the light a bit it will also look like a positive at different angles. I was happy there was a slight smile in the cast and that I didn't come off looking like a "firm face". It all went so quick and easy. I felt a little guilty about Rachelle not having the benefit of Vaseline on her eyebrows and eyelashes two weeks before.
Preparing the Molds
After the waxes are completed they are prepared for casting. This involves adding wax tubes (sprues) which will allow the metal to flow into all parts of the mold and vents which to allow air to escape while the mold is filling up with bronze. You can see where much of the wax preparation is done above left. The long pink tube in the foreground is a sprue blank. The box contains recovered wax from the burn out process. Once the wax assembly is complete the ceramic mold must be made. This area can be seen above right.
The large wax assembly is repeated dipped into a colloidal silica solution (left two pictures above) then the mold is sprinkled with fused silica sand and allowed to dry - dipped, sprinkle, and dry, dipped sprinkle, and dry - until it builds up considerable thickness. This, then, is the mold (right two pictures above). The colloidal silica solution must be kept stirred most of the time or it will come out of solution. You can see the large black drum which is rotated horizontally under timer control to achieve this. The back rack and fan is for drying the ceramic molds between dips into the solution.
Once the mold is complete it must undergo the burn out process. The mold is placed inverted & elevated in a kiln. The kiln is brought up to temperature and the wax within the mold melts and drains out. This can be seen in the picture above. The melted wax draining away is recovered in a water filled catch basin. When the mold is devoid of wax and hollow it is ready for the pour.
There is a lot of work and time that goes into preparing the molds and Dale did ours, and many others, over Christmas in between his art shows. The burn out of Rachelle's mold was done the day before the pour.
I had asked Dale in advance if I could watch and photograph the pouring process having not seen a bronze pour before. He had graciously agreed. Finally the day had arrived. It was cold, -28°C, and clear that morning. When I drove up to his shop I noticed the door was wide open. When I shut off the car I immediately heard a muted roar from inside. Opening the car door it immediately got louder and by the time I entered the shop it was like the afterburner of a jet. It was very impressive and despite the door being wide open the shop was very warm.
The round central furnace was roaring away with flames shooting straight up out of the inferno inside. Off to the side the kiln was also going full tilt on the burn out of another mold with a river of wax trickling into the catch basin below. Amongst all this noise and commotion was Dale, quietly working away on Rachelle's mold, sealing up the end of the main sprue in preparation for the pour.
I immediately noticed all the work that had gone into getting the mold ready. There it was on the table with a top cup, and a myriad of rear mounted sprues and vents yet having the basic form on the front. I couldn't help but look at it and imagine the metal pouring down into all that complicated structure and imagining how it would go.
There were to be three pours that day and Rachelle's mold was to be part of the second pour. The first pour took the longest to come up to temperature (about 2 hours) because initially everything was "cold". The last pour only took 40 minutes.
The first step in the process is to put some borax which acts like a flux into the crucible within the furnace and replace the lid and light it. The first time Dale lit the furnace it scared the bajesus out of me as it starts with a loud CRACK followed by the roar. Once it's going you charge it with an initial load of bronze then get to the other tasks at hand, preheating molds and preparing sand for the pouring bed etc. Periodically you check the progress and add more bronze after the previous load has softened and melted. Soon the crucible fills up and it becomes just a matter of reaching the correct temperature.
Typically while this is going on you prepare the pouring bed. This consists of filling many buckets with sand and spreading sand in a 3ft circle on the floor about 6" deep. On top of the circle of sand you place a steel drum which is open at both ends. You then take preheated molds out of the kiln and place them within the drum onto the sand and fill around them with buckets of yet more sand taking care to cover their cups with a metal plate so sand doesn't enter the mold cavity. The sand performs many functions. It acts as a bit of an insulator for the mold so as to prevent chilling. Even more importantly it uniformly supports and braces the rather delicate ceramic mold against the force and weight of metal to be poured into it. Sometimes brick size bronze ingots are placed at strategic points around the molds to give additional support. The sand also provides a good harmless backdrop in the event of any spilled metal. Working with the sand is a very dusty job as it gets recycled for each pour and tends to be very very dry. When the molds are in place and backfilled then the protective metal plates are removed from the cups. This is typically were Dale would suit up with gloves and an apron and do some final temperature checks.
Have you ever wondered how you take the temperature of metal approaching 2000°F? With a pyrometer of course. This device looks like an articulated bar with a meter at one end for reading the temperature (See photo above). You simply stick the bar end into the metal and read the meter. When the temperature would get very close Dale would get the crucible tongs in place then skim the top of the crucible to remove impurities. Once that was complete he'd shut off the furnace ..... so quiet, almost silent now ..... and with the crane remove the lid. Then the tongs would be placed around the crucible and connected to the crane. With a button press the glowing crucible would be lifted up out of the heart of the seething furnace and then swung over to the molds. To watch Dale do all this is remarkable. He works quickly and quietly but never rushed. I can't help but notice the crucible is so dangerously hot it's incandescent yet the applied heat is now off and if the metal doesn't get into the molds quickly there's the risk it could "freeze" in the molds. Like an old pro he does all this so calmly and so matter of fact one can't help but admire it.
After he swings the crucible with its 120lb molten bronze load over the molds he gently pulls down on the tongs and begins to pour. There is sort of a "glup glup glup" sound as the metal pours. One by one each mold fills up to the cup and then he moves onto the next one. When they are all full the crucible is returned to the furnace and the cycle is started again. There was a bit of drama during the pouring of our mold in that due to the mold being so large it developed a crack under the considerable weight of metal being poured into it. We simply reinforced it with a bit more sand and bronze ingots and continued until the cup was full.
Above you can see the molds each full to the cup with molten bronze. As time goes by they cool from yellow to orange, then red, then deep red and finally they stop luminescing and go grayish at which point you know they've fully solidified. Once that happens you don the gloves and remove the molds from the barrel of sand using the crane if necessary. Careful that sand is hot! It was at this point I ran out of film so the following 4 pictures were captured off my Hi-8 video camera.
Once the casting was hoisted out he put it on a dolly and dumped it outside. Then using a long hook he pulled it well clear of the door. As you can see from the steam there is still a lot of residual heat at this point. A piece of ceramic literally "pinged" off the casting as I was filming 10ft away and landed on my head. Once the piece had cooled considerably Dale took a hammer and chipped away most of the ceramic mold exposing the bronze inside. In a way it reminded me of an egg hatching. There was a bit of a protruding seam on her tummy where the mold had cracked but, as Dale said "it looks like she's all there".
I went home that day dusty and tired yet at the same time so very excited too.
Preparing the Bronze
After casting, the sprues, gates and the seam had to be cut off. After cutting off the seam Dale integrated its texture with the TIG and die grinder to that of the rest of the bronze. He also added rings to the back for hanging. He said this took about a day's work.
In the case of the faces we had to wait for the granite base to be cut and polished to spec by Colonial Granite.
When that was complete the faces, propped on plasticine, were tried in various positions.
When we all agreed on the position Dale took pictures to record it so that he could make an appropriate support. The support would be a rod protruding out of a drilled hole in the granite. The man at Colonial Granite said that granite erodes at the rate of 1" every 100,000 years. Dale managed to do it in 2 hours using a fresh carbide drill every hour.
Applying the Patina
The next stage in the process was that of adding the patina. Rachelle and I agreed that we liked the bronze/green mix, the green giving a bit of a feel of a classical bronze from antiquity. When I arrived Dale already had the process underway starting with cupric nitrate for the green. The cupric nitrate is dissolved in water. He'd wave the propane torch and gently heat the casting then apply the cupric nitrate with the short stiff brush. Even when applied to an area with green patina it immediately leaves a wet natural bronze spot and a puff of steam arises but within seconds as it dries it all transforms to green. After completing the green patina he then used ferric nitrate for the brown. In this case he used the brush for highlighting edges and crevices and then switched to a spray bottle for the main areas.
Once the patina is applied the casting is buffed a bit to create highlights. Once this is complete the entire bronze is given a protective coat of wax. We were told it would be ready for the weekend!!
Finally the day had come. Here Rachelle and Shawn get to see it for the first time since it was a wax model. Everyone was pleased! Dale came out and joined us and gave us some tips for its care and we also discussed some tentative plans for later doing the faces. After that we carefully loaded it into the backseat beside Shawn and seat-belted it in for the ride home. You can't help but do a double take every time you check the rear view mirror.
When we got it home I quickly whipped up a hook for it with my MIG (above left). Given that it weighs about 56lbs a simple picture hook won't do. The hook I came up with has a bit of a large back plate for spreading the pressure on the wall and two holes for #14 wood screws. I added a gusset to the hook as the weight was going to be cantilevered out about 2" on the hook. As an added precaution I also added a stop on the end so that if the bronze ever got inadvertently pulled the wire would not slip off the end of the hook causing the bronze to catastrophically fall.
The flip side shows the marvelous patina Dale created. It's wonderful as in different light conditions it will take on different perceived colours. In low light the browns predominate whereas in sunlight the subtle greens come out.
Here it is on display in its final resting place. We absolutely love it. It lends such an air of distinction and class to the house and most importantly it captures Rachelle's beauty for eternity. The picture below shows the faces (which were completed later) in a temporary setting. Dale's idea of "levitating" my face off the base came out wonderfully although the picture doesn't really show it (shadowed by flash).
Looking back on it all now I would have to say that this was a fabulous experience! There will be many fond memories associated with these pieces for we were blessed with the opportunity not only to see them come to life but to take part in their creation in the presence of a true master of his art, Dale Dunning.
A Few Other Pieces
Dale always has a steady stream of diverse work coming through his shop. The following are a few pieces that I captured when visiting.
Base Clef Finial for the Mill of Kintail (Almonte)
The following piece is dedicated to Ethel McKenzie, a musician. She and her husband Tait both resided at the Mill of Kintail which is now a museum. Also a lover of nature this base clef has the appearance of a cluster of branches.
This piece "Yellow Chair" seen at the shop entrance is now on display in front of the Ottawa Art Gallery. I saw (but have no pictures of) another piece commissioned by Care Canada titled "Supplicant". It can be seen on display at the Montreal Galerie d'Avignon featuring Dale's work. I'm told that it has since been renamed to "Whisper". That piece and the gallery will also be featured in the upcoming movie "Gothika".
This piece is by John Matthews (cast by Dale). It is currently displayed at John Matthews' residence outside Ottawa.
This piece (very left) was well over 100 years old and was suffering from repeated breakage. Dale was working on creating a duplicate in aluminum. The center and right picture show the wax work-ups underway.