‘Fire Therapy’

'...Spraying sparks in an amazing dazzle of fire, showering us all in its display and creating a mixture of profound fear and eye opening excitement.'

“First Fire” is actually a Hopi tradition to start off their New Year, on or around winter solstice or as winter approaches. The fire is started, often, with flint and steel and is a very special event and time marker.  Up in Taos, at Taos Mesa Brewing, which lies between the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, a stunning, shocking bridge that puts you dramatically in the face of beauty and death, out in the middle of nowhere and the blinking light where you can turn left towards the bridge, straight towards Questa and San Louis and La Veta Pass or right towards the Sangre de Cristos and sacred Blue Lake.  The drive I took, with a big experiment; loading my bronze melting furnace and the equipment to pour bronze onto a small trailer, us hailing from Spirit Valley, New Mexico and me a little nervous about the great weight, the functionality of my brake lights and turn signals and the tire’s wear (as I had just recently resorted to taking the wheel and bearing off and taking a steel sleeve and a huge cheater pipe and bending the axle end straight after some event had bent in some time ago and worn down two sets of tires in short order).  I had promised to bring the furnace, forgetting how heavy it really was, despite being on wheels.  It was a gift from Harry Leippe, retired professor of sculpture and bronze casting down (or up, depending how you look at it) at Highlands, Las Vegas.  The furnace was built by a man named Jason who was a student of bronze and a stunningly gifted welder and the furnace and fan system was made over thirty years ago and had never been used since it was made and then given to me.  I have used it for pushing 10 years now, first creating an amazing solid bronze cast helical staircase and first floor balustrade with it and many other items, including a ceremonial bronze wedding bowl for my daughter when she got married.  We cast it with mostly family members during the profound storm in late December 2006 that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on us that night (adding to the 12” already on the ground) and casting it was amazing drama as snow glumps fell all around the crucible full of molten bronze metal. So there has been some drama around this and drama is nothing new for melting metal.

It took three hours to drive from Santa Fe to Taos Mesa, past Tres Piedras on the proud old highway called 285 (it goes on to Denver, Colorado, through some of the most beautiful mountain and passes in the world and is a great road to travel on).  To me it is as interesting and useful as Route 66 is touted; 800 some miles from Texas to Denver, going up from Clines Corners and about 2 miles from our ranch.

Once there, Taos Mesa Brewing is an exciting place, with the arched quansit roof, a new amphitheater of a sculptural nature, a sculpture garden that includes Thor’s Raven- “Conspiracy” (that’s the term for plural ravens!), horseshoe pit, outside tables, a huge white sculptural crane, a restaurant, stage and dance floor and a great view of the Sangres across the sagebrush laden plains.  There is something about the place that makes it really special and worth visiting.  That is just a side attraction for me, as there is so much going on for the pour that most of the surroundings are a bit of a blur.  This time there were 3 or 4 stations where wrought iron items were being created in small forges of various sorts, including an antique hand cranked forge.  The persons “manning” the forges were mostly women, as far as I could tell and they looked like they knew what they were doing;  BadAss Women all around this place; no place for discrimination or pre-judging who is capable of what, as those notions need to fall by the wayside.

Lance was there, from Hayes, Kansas, with his wild and cool trailer that holds his iron melting cupula furnace, tall when erected and capable of being  operated by one person (in a pinch), including an operating arm that holds the “ladle” (term to describe the “bucket” that carries and holds the molten cast iron, which consists of recycled cast iron shards that are created by breaking up old tubs, stoves, radiators….anything made of grey metal or cast iron….not “steel”, which melts at a higher temperature and is not “brittle” like cast iron).   Lance has attached all kinds of cast iron skeletal parts, skulls and such to his amazing ensemble of equipment and can also stand on the loading platform with his electric guitar and sing into a microphone attached to a rod welded to the furnace and play some “heavy (and loud) metal”, drowning out any other sounds until the mike gets so hot he has to step down and rethink the whole thing.  Up in Laramie a few months ago, at the Western Cast Iron Art Biennial, I had to fill in for him after the mike overheated and I plugged into his amp and jammed a shovel into the ubiquitous piles of sand nearby and sang into my “can” at full tilt, as I have done some at pours over the years.  It is best, for both of us, to have a full roar of blowers and furnaces and propane burning and activity to get the real effect of this experience.

Lance Wadlow and his cupula rig

Aztec dancers and Fire Globe (left), amphitheater, Lance’s Furnace (with arm and skeleton), Sangre de Cristos and sand pile.

Out of the blue came Aztec Fire Dancers from Las Vegas onto the stage and danced up a storm just as Ben Remmers and I lit up his “Fire Globes” with a weedburner.  Lance was busy busting out some old unwanted material from the belly of his furnace and fine tuning everything and then lit the furnace as the crowds continued to watch in various stages of wonder.  I was asked to come up with a hook for Lance’s ladle and so I sidled over to the first blacksmithing woman I saw and Ben Remmers  (main coordinator for this event and a master pourer) cut a short piece of 3/8 steel and we heated it up and I made a hook on one end and a closed loop on the other and installed it on the spot.  Time wore on and people kept coming up to me and talking about how they worked at Shidoni  foundry at some point or are thinking about making a furnace, others chatted around with questions and David Lobdell , mentor to us all and head of the art department and iron and bonze caster extraordinaire, showed up with his “letters to the universe” installation which is a  rather large arch that he pumps propane into and it lights up and glows and can be fed wishes and thoughts on paper that burn up and enter into the multidimensional multiverse for processing of all sorts.  I was thinking about my great long-time friend getting a blood and stem cell transplant as we were busy pouring iron and praying, through these mediums, for her. 

Now the pour is in full swing and we have all hurriedly donned our protective gear: helmet and mask of wire mesh or vinyl, heavy gloves, leather jacket over cotton clothing, leather chaps and steel toed boots.  There is work to be done, in the dark except for a few little lights, a strobe light (new), a flashlight or two and the light of the molten iron in the ladle and now being poured into molds of all sorts or onto a performance piece of wood and other items (spraying sparks in an amazing dazzle of fire, showering us all in its display and creating a mixture of profound fear and eye opening excitement).

Ben’s Performance Piece

The ladle is extra heavy and pouring less metal that usual, but we make do, doubling up on the handles and using every last ounce of strength and tolerance to get the job done.  Mistakes and disappointments need to move to the back burner as there is so much happening; there is no time or energy for that kind of extraneous foolishness.  The scene is like a shadow play as the ghosts move around in the dark doing their tasks with quiet determination and acting out a drama that is, in many ways, timeless, whether is it going in for the final kill in a hunt and doing the butchering and skinning; being in some aspect of a battle of some sort where life is on the line and things must be done; delivering a baby; sailing a ship in a storm…..but this is all to make art (performance or sculptural).

Then, in a new phase, the bronze furnace is lit (a few times to get the balance of air and fuel right, as the fan is blowing to increase the heat and the propane is added carefully).  Finally, after much adjustment and careful tending, there is a roar like a jet engine or a lion or a tornado (which it is in there) and bits of bronze get fed into the crucible and, after what seem like an eternity and on the brink of failure, the metal begins to pool.  Then the bronze is fed into the roaring hole and finally heats up to 2000 some degrees and the molds, which have been preheating in another furnace, are poured.  This is after the furnace is turned off, the roar is gone, a eerie silence prevails, a heat coming from the glowing crucible can cause a deer in the headlights affect because of it’s obvious power, the lifting tongs are dropped carefully onto the crucible and we now lift it above our heads to get it out and ease it onto the ground where another device for carrying and pouring is waiting.  It is attached with an arm that is supposed to hold the crucible tight and then the metal is “skimmed” with a steel implement and then we walk to the now ready molds and pour them, like water.  The pour is soon over, for better or worse and, in this case, a lot was poured onto the wood performance frame which is now covered with cast iron that is full of openings and interesting patterns.  Other molds are tended and then the crucible is scraped out and replaced for the next pour. 

Pouring Bronze from Thor’s furnace

It is now over and it is getting late and there is lots of work to do to clean up and pick up and disassemble and tie down.  I left by 10:30 with an eight foot long mold with just enough metal poured onto it (this being a performance style open-faced piece) and another snake or buffalo gourd and cholla performance piece and got home by 4:30 that morning. 

This describes, briefly, some of the things that happen during an iron pour and what happened at the Iron Brew 2 pour in Taos on December 20, 2014.  I hope it helps or inspires other to understand or want to do something like this as it is a chance to put one’s mind and body and resources together and gaze into the depths of hell (although Dante’s Inferno is, actually, frozen) on a cold day where molasses flows slowly near January and see if this might just be the meditation and therapy the sorcerer ordered.

Bronze Furnace


Read more from Thor at Thors Hammer.

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