WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
There's a nearby tavern called the Waterhole, and across from that is a small market with a sign in the window asking customers to kindly settle their credit. A white-steeple church punctuates one stretch of road. A homemade fire-and-brimstone sign urging repentance marks another. A black water tower soars as the rural high-rise, but the most eye-catching distraction is the chorus line of wind generators atop the rise to the south.
Other than those features, only farms, orchards and a fly-magnet of a rendering plant seem to distinguish this land. People work hard out here.
The plant, where concepts and clay models transform into metal permanence, inhabits a brick three-story building, which opened as a school in 1911 and closed about 75 years later. On one side, it still bears the town's original name of Vincent, after a settler. Crowning the top is a bell tower; a weathervane missing the "S" and a flock of pigeons that conjure thoughts of some Hitchcock movie.
Owner Ron Dillow, 59, grew up around here, drag-racing on the back roads as a kid out of Walla Walla High School. He bought the building and the six acres on which it sits for $12,000 in the early '90s. Before then, he and his son, Leif, cast bronze from the metal shop of his farm. And before he started cementing artists' visions, he owned a fiberglass business, making tubs and sinks.
Works built out here reside in collections and public places across the country, but the rhythm is decidedly a half-beat off urban.
Two bronze wolves stand chained to what used to be the front door. They don't represent the most welcoming of façades, but they are powerful symbols of casting and the daily labor inside. There is a story behind why the wolves are still out front, but everything and everyone who works and passes through the foundry has a story.
There's a story around back, too, where the high whine of power tools blares from Quonset huts. Walk past an old football field with knee-high grass and one of those old "H" goalposts and there they stand: metal incarnations of island natives, singing praises and offering their gifts to the sky. They are solid and majestic, even streaked with pigeon poop, shoved aside and living amid weeds instead of in the Hawaiian home for which they were created. They have been waiting about three years to go to a hotel there, but are victims of an artist's temperament and unpaid bills.
Plenty of bigger and fancier foundries are around, even in nearby Walla Walla and Joseph, Ore. Most are more organized and heralded than this one. Northwest Art Casting does not advertise and doesn't even have a Web site. Yet artists from Seattle and across the country find it, looking for workmanship, a good deal and help.
In some ways, Umapine is a fitting place for "lost wax" bronze casting, one of the oldest of metallurgical arts and a process that has changed little in four or five centuries. Artists from ancient Mesopotamia to the Han Dynasty of China used the method to create emblems and monuments to marvel and worship. Benvenuto Cellini used lost wax to cast Perseus and the Head of Medusa, an almost four-ton statue in Florence.
Dillow relies on about 25 employees who usually must learn on the job and often work without health insurance. Some drift in off the horizon and drift right away. Some are as invested as cooled bronze in the place. When the Hispanic women who work in the wax room heard rumors the company's receipts were lagging, they asked Dillow to cut their pay. He said thanks but no thanks.
Foundry work is stinky and loud, exacting and hard. Workers make molds. They etch wax. They hoist and pour scalding liquid metal. They hammer, chisel, sandblast and grind. They color and polish. And to a person, they know that when you look with awe at the visceral power of a statue, you don't give them or the work a second thought.
After all, bronze casting is not a work of art. It is the work of art.
A STRANGE BLEND of industrial hissing and Elton John's "Rocket Man" wafts from the gymnasium. Leif Dillow is in there, below an old scoreboard and school mural, putting the finishing touches to two ancient dancers entwined in frozen grace and bound for Kansas City's Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Leif (pronounced Lafe) wears a white mask over his nose and mouth and an elastic support band on his right wrist as he simultaneously sprays ferric nitrate and applies heat from a blowtorch. The proper mix of chemicals and heat during the patina process gives the shiny bronze couple the burnished look of gravitas.
A co-worker, a man with weathered skin and deep blue eyes, occasionally wipes oil from the sculpture and offers advice. The helper is a skilled, valuable artisan adept at every step in the process.
If the two men and their setting don't seem to square with the statue's homage to ancient grace, then neither does the menagerie of visions and forms filling the room. There stands a massive elk, a 12-foot green pillar of faux rocks upon which a thinker will sit, a jumping salmon in plastic packing, a Jesus figure that has been collecting dust. Up on the apron of the old gym stage, in frozen gallop, stands a figurine of two cowboys negotiating the same horse. It is a gift from a New York artist to Robert Redford and Paul Newman as thanks for "Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid." That's the story, anyway.
Like his dad, Leif is not the type to waste a sentence when a few words will do. That doesn't mean he's unfriendly or without humor. Last year, he and his pretty bride, the foundry's lone office worker, got married in one of those Elvis ceremonies in Las Vegas. He weathers constant questions — even ribbing — about getting sucker-punched and knocked out by a stranger at a bar not long ago.
After graduating from Touchet High School with just nine classmates, he immediately began working with his dad. At 33, he's now the foundry foreman, doing double duty on those two days a week when his father undergoes kidney dialysis.
Just like dad, Leif learned his craft by trial and error. And patience — especially the artists' patience. The plant is full of the Dillows' homemade devices, from the furnaces to tables crafted out of axles to lights to sawing devices. That's partly because of their do-it-yourself acumen, partly because they didn't have much money when they began — and still don't.
Ron Dillow started the foundry on the strength of what he'd learned making tubs and showers in the fiberglass business. "I have a good knowledge of molds," he says, "and I've always liked art so well, so I decided to try this.
"It's a different kind of business, that's for sure. You come across different personalities with artists. Little things bother them differently. You have to learn each one's hangups. Once you do and build a trust, most of them are all right."
Leif figures to take over one day. Right now, though, he is focused on giving the Kansas City-bound dancers a chemical tan. But the patina work marks the end of the job. Translating an artist's clay model into something that will withstand weather and time involves a long, piece-by-piece process that starts with rubber and wax.
FOUNDRY WORK also starts early. By 7 a.m., three women already inhabit the wax room, along with a swarm of flies and reddish-brown wax body parts. The sink, where bent coffee cans are used to pour hot wax into rubber molds, looks like a blood-splattered crime scene. An upside-down wax elk head only adds to the image.
The smell — thick, musty, heavy with oil — is what you notice most. Leave a box of Crayons in your car on an August day and you'll get the picture. The only sounds come from two competing radios tuned to different Spanish stations and the buzzing of bugs so thick you might swallow some if you talk.
The women, known as "wax chasers," use soldering irons and dental tools to fine-tune wax molds, smooth seams, fill pockmarks and bubbles, resurface texture. They affix wax channels called gates and sprues. When it comes time for the molten bronze pour, the channels will allow the piece to "lose" the wax and accept the bronze.
But to get to wax stage, the artist's original form — be it of clay, stone or another material — is replicated in rubber halves. Once the rubber forms around the art it is reinforced with a rigid plaster shell. The cast is known as the mothermold, which strengthens and adds structural integrity to the otherwise flexible rubber.
Hot wax is poured several times into the center of the mothermold and swished around to achieve the optimal coat of thickness and capture the artist's detailed impression. It's important to get an even, thin coat of wax in place because it is preserving the impression. Once the wax has hardened, the mothermold is split open like a halved apple to show the wax replica.
After the wax forms are perfected, they move next door for the "investment" — coating with a strong ceramic shell. A worker wearing a mask and gloves toils in a room of silica haze, applying layers of slurry to the outside and inside of the wax pieces before placing them on wooden shelves to harden. It's just him, rows of what look like plaster vases and some '80s rock 'n' roll. This is the dustiest and smelliest of the work, but is critical because the shells have to be strong enough to withstand scalding liquid metal.
When rock-hard, the shells are placed into a kiln and cooked at 1,000 degrees. That is where and when the wax is "lost." It also is where the shells are prepared to withstand the pour of liquefied metal boiled to 2,100 degrees.
While the shells are heating and the wax is melting, a worker, wearing heat-protective gloves, sleeves, apron and helmet, uses 2-foot tongs to feed bronze ingots into a graphite crucible that sits inside a separate furnace.
When the time is right, he and co-workers join in on what is romantically referred to as "the dance of the pour." It is striking to see, but also the most difficult and dangerous aspect of the process. They lift the crucible from the furnace, controlling and pouring the molten metal from both sides of a long steel rod.
One artisan directs the pour while the other balances the container. Another pushes away excess as the glowing metal soup steams, sizzles and sates the mold shells. The outer shells crack and flake but hold steady as the bronze solidifies. An hour or two after the pour, another worker smacks the shells with a hammer, sending reverberations through the floor. Then he uses a power drill to sandblast the rest of the ceramic shell, generating plumes as he works.
If the pour is the showiest part, the metal-chasing and finishing work that follows is the loudest. It's also critical. As Ron Dillow says, artists are finicky, and have been since Cellini. Rightly so. Bronze is as permanent as art gets.
Employees grind off metal slag, drill back lost detail, weld pieces together. Mixed in with several different radio programs is the whir of a dentist's drill, the guttural groan of a power sander and the high-pitched clang of metal on metal. In the summer, when the sun cooks this region, metal flakes stick to a detailer's skin.
Once the statue is welded together, it's ready for the patina room and, with luck, the door.
OF COURSE, THE ART doesn't always leave as planned. Bronze orphans, like the island natives, linger about in the old school. Most will eventually find a home, but commissions fall through, bills don't get paid, an artist's vision dulls, the foundry's hard work gathers dust.
The artist forms an odd alliance with a foundry. It's art versus craft, imagination versus the detail, commission versus the bottom line, friendship versus expectations.
Some foundries have prices and charging procedures down to the fine detail, but after all these years, Dillow is still trying to develop a more predictable and equitable system. He admits his operation could use an efficiency expert and perhaps a new attitude when it comes to contracts and billing. The foundry, he notes as an example, worked on a $1 million Seattle sculpture and wound up getting paid $50,000 for its role.
"We're more casual than a lot of foundries," he says, "and that's not necessarily good. I guess we're just a little laid-back out here. That's the way we've always been. I mean, I hate to always be talking about money. It's supposed to be about the art."
In fact, it is about the art. Dillow is as unpretentious as Umapine, and seems more an aging cowboy than an artisan. He has developed champion Appaloosas. Western relics and symbols fill his brick-walled office, and stacks of Zane Grey paperbacks rise in the hallway next to abstract forms. Yet, he recently opened an art gallery in Walla Walla, has dabbled lately with his own sculptures and knows full well he is shaping ideas, not tubs and sinks.
"When I see a piece when it is all done, and if it comes out really well . . . I feel like it's almost our art."
One of the steps in the foundry that is often overlooked is its own modeling. Upstairs in the old school, through a big door marked,"2nd and 3rd grades and Special Education," Victor Trejo touches up an enlarged model he's replicated from a client's piece. Foundries often increase or decrease the size of the original offering.
Trejo's music of choice is classical, and his smell of choice is incense. He's trying to add integrity to a clay woman's flowing scarf by melding a wire into it. As he does, he talks about his wife, his child, the salsa dance lessons he teaches at Whitman College, and how he got here from his hometown in Mexico. He speaks just above a whisper but with passion as he talks about developing his expertise so he can create his own sculptures rather than fix and duplicate others'.
In fact, he has. On a table near where he stands and squints through black-rimmed glasses, is a clay head he created. It's of a bald man, and from the girth of the head he must be well-fed. His eyes are latched tight and his mouth is opened wide, as if in full-throat.
"He is yelling for joy," says Victor. "Or maybe in anguish. I can't decide. I look at him from time to time and change my mind. It's like that with work and art. And life, I guess."
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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