Pouring iron is not for sissies. Bundled up in padded suits, thick gloves and helmets, iron aficionados hoist pots of 2,500-degree molten metal and oh so carefully pour it into sand-filled molds while sparks fly, flames flare and fans gather round to cheer them on.
It's a 5,000-year-old ritual that has returned to art schools, college campuses and rural sculpture parks. Long a guy's world, iron casting now has a core of female followers who love the drama of the pours and the beauty of the products.
Call them "Iron Maidens," as does St. Catherine University in St. Paul, which is hosting, through Oct. 30, a handsome show of cast-iron sculpture by 16 American, British and Welsh women. Beautifully installed, the show brings vigor to neglected feminist tropes that complement St. Kate's core mission as a women's college. "Iron Maidens" will travel to St. John's Art Center in Collegeville, Minn., following its St. Paul presentation.
"All of us women feel that we're representing our sex well by working through the medium," said Tamsie Ringler, a sculpture professor at St. Kate's who organizes an annual Mother's Day iron pour on the campus. Ringler was instrumental in bringing "Maidens" to the Twin Cities, and last month she cast a car in iron at Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls.
"I notice there is a difference when women run iron pours," Ringler said. With women in charge, the atmosphere is generally calmer, safer and more collaborative, she said, and "you don't get as many people barking orders."
"That's the absolute truth," agreed John Hock, Franconia's founder and artistic director. The park already has a 60-40 ratio of sculpture by women vs. men, and next summer plans to stage an all-women iron pour. "It's always much more elegant and sophisticated when the gals run the pour; women are just so much more civilized," Hock said.
Ancient craft, modern modes
While industrially produced iron ornaments -- railings, window grilles and even toys -- were popular in the 19th century, cast-iron sculpture was pretty much unknown until the 1960s, when new studio-sized furnaces allowed small-scale production. University of Minnesota sculptor-professor Wayne Potratz, an expert in ancient metal-casting techniques, was a leader of the movement. Among his students was Coral Lambert, a British-educated artist who studied at the university in the 1990s and then spread the word via iron-casting workshops in the U.K.
Lambert is among those featured at St. Kate's. Her elegant "Lunarium" installation consists of 22 bowl-shaped forms hung in an ellipsoid pattern. Bulging outward, their brownish-black bellies suggest the darkened orb of the moon as it appears from Earth. She has applied a silvery patina to slivers, sections and spots on the orbs to suggest the glowing phases of the moon over the course of a lunar month.
From Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon and hunt, to the mid-20th-century poetry of Sylvia Plath, moon imagery has long been associated with women and their fertility cycles. Lambert's poetic revival of that metaphor is resonant with subliminal suggestions of birth, blood and mystery.
Such associations are deep-rooted among iron workers.
"Very often in early traditions of metal casting, the furnace was associated with the female," Ringler said. "The furnace was even thought to be 'pregnant' with the metal and 'gave birth' to the metal."
Ringler herself offers a maternal image in one of the show's most beautiful and tender pieces, "Mare Fecunditatis," consisting of a lotus seedpod about 3 feet in diameter. Propped on its side, the pod reveals a series of cavities, one of which shelters a fetus or newborn covered in gold leaf and curled into a ball of serenity. With its knees pulled up and feet touching, the child seems to be floating as if still in the womb. Ringler was inspired to make the piece not long after her son was born.
Nature, nurture and humor
Clothing is also a recurrent theme -- in Simone Bizzell-Browning's lacy bustier sculpture, Sarah Clover's velvety-looking black gloves and a silvery beaded purse, and Kate Hobby's balls of yarn and a bit of knitting still on needles.
Julie Ward's fierce-looking "Pink Clam Clutch" is a surrealistic cross between a silk-lined purse and the clamshell jaws of an earth mover. The expression of such delicate, feminist imagery in brittle cast iron brings an edgy toughness to these sculptures that might otherwise seem frivolous.
Other pieces cleverly reproduce bits of nature -- Theresa Smith's bowl of pine cones, Veronica Glidden's leathery basket of turnips, Dilys Jackson's helmet-like bowl of seed pods.
There are abstractions such as Kate Hobby's bowl of black-glass "grief stones" and a piece by Deborah LaGrasse that suggests a damaged vertebrae. Alison Lochhead's splashed and dashed forms look like archeaological remains of sunken boats, all jagged and decayed but gleaming with marvelous metallic hues.
Mary Johnson strikes a charming comic note with her "High on the Horns of de Lemma," a wheeled-cart sculpture that looks like a carnival float complete with an aqua-and-gold fringed skirt. Atop it stands a fiercely grinning dragon-llama with a rabbit cartwheeling between its horns.
Sophisticated patinas and surface treatments enliven all of these sculptures. Where industrial cast iron is typically gleaming black, these pieces range from rusty orange and matte pewter to myriad shades of gold, silver and copper. Some of the more elaborate pieces are gaily painted, a real novelty in the medium.
This is clever stuff, expertly done, and none of it more expressive than Justine Johnson's "Bell for Peace," a fragile, helmet-shaped form, half-eroded by rust as iron is wont to do. Stained, worn and fragmentary, it appears to be a bell made from an ancient Viking helmet or relic of a long-forgotten war. Beautiful in its decay, it lingers as a palimpsest of failure, loss and hope.