Tucked in a back corner of Lake Tahoe Community College is an outdoor patio with some very heavy machinery. And with these machines, which can cast molten bronze and aluminum into a million different forms, students can make some pretty heavy art work.
“We’re in a community college and we have a foundry,” said longtime student and metal artist Lee Pollock. “That’s pretty much unheard of.”
Students in LTCC’s various metal working classes have the opportunity to pour or fabricate their own metal sculpture. But, as many have come to find out, working with metal can be hard work.
In the classroom last Wednesday, students worked with wax to create forms that will later be coated in ceramic, which will then be used as a mold. The group will spend most of the quarter creating the wax forms and then have only a day or two to pour the liquid metal into the molds.
“Working with wax is difficult because it wants to bend when you don’t want it to,” said student Judy Kaunisto. “When you bend it to how you want it to be, it unbends.”
Student Thomas Hodapp sculpted a perfect wax replica of a humpback whale. This is Hodapp’s first metal casting class, but he’s taken ceramics before, which is pretty similar, he said. He likes the history behind the art form.
“It’s a pretty old technique,” Hodapp said. “You’re doing something people did 3,000 years ago.”
The pouring process is so labor-intensive that each class usually only has one opportunity, said professor Bryan Yerian. The bronze must be heated in a vat to its melting point above 1,950 degrees. To protect from the white-hot sizzling liquid, students and staff have to dress completely down in heat-retardant gear. They work together to pour the molten metal into the casts placed in the college’s protective sand floor.
“You can’t rely on just yourself,” Pollock said. “As a class, we bond over this material. We rely on the group.”
Taking over from founder David Foster, Yerian, a Humboldt State graduate, has taught the metal classes at the college for four years. The hissing and fire of the furnace is exactly what attracted him to the art.
“I heard the sound of the furnace and I had to go look into what it was,” he said. “I saw this flame and that’s when I was hooked.”
Each quarter visitors and students of the college can see the products of the metal casting class on display during the student art show. Like the sculptures themselves, Yerian believes the class will be around for a while.
“Because it’s such an old process, (bronze casting) is kind of a foundation in 3D art,” Yerian said.