Scruffed with fire & cinders

Niels Strandskov

Popping, gurgling, reeking, glowing, smoking and hissing, molten iron is an extremely sensual material.

The iron, star of the art department’s 35th annual Iron Pour, looks like raw, broken garbage (which it is) when it goes into the furnaces with a load of coke – a purified form of coal. But in 20 minutes it emerges as something mysterious. Artists dressed head-to-toe in suede welding suits and wearing masks and helmets maneuver the dangerous, mango-yellow liquid into hulking containers.

Moving fast, because although the iron is heated to more than 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit it cools surprisingly quickly, the artists carefully pour the magic stuff into molds of chemically bonded sand. This is one of the most exciting parts of the operation because a poorly made mold can leak molten iron from a dozen places, dripping pounds of it over the sanded floor, perilously close to the artists’ boots.

Given the inherent danger of the material, graduate teaching assistant and Master of Fine Arts candidate Allen Peterson stressed that the most important part of the day is constant vigilance. “It’s always exciting when molten iron is flowing, but you have to be attentive even when you’re not pouring.” Peterson said. “You have to be able to hear when someone calls out for relief.” Peterson feels that the most exciting part of the pour is passing on the knowledge of how to make iron sculptures safely to the next generation of students.

Sculpture professor Wayne Potratz, who supervised the pour, was happy with this year’s “two-ring circus.” The art department’s new facility at the Regis Center is large enough to accommodate both the main furnace inside and a smaller one outside. Peterson described smelting and pouring outside as “lovely,” and praised the new facility for its dramatically improved ventilation.

But even with a tangle of huge ventilation pipes, a couple of industrial-strength fans and two large open doors, the process of smelting iron necessarily entails some smokiness. The smell of the pour could be noticed some distance away, and participants and spectators came away with the distinct odor of the smelter about them.

This year’s pour included dozens of participants from the University, Bethel College and Southwest Minnesota State University as well as visiting artists and alumni. There were 104 forms filled, requiring 13 batches of molten iron weighing in at approximately 3,000 pounds.

Given the utter ubiquity of iron – in our blood, our buildings and our bombs – it can be hard to remember what an amazing substance it is. Ancient societies saw ironwork as the province of gods and magicians. For the people at this year’s Iron Pour, the everyday uses of iron might soon eclipse in their memories the utter strangeness of seeing a tough, unbending metal transformed into a slippery, boiling possibility. But there will remain some sense that even those things that seem solid and immutable are subject to drastic change.