Annual iron pour takes place today in Wasilla

June 25, 2010 

Donnie Keen of Houston, Texas, D'Jean Jawrunner of Tucumcari, N.M., and Pat Garley of Palmer will forge iron on June 26, 2010, at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, just north of Wasilla. They stand with a bin of coke and scrap iron at Garley's home.

MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Things will get hot in the Valley today -- like 3,000 degrees. In what's becoming an annual tradition, a group of talented, brave and very careful people will pour molten iron at the Art on Fire festival at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry just north of Wasilla.

Casting bronze into artwork happens every day. But iron pours are rare, said Patrick Garley, who runs Arctic Fires Bronze foundry in Palmer.

"I can cast bronze or aluminum alone," he said. "But iron's more complicated. I can't do it by myself."

The work starts way before the heat goes on. For the small cupola furnaces used by iron artists, scrap iron -- car parts, old bathtubs -- must be broken into pieces no more than a couple of inches long, often with brute force and a sledge hammer.

Molds are made in ceramic or sand using the lost wax process. Garley gets his sand from Jim Creek, cleans it with an ordinary kitchen strainer and mixes it with a urethane resin.

The furnace is fueled by coke -- coal that's had most of the moisture baked out of it. One irony about the Wasilla firing is that in a place surrounded by high quality coal, coke must be shipped here from out of state at considerably more cost than that paid by artists in the Lower 48.

The coke is set ablaze and superheated with a stream of air through "tuyeres," or air ports. Once the fuel is red hot, the furnace is "charged" with the iron and more fuel. The furnace lid goes down and a jet of flame whooshes into the sky.

As the iron becomes liquid, a long rod is used to knock out the "bott," a clay plug. The big thrill comes when molten metal, seeming alive and supernatural, runs into ceramic ladles from which it is poured into the awaiting molds.

All this takes a team of workers in helmets, face masks, welder's gloves, leather pants, fire-resistant jackets and heavy-duty boots.

"You got one person charging the furnace, someone else poking the tuyeres, someone else tapping and botting the furnace," said D'Jean Jawrunner, an art professor at Mesalands Community College in New Mexico.

"It takes two people to handle the ladle, a mold captain to direct the pours, a couple of people with shovels to toss dirt on any iron that gets spilled," she continued.

"And someone next to you to tell you if your pants are on fire," added Donnie Keen, who operates a large commercial foundry in Houston, Texas, and, like Jawrunner, has come up to help Garley with the pour.

"The goal is that nobody gets hurt," said Garley. "There's a lot of inherent danger. It's why iron groups get so tight."

POURS BECOME ADDICTIVE

Making the hardest material known to most people for most of human history run like water can be addictive. Garley was a contractor in New Mexico when, on a whim, he took Jawrunner's class. "After that, she couldn't get rid of me."

Jawrunner first taught iron pouring 12 years ago to a class of six. "Now we have to turn people away," she said.

Today there are pourings around the country and around the world. Practitioners contend to see who can get the hottest furnace, the smallest one, who'll pour the first iron at an event.

"Some people travel from one pour to the next," said Garley, "like Grateful Dead followers."

"People plan their vacations around them and bring their families," Jawrunner said. "It's kind of traditional that we help each other."

That's why she and Keen joined Garley in Wiseman three years ago. It was billed as the first iron pour north of the Arctic Circle. Why there? "To say we did it," said Keen.

The communal nature of a pour is "like a happening, a performance, a circus," said Jawrunner. Today's pour -- the third annual on the museum grounds -- will feature music and food and belly dancing. It will coincide with a raku pottery firing and a demonstration by Alaskan blacksmiths.

ANTIQUITY PART OF CHARM

The Wiseman event in 2008 may have been the first art iron pour in Alaska, but footings for an industrial iron foundry dating from Russian times have been found in Sitka.

It goes back a lot longer than that. The secrets for making iron emerged throughout the old world wherever people could find iron ore and get a flame hot enough. The product drove warfare and agriculture; the ingenuity required to produce it stretched the limits of imagination. Around 500 B.C., the prophet Malachi used the refiner's fire of the furnaces to describe the unlimited power of God.

How did ancient humans figure out how to melt metal and control it?

"I don't know," said Garley. "But if we brought those guys here to my shop, they'd know in an instant what we're doing. The technology hasn't really changed that much in 3,000 years."

The antiquity of the art is part of its charm, said Jawrunner. "It has a sophisticated, yet primitive look. It's beautiful when it's new. It's beautiful as it rusts. There's a kind of strength and dignity because it's very old."

Modern artists also like the recycling angle. Scrap iron can be reclaimed and reused efficiently if you know what you're doing. Keen throws whole engine blocks into his Houston furnace. (And they must be pitched in from the side; the air above the fuel is so hot it would melt any overhead chains, cranes or machinery.)

Another plus for cash-stapped artists is the price, said Garley. "It would cost $1,000 in material to cast this in bronze," he said, tapping a life-size wax head ready to make a mold. "$150 covers all the costs in my iron workshops. Iron is cheap enough that you can do fun stuff."

In fact, there will be "scratch boxes" sold at the event that will let members of the public create their own iron forms, about six inches on a side. The full price is all of $10.

But the main draw seems to be the elemental excitement of the festival, the flames, the superheated liquid iron, the surprise at the end of the day.

After cooling for several hours, the molds are cracked open and, for the first time, artists and crew can see what their efforts have made. Until that moment, there's no certainty, just a lot of sweat, muscle and guesswork.

"It's hard, dirty work," said Keen. "And the outcome is what the fire gods give you."

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