The Arts: Some Like it Hot

Arts & Books

The Arts: Some Like it Hot

Esther Hecht

 


Molten bronze in a cauldron at A.P. Casting. Courtesy of A.P. Casting

The heat near the seething cauldron is intense, almost unbearable.

The five men in the casting shed have put on protective masks and gloves. One has even wrapped a large cloth around his head before donning the mask. Standing closest to the searing heat, he turns a wheel to tip the huge cauldron. Two men crouch on either side of it, each holding one of two long metal handles that support a bucket. Glowing orange metal—molten bronze heated to 2,100 degrees—pours out of the cauldron as if it were a miniature volcano spewing lava.

When the bucket is full, the two men carry it quickly to a bin outside where ceramic molds are cooling in a bed of ash. The others join them to help tip the bucket again and again, pouring the molten metal into each of the molds. When the bucket is empty, they return to the cauldron and repeat the process.


Preparing to melt the wax at A.P. Casting.
Courtesy of A.P. Casting.

It is casting day at A.P. Casting, Israel’s largest art foundry and one of only three in the country (http://apcasting.co.il). The foundry and the Basis School of Sculpture and Painting (www.basis.org.il) are located side by side, just north of Netanya, on the premises of Hadassah Neurim Youth Village overlooking the Mediterranean. Their location on the campus is no accident.

“In 2003, I was looking for a place to move to,” recalled Yossi Ben Dror, 60, the foundry’s manager and co-owner. According to Ben Dror, the village’s director at the time, Arieh Pinchuk, wanted to create an artists village at Hadassah Neurim, with Basis and the foundry as anchors, where youngsters could work and learn a trade. Although Pinchuk died suddenly that same year, the arrangement continued for two years.

“It was a wonderful combination,” Ben Dror said. “Some pupils even came back after their Army service to work for a while in the foundry.”

The seeds of the artists colony remain. Both the school and the foundry have art galleries. Nearby is the studio of sculptor Itzik Benshalom, 67, Ben Dror’s older brother and foundry co-owner, whose large abstract figures of couples and individuals dot the campus. Five teachers at Basis and five of the school’s graduates also have studios here as do a number of artists, including sculptor Tzvi Lachman.

And a steady flow of sculpture has passed through the foundry, to which artists from around the country, even some from abroad, have brought their works to be cast. Among them are Menashe Kadishman, Igal Tumarkin, Ofer Lalush, Sorel Etrog, Ilan Averbuch and Ruth Bloch.

Artist Tzvi Lachman works on a piece in his studio at Hadassah Neurim. Photo by Avraham Hay.

Casting is a complex process with many stages, each requiring highly skilled workers. According to Ben Dror, anything can go wrong. For example, the ceramic mold may lack one of the channels through which the molten bronze is poured, so the metal will not spread to all parts of the sculpture. And if the bronze is too hot, the sculpture will be of poor quality.

The process, however, starts with the original work, in the artist’s material of choice, which is covered with a thick coating of rubber. That, in turn, is covered with plaster. After the plaster hardens, the mold is opened and the original sculpture removed, leaving a negative of the original. The mold is closed and molten wax is poured in, coating its inner side and creating a replica of the sculpture.

At this point, “if it’s a new sculpture, we ask the artist to be there” to examine the wax, Ben Dror said. Any changes or imperfections must be dealt with, and seams must be smoothed.

Wax spurs are then attached to the replica, to create channels through which the molten metal is poured. Then the wax is dipped several times in a fire-resistant ceramic material, until a tough outer shell is created. The next step involves heating the shell in a kiln until the wax melts and runs out. This stage is the source of the name “lost wax” for this type of casting, though today the wax is reclaimed and recycled, Ben Dror said.

Now the still hot ceramic mold is ready to have the molten metal—aluminum, bronze, or stainless steel—poured in. It would seem that this should be the end of the process, but that is hardly the case. The mold is broken with a hammer and a sand blaster, and the channels through which the molten metal flowed are cut away.

And still there is work to be done. Most sculptures are cast in parts that must be assembled. But before that, the metal on each part and then the seams where the parts are joined must be chased or smoothed and polished. Workers wearing protective gear—gloves, masks and ear guards—use electric tools to do the job.

Near them, parts of sculptures waiting to be assembled lie in ignominious confusion, like the dry bones in Ezekiel waiting to be put together in the right order. For visitors—who may request a guided tour of the foundry—the assorted parts and the dusty, noisy, sweaty work seem to have no connection with the lovely objects displayed in galleries, museums and homes.

The artist will come to the foundry again at this stage to approve and sign the work and to oversee the application of chemicals to create the patina. A fine coat of wax to prevent further oxidation is the last touch before the work is wrapped for shipping.

When the desired number of copies has been cast, the artist will take the mold home or destroy it, to ensure no more copies can be made. Because fakes are the bane of the art world, and because it is not difficult to steal a mold with which to create them, some artists demand that Ben Dror put his signature in a hidden place to authenticate it. “In Italy they do it on everything,” he said.

Today, his company casts 2.5 tons of metal a month, 45 percent less than in 2008, when the global economic crisis hit, Ben Dror said. The foundry now does more work for cities and institutions, which still have budgets for art.

Although casting involves advanced skills, no school in the world teaches them, Ben Dror said. All his workers, many of them from the former Soviet Union, learn on the job.

Having a foundry next door is ideal for a school specializing in sculpture, especially one like Basis. It was founded in 1993 by David Zundelovitch, who wanted to transmit the knowledge he had gained in 20 years’ work in Lithuania as a sculptor and manager of sculpture projects.

What makes the school unusual, director Ali Ronen said, is the “mileage” demanded of students. “Our students do a lot of work,” she said.

In their first two years, they get to know materials, techniques and drawing. Then, they begin master classes under the close supervision of teachers. “We have no exams and no grades,” Ronen said, “but the discipline is unprecedented.”

At the end of the four-year program (which includes a final project and may be extended to five years) they receive a certificate. If they desire, they may obtain an academic degree through a program run in conjunction with Haifa University.

Nehama Burak, 62, came to Basis after working as a psychotherapist and then as the C.E.O. of an executive search company. Her sculptures have recently been exhibited in New York and in Washington, D.C. She said she chose the school because of the thoroughness of the approach, rooted in the classical tradition. “They say, ‘We don’t teach you to be an artist. That has to come from within you. We give you the tools.’”

Ayelet Amrani Navon, 40, came to Basis after a 15-year career as a lawyer. She said she liked “the seriousness with which they relate to craft, the respect they give to art history, and the advanced training in techniques of drawing and painting.”

The school’s 120 students range in age from 20 to 80. It has an intensive program for students under 30, who are selected on the basis of entrance exams and offered scholarships. In 2000, students and graduates formed a nonprofit society that runs Basis on a voluntary basis. Ronen is the first professional director; Zundelovitch continues as the pedagogic director.

Each classroom is multifunctional, and there are workshops in stone, wood and iron. The school’s one-room gallery, open to the public, exhibits both young artists at the outset of their careers and well-known artists. Exhibitions change monthly during the academic year, and in the summer months both the gallery and the classrooms display works by students. Amrani Navon is in a one-year graduate program that will culminate in a gallery exhibition in July.

Last summer, the gallery presented an exhibit by Dafna Whitson, a 2007 Basis graduate. Titled “Esterke’s Secret Family,” it includes dozens of abstract, twisted human figures in bronze that interact with blocks of rough, semitransparent glass. Two of the series in the show are an allegory for human endeavor, showing figures engaged in absurd, incomprehensible activity.

Another strong presence on the Hadassah Neurim campus is the sculptor Benshalom. His sleek works, mainly of abstract human figures, are exhibited in four museums in the United States. Benshalom’s son, Amnon, a Basis graduate, is also a sculptor and works alongside him part of the week.

Arieh Pinchuk’s dream of an artists colony lives on at Hadassah Neurim, but in muted form. Today, one-third of the pupils at the youth village, which is supported by Hadassah and the Jewish Agency, are from the former Soviet Union, on the Na’aleh program, which helps children immigrate to Israel before their parents. One-third are of Ethiopian origin, many of them born in Israel. And one-third are sabras from disadvantaged families. All are considered children at risk.

Hadassah Neurim director Natan Biton described it as “an educational community. There is cooperation between the various bodies.”

Creating a community of artists on the campus is a fond dream shared by Biton, who became director of the youth village two years ago. “I would certainly want an artists colony here,” he said. “I myself am an artist.”

Creative fire is not enough. Benshalom believes that the number of artists would grow if more buildings were made available. “If they could build more studios, people would come. We have a list of 10 people who would come,” he said.

One obstacle to the realization of the dream is the planned move of Basis to Herzliya next year, leaving only some workshops and studios on the campus. But the main obstacle is money, Biton said. Even mounting an art happening, as has been proposed by artists at Basis, has been stymied by budgetary constraints, he said. “If we had the money, we would do it.”

Although students no longer work in the foundry, Benshalom said he still employs two or three “who have nowhere to go during the long vacations. So they stay here in the village and do all kinds of work, mostly enlarging sculptures.

“They are basically good kids,” he said. “They are very happy to be here, to do something with their hands and to see quick results. A whole world is opened up to them that they don’t have at home.”

One or two graduates from the Basis school volunteer as tutors at the youth village, Ronen said. Also, some of the younger students live on campus and volunteer at the youth village in exchange for housing.

Amrani Navon recalled that pupils from Hadassah Neurim would wander into the studio where she was working as a student. “Some just look, but I also had some interesting conversations,” she said. “They ask questions. One was a Russian boy; he asked whether what I was painting was Abstract. It opened up something in him.”

Hagai Ptashnik, 27, a second-year sculpture major at Basis who lives on campus, succeeded in transmitting part of what he had learned to a 16-year-old boy in Beit Ekstein, a private school for youngsters with emotional difficulties that shares some educational and other activities with the youth village.

In weekly meetings that are part of Beit Ekstein’s yearlong art therapy program, Ptashnik led the boy through the process of preparing a figurine and casting it in bronze in the foundry.

“He was thrilled; he didn’t know he could do it,” Ptashnik said. “I understand him, because that’s what I felt the first time I did it.”


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