University of Minnesota: Students create sculpture and build community

It’s a chilly, rainy April day outside, but the students inside the foundry at the University of Minnesota’s Regis Center for Art aren’t bundled up against the cold. Quite the opposite: clad head to toe in thick leather aprons, chaps, and hardhats, the students in Assistant Professor Rotem Tamir’s Foundry and Metal Sculpture class are about to lift a 1450° pot of molten aluminum (called a crucible) out of the furnace. Things are about to get hot.

The class’s molds are lined up on the floor nearby—a series of blocks and buckets with holes in the top, concealing the shape of what will soon become artwork. The crucible emerges, glowing from the heat, and the students move into place.

As two students tilt the liquid metal into a line of molds, another scrapes excess from the mouth of the crucible, and a fourth moves the pot up and down with a three-ton bridge crane, all under the watchful guidance of Tamir, teaching assistant Stephanie Lindquist (MFA ’22), and sculpture/foundry technician Paul Linden.

“The students really need to work together very well, in a synergistic way,” says Tamir. “They learn a lot about how to communicate. In this course, you’re basically learning how to work with people. Most of the things that we are doing here, you can’t do alone.”

“The first pour is the scariest,” says one student, an Ojibwe Language major who is at a workbench cleaning up a bronze dragon sculpture from an earlier pour. “After that, it’s not so bad.”

Another student shows off a bronze Yoda mask he made, part of a series he’s creating about childhood objects. An aluminum cast of a lightsaber, still in its mold, sits nearby on the table between a scattered assortment of cleaning and grinding tools. Ceramics classes convinced him to major in art, but foundry has been his favorite, he says. “I’m having a blast.”

At a time when so much of the learning experience moved online, Tamir, Linden, and Associate Professor Chris Larson worked to provide students with as much opportunity for hands-on experience as possible. “During the pandemic, we offered space for intro students to each have an experience in the foundry,” says Larson. “We opened it up to grad students, we opened it up to faculty, and we started a sculpture club. So, it was really about trying to build a community.”

That sense of community is palpable. You can hear it in the laughter coming from the workbenches, where Tamir and some students talk about the solid aluminum sneaker one of them is working on. While they’re getting suited to pour, another student strikes a pose, flexing for the camera phones that come out to capture the moment. Once the pour begins, though, they get serious about getting the job done smoothly and safely.

Back on the foundry floor, the students are moving methodically down the line of molds, pouring the silver liquid until it pools up at the top of each container. At the end of the line, they pour the remainder of the aluminum into open trays to create ingots, which will cool, harden, and be melted down for a future pour.

“This is the very fun part: pouring,” Tamir says. “But this is not the end; this is not the result yet. This is just 50 percent.” Next comes grinding and cleaning and polishing—if, that is, what comes out of your mold is successful at all. The students will find out soon enough.