A behemoth wolf pauses mid-stride, looking intently on what lies before him.
It’s a moment frozen in time — captured first in clay at the hand of a sculptor. During the creature’s time at the foundry it will undergo multiple transformations through the lost wax process on its journey to becoming bronze.
While the sculptor is responsible for crafting the piece, it takes another team of artisans to bring that vision to fruition. And one such team exists locally in Evergreen — Kalispell Art Casting.
Back when the foundry was started in 1979, the bronze market was a different animal than it is today.
“At the time, there were already three existing foundries here. It was at a time when statuary bronze was becoming very popular and there was a big market for it,” owner Jack Muir said. “I think at one time this valley supported maybe five different foundries ranging in different sizes …. this would probably be through the ’70s, and mostly through the ’80s.”
But as the years went on and technology and tastes changed, the demand for bronze declined. Artists have increasingly turned to resin, plaster and even 3-D printing over traditional bronze casting.
“Generally speaking, the business has dropped off dramatically. At one point we had, I think 45 employees. Right now we’re probably at 16 or 17,” Muir said. “Our sales have probably dropped more than half … but we’re still doing OK.”
Multiple foundries in the valley weren’t able to outlast the changing times or weather the blow of the 2008 recession. But Kalispell Art Casting pulled through and has adapted to suit the demands of today’s market.
“We do everything from very, very small miniatures to monumental [pieces] twice my height,” said foundry manager Mike Stephan. “What used to be consistent for us in the past isn’t consistent today. We’ve been doing a lot more monuments lately, so that’s always keeping us busy.”
Among the largest works in the foundry’s repertoire is a 15-horse sculpture, “By the Banks of the Bow,” that stands outside Canada’s Calgary Stampede that the foundry completed in 2012. Each horse is life-and-a-quarter sized and the entire piece weighs about 14,500 pounds.
But it’s not just the big stuff that excites them, it’s the joy of one artist helping to bring another’s creation to life.
The process of turning a clay sculpture into a bronze statue is labor-intensive. First, the piece might be sent off to an enlargement company for expansion, and then returned to Kalispell Art Casting where it is cut into more manageable pieces and then hand-painted with a rubber coating. The rubber is covered in plaster of paris or insulation foam. Once the layered coating is removed from the sculpture, it creates a negative that is then filled with wax. After the wax sculpture is poured and dried, workers use instruments to replace hairline texture, eyes and other details that may have been lost in the mold-making process. The wax sculpture is coated in sand and a special slurry to make a second, yet more detailed mold. Finally, the wax is then melted out, leaving an intricate negative in which molten bronze is poured into.
At any point in time, Stephan said, the foundry could have 200 or more pieces in the works. The costs to produce each one vary greatly based on detail, size and whether or not the sculpture has a base. A footlong piece could range from roughly $500 to over $1,000, for example.
The foundry works on sculptures of people, animals and more — and they aren’t afraid to tackle things outside the box, such as modern art.
“You have to know how to do all of it,” Stephan added.
And whether it’s an intricate miniature piece or a massive statue, the foundry employees can turn a piece of artwork into something that will stand the test of time.
“It’s not a hard job to come to,” Stephan said. “It’s not like we’re sitting in a cubicle all day. There’s no monotony behind it — there’s always something new.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.