Strike While the Bronze is Hot

Like a live otter, the finished bronze scans the horizon atop a log on the shore of Keuka Lake.

Ah, retirement … the golden years. I anticipated a time of quiet reflection, reading by the fireside, dispensing sagacious advice from the comfort of my armchair. Instead, I found myself on one end of a shank holding a crucible of molten bronze, and on the other end is Dexter Benedict. Dexter is a sculptor.

We have been neighbors for years, helping each other out now and then as needs arose. In early 2013, he asked me to help him pour bronze. So I would make my way to the studio a few times a month to hold that shank with him. Hanging out at the studio gave me the chance to see the sculptures in various stages, from the clay to the finished products.

When Dexter suggested I try to make something myself, it happened to coincide with my 20th wedding anniversary, and an image popped into my head – a river otter on hind legs surveying her world; energetic, playful and curious. If my wife Sue was an animal she would be an otter.

I pitched my idea to Dexter, and a week later a box with 50 pounds of clay appeared at my door. I had to ask myself, now what? I am not an artist (I took a class in high school), but as a boy I made dinosaurs with my box of colored clay sticks and drove them around in the 1960s equivalent of LEGO spacecraft. I had the image in my mind, but how to get it outside of my head was a different matter.

I think that if you gave a child a box of clay and told him to make an otter, he would set right to work. Most adults are not made that way; for better or worse, we need a plan. And most adults have an inner critic (at least one).

Splashed with personality

I had some background in anatomy, so I started with a clay skeleton based on measurements from an anatomical drawing. Otter skeletons are identical to humans, except for differing proportions. Same goes for the musculature. Once I began packing on the clay, I realized these animals are as solid and streamlined as a torpedo. I had to go back for more clay.

“Just pack on the clay until it looks right,” explained Dexter. That sounds simple enough, but how can you tell if it looks right? For me, it was a slow process. I limited myself to an hour or two at a time, taking reference from a gallery of photos. Before long, I realized that, although the photos were all obviously otters, they were all also unique. How do I make her look like herself? The sculpture had to be accurate, but also somehow individually consistent. Was the nose too big? Were the eyes too beady? Did that tail make her look fat? I felt I was close more than once, but viewed from another angle, or at another time of day, or even at a different location in my shop, she did not look right.

Dexter said that I had to be willing to take it apart if it wasn’t right, and I regret to say radical surgery was performed several times. Altogether, the clay model took 10 weeks. Sometimes, I’d lie awake at night squinting into my mind’s eye to see her form. My facial muscles moved with otter emotions, my tail swished under the covers. In the final week, I thought I was pretty well set. But the night before I was to deliver her to the foundry, I felt something was still not quite right, and then I realized, there was no sound. So I opened her mouth. The next day we drove to Dexter’s.

Wax on, wax off

Dexter casts using the lost-wax process. Once the clay model was complete, he sized it up for piecing into castable segments. In the case of the otter, the feet and tail were removed and the torso was cut just below the forepaws. These clay segments were divided into zones by sheets of thin aluminum used to form a retaining wall for plaster.

The aluminum needs to be placed in such a manner that the plaster will release from the clay unimpeded by corners, holes, etc. Thus, the otter’s head was divided into four quadrants: a sagittal plane bisecting left and right, and diagonal planes through the ears. Plaster was layered onto the clay between the shims of aluminum to a thickness of two inches. When the plaster was dry, it was split away along the shim line, and the clay went back into the bin to which we all must someday return.

The plaster sections were then reassembled and held together with rubber strips. The molds were filled with hot wax, pouring in and rinsing out, until an overall wax thickness of 1/4-inch was reached. When the molds were opened, by the grace of the gods, there was a lightweight, hollow replica of the original clay sculpture.

Now the wax replica is taken home and fine-tuned. Each change of state – from clay to wax and from wax to bronze – imposes its own conditions on the process. The wax was much harder to add and subtract, but I found that I could introduce more animation and detail; the brow furrowed with concentration, the shape of the paws became more sharply defined. Fur texture was added with a toothed spatula. It reminded me of a giant chocolate Easter bunny.

Makes your hair curl, literally

When the wax finishing was complete, additional wax components were added to provide passageways and vents for the liquid bronze. A pouring cup at the top of each piece served as a funnel and reservoir. This augmented wax structure was encased in a cylinder of plaster and sand called luto, and each cylinder was baked in a kiln at 800 degrees for several hours to burn off the wax and dry the mold. When the burn was finished, the luto cylinders contained the empty space that was once the wax otter. Then came the bronze.

Dexter has a homemade furnace that generates the 2,000-plus degrees necessary to melt the bronze. It is a 3-foot hole in the ground lined with firebrick, and, when the furnace is running, it roars like a jet engine. The bronze ingots were placed in a ceramic crucible, and the juice was turned on. The crucible and bronze weigh 300 pounds when full, and that first lift out of the hole is the moment of truth. I remembered Dexter saying to me “Some people have the strength and some people have the nerve, but not many have both.” The first time I did it, I gave it my all and … nothing happened. “I’m going to need something more,” I thought, and to my relief the crucible came out to a welcome rest on the ground. Dexter cleared the dross off the top, and we fit it into a two handled pouring bar to maneuver among the molds.

Whenever I wore the wrong pants I could feel the hair curling on my legs from the radiating heat. As the molten bronze poured from the crucible, one has the impression of flowing lava.

When the pour was finished, you could say “Miller Time!” but the atmosphere at Dexter’s studio was more like a cafe in fin de siécle Paris. There is a regular crowd of neighbors, artists, students, avant-garde bohemians and hired muscle who discuss the issues of the day. All that’s missing is the absinthe.

Sink or swim

The next day the luto molds were broken up, the pouring cups and passageways (now solid bronze) cut off, and the castings inspected. All the otter parts were acceptable. There were inevitable casting flaws, from fine fins of bronze that crept into cracks in the mold, to innumerable pearls of metal that filled tiny air bubbles. These had to be removed with cold chisels, grinders and dremel bits. Then she was made whole again with a designated MIG welder.

Finally, the welds were ground down, the otter groomed with wire brush and sandpaper, and some final fur texture added with a file. As in the clay/wax transition, the bronze imposes its own conditions. She looked both more refined and rugged. There were “blemishes” that I might be tempted to remove if I was making a glossy hood ornament. To me, these features showed the face of an animal that has a history. At the last, we applied an oxidizing agent and watched her turn from bright gold to golden brown.

“Where is she going to go in your home?” asked Dexter.

“I suspect Sue is going to be setting a place at the table for her.”

That night, Sue and Otter sat side-by-side on the couch and watched a nature show on PBS.

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Dexter Benedict

Dexter Benedict is a Yates County sculptor, and the owner/operator of the Fire Works Foundry and Sculpture Studio near Penn Yan. His work can be seen throughout the Finger Lakes Region. Here are some of the cities you can view his artwork in.

• Canandaigua – the 12-foot “Lady Justice” on top of the courthouse, and the Thompson family on the sidewalk across the street

• Rochester – seven life-size figures at Corporate Woods, and the “Woman with the Falcon” at Meridian Center

• Syracuse – The Irish family “Stone Thrower’s Monument” on Tipperary Hill, and Jerry Wilson on the park bench outside Coleman’s

• He sent a bust of Robert Jackson to the Supreme Court this year, and a bust of
Hillary Clinton to Seneca Falls.

• He also casts work for other sculptors, including Wayne Williams’ Native American family that was unveiled in Canandaigua in November 2013.


by Craig Hohm