Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Taking Flight

Boise Sculptors Guild completes bronze statue

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In early October 2011, Women's and Children's Alliance Executive Director Beatrice Black and former Executive Director Janice Johnson unfurled a tightly wrapped sheet in front of a small crowd at the corner of Eighth and Washington streets. Underneath stood a shiny bronze statue of a woman with two young children reaching out toward a butterfly. The statue, Taking Flight, commemorates the WCA's 100th anniversary.

Taking Flight was created by the Boise Sculptors Guild, a Boise State student organization founded in 2005 that includes students, faculty and community members. Francis Fox, associate professor of sculpture at Boise State, advised the statue's creation. Although Taking Flight was intended to be more abstract, Fox's idea of a mother and children won over the WCA's board of directors.

Marshall Sinclair, guild president, estimated that 15 to 20 people worked on the statue.

"If you added up everybody's time, it was 1,200-1,500 hours," he said.

The Boise Sculptors Guild typically participates in service projects, such as restoring local sculptures, and also holds annual iron pours that are open to visitors. But Taking Flight marks the first time guild members have collaborated on a major piece.

"It opened up a lot of opportunities that the people who worked on it had never had and may never have again," Sinclair said.

After touring Boise State's sculpture facilities with Elise Robbins and Sara Smart, both students and guild members, it became apparent why Taking Flight was a five-year project.

According to Robbins and Smart, the statue was created using the laborious "lost wax" method, which has been used since about 3,500 B.C. Sculptors began by building an armature of metal supports, which was covered with foam that approximated the statue's shape. Sculptors then worked on top of the foam in plastiline--an oil-based, non-drying clay--fine-tuning details.

Next the sculptors cut the statue into manageable pieces and made flexible silicon molds of each piece that duplicated every detail. Then they placed the silicon inside plaster "mother molds," which allow the molds to be rotated as sculptors pour wax into them in even layers.

After the wax molds were created, sculptors supported them with sprues and added a cup on top, into which they later poured bronze. They dipped the molds, sprues and all, in a ceramic slurry and gave them two coats of fine sand. These ceramic shells were fired in a furnace that reaches 1,450 degrees Fahrenheit, which removed the wax and preserved detail.

Once the ceramic shells were fired, the difficult and high-intensity foundry work began.

"It takes eight [sculptors] to run a crew really nice," said Robbins.

To melt bronze, the foundry is heated to 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit. Sculptors melted bronze in iron crucibles, some as small as drinking glasses and others that outsized party punchbowls. Wearing body-covering silver safety equipment that recalled vintage sci-fi films, the sculptors removed the crucibles from the furnace with giant tongs. After getting rid of any impurities, the sculptors then used a crane to safely pour bronze into the shells, which were reheated to 1,450 degrees to prevent them from shattering when they contacted the molten metal.

Robbins explained that two crewmembers are dedicated pourers--the radiant heat from the foundry is tiring and each pourer needs backup. With the bronze poured into each ceramic shell, sculptors gave it time to cool before breaking the shells off into 20 pieces.

"It's tedious but it's liberating," said Smart. "You see it come off and you see all this craftsmanship."

Finally sculptors cut away sprues and any additional material with a plasma gun, in preparation for one of the final steps: welding.

"It was three to four days of just welding," said Sinclair, who collaborated with Fox to piece the statue together.

With the sculpture welded into one piece, sculptors returned to the daily grind--literally.

"It took 150 hours of grinding to get rid of the weld marks," said Sinclair.

Boise State's sandblasting machine wasn't large enough for the piece, so BSG sandblasted the statue at Western Sandblasting and Powder Coat to prepare it for patination, an application of chemicals that lend bronze its color.

"Sandblasting opens the pores of the metal so that the chemicals will leech in," said Smart.

Fox, Sinclair and guild member Valerie Pierce patinated Taking Flight. With the statue patinated, only a few touches remained. One of them was the monarch butterfly fluttering above the mother and children. Pierce, a Boise State graduate, designed the butterfly.

"It's about metamorphosis and change from within. I chose the monarch because ... it has a long journey," Pierce said.

Using her mother's stained glass facilities, Pierce made a pattern and cut the glass, scratching each pane and breaking out the shape she wanted. After it was cut, Pierce machine-ground the glass panes to match the hollow spaces in the butterfly's wings. Using a silicon base, she fit the glass into the bronze.

When the butterfly was bolted to the statue, it was finally ready to be mounted at the WCA.

Guild members are incredibly proud of the hours of work they dedicated to the piece.

"I can walk past that sculpture 10 years from now and say, 'I did that,'" Smart said. "It's great experience if we ever want to work in a foundry or do large-scale work."

Black explained that families staying at the WCA have taken advantage of the plaza, sitting and admiring the statue.

"They were obviously enjoying it," she said. "We're really pleased."

Community Relations Manager Katherine Johnson said that the statue inspired the WCA to continue making cosmetic improvements.

"At any time, there's four to five families that live upstairs," said Johnson. "We don't want it to look like a shelter; we want it to look like home."