Creative Partners: Sculptors & Foundry Artisans

Bronzesmith artisans help sculptors realize their artistic visions., photo, southwest art.
Bronzesmith artisans help sculptors realize their artistic visions.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

At 7:30 in the morning the high-pitched sound of a metal grinder whines inside a finishing room at the Bronzesmith Fine Art Foundry & Gallery in Prescott Valley, AZ. Across the hall, the smell of rotten eggs from chemicals wafts through the patina room, and a muscular young man with earplugs waves a blue-flamed blow torch.

Welcome to the cacophonous, creative world of foundry artisans who form the behind-the-scenes support network for about 15 sculptors including Oreland Joe, Larry Yazzie, and Bill Owen. Legendary western artist Joe Beeler, from Sedona, AZ, brings his bronze work here for casting, and so does rising star Kim Obrzut, a Native American artist from Flagstaff, AZ.

Joe Beeler sculpting a clay model in his Sedona studio., photo, southwest art.
Joe Beeler sculpting a clay model in his Sedona studio.

Bronzesmith, which sprawls across two buildings and 9,000 square feet, is one of more than 100 art foundries scattered around the country. With 15 em-ployees, the facility is considered a medium-size oper- ation. Foundries vary in size from one employee to 120, from a facility that contracts out for certain services to a turn-key operation.

Bronzesmith is a turnkey facility: Sculptors deliver their clay, stone, or wood originals, and owner Ed Reilly and his staff do the rest—prepare wax molds, pour the bronze, finish the metal, apply patinas, catalog pieces, number editions, and ship about 100 artworks a month to galleries, collectors, and other clients.

For sculptors, forming a good partnership with a foundry is crucial in helping them steer through the sometimes bumpy creative process. In addition to technical support, a foundry can provide the psychological support—the nudges the artist needs to explore

Bronzesmith s owner Ed Reilly hard at work in the Prescott foundry., southwest art.
Bronzesmith’s owner Ed Reilly hard at work in the Prescott foundry.

new terrain, says Beeler. “Ed tells me there is no limit to what I want to do,” Beeler says of Bronzesmith owner Reilly. “He says, ‘Just tell me what it is, and we will cast it like you intended.’ That’s the assurance an artist needs to approach art and not feel like he’s hobbled in any way.”

For example, Beeler says, in his piece Voice in the Wind he wanted a cowboy to sport hair. He wasn’t sure how to accomplish the feat. Reilly suggested using thin copper wires that could be soldered to the final casting of his work. Beeler approved. “I have the assurance that I’m limited only by my own imagination,” Beeler says.

Obrzut agrees. She credits Reilly with giving her the push she needed last year when she wanted to graduate from tabletop-size bronzes to a life-size piece. “I wanted to make more of a statement, and I’d been talking about making big pieces for about a year,” Obrzut says. “Finally one day Ed turned to me and said, ‘We are doing it.’”

Bronzesmith found the new equipment necessary, and then Reilly discussed dimensions of the larger-scale work with her. The exact size must be determined in advance so the piece is compatible with the equipment. A 5-foot-tall work is cast in two pieces, but anything taller is cast in three or more pieces. The more pieces, the steeper the cost.

Kim Obrzut poses with her 5 foot tall clay model eventually destined for Bronzesmith and then the Santa Fe Indian Market in August., sculpture, southwest art.
Kim Obrzut poses with her 5-foot-tall clay model eventually destined for Bronzesmith and then the Santa Fe Indian Market in August.

As this story was going to press, Obrzut was finishing work on the clay original for a Hopi maiden, a 5-foot-tall version of the voluptuous, gourd-shaped tabletop bronzes that are her signature. She plans to enter the new, larger work in the sculpture division of the Santa Fe Indian Market in August.

Sculptors say the relationship with a foundry staff eventually becomes intuitive. “It’s very much like a marriage,” Obrzut explains, voicing the sentiment of many sculptors. “In the beginning Ed and I had to talk a lot, but now he practically reads my mind.” Obrzut apprenticed at the foundry in the early 1990s when she was an art student at Northern Arizona State University. The relationship continued when she began her professional career after college.

Each artist, however, develops a different relationship with the foundry. For example, Beeler, a Bronzesmith client since 1985, turns over the construction of his armatures for his clay models to the foundry. Beeler used to create his own wire frames, but he decided he was not very gifted in this area. “My armatures were so bad and so rickety, I finally just let Ed build them,” Beeler says. Beeler tends to be the exception at Bronzesmith anyway, many of whose sculptors prefer building their own armatures.

Kim Obrzut s Hopi maidens waiting for finishing touches in the foundry s patina room. sculpture, southwest art.
Kim Obrzut’s Hopi maidens waiting for finishing touches in the foundry’s patina room.

Once the clay, wood, or stone originals arrive at the foundry, the casting process takes about two to three months. During that time the foundry staff and sculptor maintain contact in varying degrees. On one end of the continuum, Beeler and Obrzut say they usually visit the foundry about twice a month. They also talk on the phone with Reilly or a staff member several times a week about creative, technical, and financial decisions.

Patinas can be a major topic of discussion. Obrzut says she routinely talks to Bronzesmith’s patina expert, Erik Petersen, about the proper finish for individual pieces. “I will tell him what kind of feel I want. In one of my pieces I’m portraying an older, mature woman, so she needs a sophisticated look,” Obrzut explains.  “He’ll offer suggestions about color.” Petersen uses about four different chemicals in varying strengths to achieve colors ranging from pale turquoise to saturated red. Sculptors give him license to explore and experiment to achieve a desired look.

Butterfly Maiden (left), bronze, 22 x 14, and Answered Prayers (right), bronze, 17 x 11, by Kim Obrzut. sculpture, southwest art.
Butterfly Maiden (left), bronze, 22 x 14, and Answered Prayers (right), bronze, 17 x 11, by Kim Obrzut.

When Obrzut delivers the final clay model to Bronzesmith for the casting of her Indian Market sculpture, she is likely to talk to Bill Reilly, Ed’s brother, who specializes in welding and fine metal work. With Bill she will discuss how she wants one piece of the sculpture, a corn husk, cast separately and then welded to the bronze Hopi maiden. A separate cast ensures that details in the corn are not lost in the overall process.

To Bill the quality of the final product depends on a team effort. “If the job done prior to mine (the pouring of the bronze) isn’t done right, it makes my job extremely difficult,” Bill says. “We are all tied to each other. We depend on the person ahead of us to do the their best job. Otherwise, the artisan next in the chain has to spend extra time correcting mistakes.”

Sculptors pay the foundry anywhere from $400 to $3,000, depending on the size of the piece. Ed Reilly gives sculptors an estimate before the job begins based on the projected number of work hours involved for each staff member. If a piece begins to take longer than expected, the foundry calls the sculptor. Likewise, if the job takes less time than expected, Reilly subtracts it from the estimated cost.

While Obrzut and Beeler are actively involved in the foundry process, three other Bronzesmith clients have virtually no contact with the foundry. Canadian sculptors Richard Hunt, Stan Hunt, and Tom Eneas mail their wood models to Bronzesmith. Peter Wright, an Albuquerque-based consultant, oversees the casting via phone calls and visits to the foundry. Wright, who functions somewhat like a movie producer, puts up the money for the production of the bronze pieces and markets the work of a hand-picked group of Native American sculptors.

Joe Beeler, Speaker of the House, bronze, h20. sculpture, southwest art.
Joe Beeler, Speaker of the House, bronze, h20.

Reilly discourages sculptors or their emissaries from hanging out at the foundry or hovering over Bronzesmith artisans. In fact, he prefers his foundry to be known as a place where sculptors don’t have to be present to ensure their work evolves in the way they envisioned it. This philosophy appeals to the busy Beeler just fine. But he admits he once sculpted what turned out to be a prize-winning piece, Speaker of the House, at Bronzesmith while waiting to pick up another piece.

To ensure quality, Reilly follows the “less is more” philosophy. He keeps a limited number of sculptors as clients. “My goal is not to be the biggest foundry but to produce the highest-quality sculpture,” Reilly says.

Reilly is in the final stages of executing a master plan for the foundry that he set in motion more than a decade ago, when he operated out of the garage of his home in Flagstaff. Recently he added a gallery at the foundry complex to show the work of his sculptors. In the near future he plans to add a sculpture garden on the grounds for larger works.

Someday Reilly dreams of working on his own sculpture full time; he has a degree in fine art from the University of Northern Arizona. An example of his work, a bronze horse, sits inconspicuously in the gallery amid work by foundry sculptors. For now, though, he is content keeping his own work stewing on the back burner. He is satisfied being known as a sculptor’s best friend. “I just want to create award-winning sculpture for all of them,” Reilly says.

Joe Beeler’s photos courtesy the artist and Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY; Wickenburg Gallery, Wickenburg, AZ; and Zantman Galleries, Carmel and Palm Desert, CA.Kim Obrzut’s photos courtesy the artist and Adobe East, Summit, NJ.

Featured in July 1999