Annual Iron Pour Sculpture Event Draws Dozens of Artists to U of M

Updated: 04/26/2014 8:40 AM
Created: 04/25/2014 4:58 PM
By: Stephen Tellier

How do you turn 30 tons of old, iron radiators into brand new artwork?

The answer to that question drew dozens of artists from across the country -- and the world -- to the University of Minnesota on Friday for the 45th Annual Iron Pour.

It's where the elegance of artistic expression meets the grit and grime of a coal mine.

"It's dirty, grungy, stinky," said Marie Schrobilgen, a third-year Master's of Fine Arts in Sculpture student.

It's dangerous, yet dainty.

"It's like a dance -- we all have our part," Schrobilgen said.

But the dance also involves a pot of lava.

"We dress up like a bunch of firefighters and pour molten hot metal. It's a lot of fun," Schrobilgen said, with a laugh.

But they're not making the world's tiniest volcanoes for the fun of it. Inside the wooden boxes are molds for dozens of sculptures you can't make any other way.

"It's an aesthetic, athletic, pyrotechnic event," said Wayne Potratz, a professor at the U of M and the creator of the annual event.

The Iron Pour process begins with old, cast iron radiators -- 1,500 lbs., crushed up and cooked in a blazing-hot cupola.

"It's about 3,000 degrees inside there, and then when we put 250 pounds of iron in there, it melts and it falls down into a well, and then we tap that out every 20 minutes and into ladles," Potratz said.

"Then we start pouring until we see it coming up the vent cups, and once it fills up to the top, then we're good -- we move on to the next mold," said Jim Williams, who took part in the event.

"It's crazy, and it's hectic, and it's stressful, but it's incredibly rewarding," Schrobilgen said.

That's because once the iron cools and hardens, you're left with lovely cast iron sculptures. It's a somewhat medieval process with distinctly modern rewards.

"This art has a nice way of bringing back past methods and combining them with contemporary art," Schrobilgen said.

At the same time, the concept behind it is timeless -- taking one of the most common chemical elements on Earth, and casting it into the creative cauldron of the human imagination.

"It's your masterpiece at the end, if you want it to be," Schrobilgen said.

Potratz is the brainchild behind the annual event -- he started it back in 1970. Friday was his final Iron Pour before retirement this summer.

The iron radiators that were used were all donated from the renovation of the Northrup Auditorium, also on campus. The U of M now has enough iron to keep the event going for the next ten years.

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