At the beginning of the Disney movie Ratatouille, the main character, a small rat, says there is something interesting about humans: “they don’t just survive; they discover; they create.” The young child, cave woman, adult, professional, pirate, educator and artist in me held on to this observation by Remy, the rat, as the cornerstone that supports art and art making. When asked to articulate a low-tech metal casting process to a high-tech computer crowd, I felt compelled to investigate a new angle.
With 3D scanning, modeling, and rapid prototyping acting as the new hammer and saw in the metalworking and jewelry field, I often find myself questioning all the tools we use and how we can use them collectively. The computer designers have access to so many new programs and novel technologies, but I would argue that they never completely forget their paper, pencil and individual human creativity that originally offered up these advances. In order to rediscover the beginning of our inspired innovations, I have rummaged through the vaults of religion, anthropology, history, philosophy and frankly anything else that will prove my point. “And what is your point?” you ask. Keep reading.
There has been much discussion about the changes in the arts due to computer usage. In all respect to the importance of computers, I am simply giving a friendly reminder for those of you who have forgotten about the element that has helped spark most of modern technology…fire. Why is the discussion of fire important in modern days? It is important simply because it is a reminder of our human abilities, and gives us hope in our responsibility of creating and exploring future technologies.
Fire is one of the most celebrated and technologically advanced pillars of our human existence. Religions, philosophies, wiener roasts, and birthday cakes all over the world hold fire in esteem difficult to match. The earth diligently worked to maintain the correct mixture of atmospheric gases and offer combustible materials to allow fire to be possible. The oceans prove that life can exist without fire, but fire would not exist without the living world. Although we can harness the power of water and wind, we still must wait for a wave or gust. But fire, the bringer of warmth, light, protection, purification, and the start of most technologies can be created, harnessed, and lost by man. This utilization of a “wild” unpredictable but maintainable element divides humanity from the rest of creation.
“Fire was a god, or at least theophany; fire was myth; fire was science; fire was power.”1 Social relationships are affected by its entrancing ability to give light in the dark, provide warmth, allow conversation for questioning the world’s other wonders, and provide safe food and drink. Without fire, we would be a scared and helpless being, digging holes for food and hiding at night from predators with no means to care for ourselves. Just as we can’t imagine our world without computers, cell phones, and Wal-Mart (just kidding), man and fire have lived together from the beginning, and man carried fire into most applications of basic and advanced human needs.
To explore fire and its uses, I recently hosted a workshop for numerous college students that explored a low tech casting process called cuttlebone casting. Cuttlebone is from the squid-like mollusk that is commonly referred to as a cuttlefish. The bones are frequently used today at pet stores as a dietary calcium supplement and for beak sharpening for parakeets.2 In a moment of genius or insanity (they generally go together), someone discovered that this bone could withstand temperatures up to around 2000°F and was soft enough to carve into with a wooden stick, fingernail or dental tools.
The dense outer shell makes it strong enough to hold metals ranging from pewter to gold. After cutting the tips off the cuttlebone and rubbing two bone fragments together until they are perfectly flat, the maker carves or presses their design into the piece. There are considerations to be made when designing to avoid areas that the metal would be forced to “back-flow” against gravity. Generally, adding sprues or channels to connect certain areas of the design can solve these problems.
If an intense line quality is desired, which is why most people use this process, the artist can lightly stroke the design with a small paintbrush to reveal more of the calcium rich line. Gates and sprues are cut into the piece to give the metal routes to flow and a large opening (button) is created at the top to make pouring the metal effortless. The two parts are fastened together with binding wire and placed in a dish of pumice stones or sand to keep the form upright and catch any spilled metal. The fire comes back into play but is easily started with a small propane torch ignited with a striker that forcibly slides flint across a textured metal wheel. The artist melts the metal in a crucible or cast iron ladle in this case, and pours the molten metal into the cuttlebone mold. We used pewter in this workshop because it melts at such a low temperature (500°F) and the process would require less supplies. The form is then opened to reveal a metal positive of the mold that was originally carved. You simply cut off the excess metal, file, sand and finish accordingly.
This process might not be useful for all, but I do contend that every human should use fire to make metal molten at some point in their life. I remember that my former foundry Professor would get a “crazy look” (as her assistants called it) when she would participate in the large pours. I understand that “look” after years of working myself. It is the gaze the prehistoric man directed toward the fire that was caused by lightning striking.
This is the moment of realization of an element of such promise and danger, and a force that you must possess, release, and learn from. If melting metal is on your “Bucket List”, contact your local art center, art school, or helpful website (www.ganoskin.com/orchid/archive) immediately to fulfill an act that everyone needs in their life. When you first control and contain fire to melt metal into liquid form, pour into a mold, and cool to result in a hard and lasting metal form, you truly feel that same “crazy look” that the original prehistoric caveman felt when using fire. Every time I work with fire, I have a link with the past and every important development we have created. If you don’t feel this soul-stirring link to humanity, meaning of life experience that I’ve described, you will at least have a nice new keychain out of the process.
1Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2001.
2McCreight, Tim, Practical Casting: A Studio Reference. Maine: Brynmorgen Press, 1994.