SALEM — There’s something primal and beautiful about amber sprays of hot liquid iron raining in the melting zone of a 2,500-degree furnace.
There’s something instinctual and practiced in knowing when the molten metal is ready to pour into molds; in knowing that a metal puddle with spikes on the edges is about perfect for creation.
There’s something archaic and visceral in taking 5,000 pounds of old cast iron tubs and radiators and melting them into a liquid form.
There’s something adventurous and exciting about filling a void with the metal that will, in its new hardened form, take on new life.
And each year, for the past 10 years, university art students have traveled to the sprawling 119 acres of Washington County’s Salem Art Works to experience the passion of a large-group iron pour.
“It’s a most primal thing about seeing the material at that state,” Michael Bonadio, Salem Art Works foundry director, said, admitting it’s hard to describe the feeling in words.
Bonadio, who was in charge of this September’s intercollegiate iron pour that drew 100 participants from 14 schools — Alfred University, MassArt, University of Albany, Purchase College, SUNY Oswego, Rochester Institute of Technology, Union College, SUNY Plattsburgh, Kentucky University, Brandeis University, Florida Atlantic University, Ramapo, SUNY Cortland and Skidmore — originally built SAW’s furnace with four other metal artists.
“At the time, we were all working together at Sloss Furnaces and we came up here to build the furnace,” he said. “There is an art to designing and personalizing a furnace … in 2011 we built the furnace in four days.”
In preparation for the late-September pour, SAW collected donations of about 5,000 pounds of scrap cast iron and melted pig iron with the scrap metals and heated them to about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The iron in its liquid form was then poured into a variety of molds including sand and resin, scratch box, ceramic shell and the ancient dung mold method made from local manure, clay, grit and hay.
But the actual pour is only part of this annual weekend experience. At Salem Art Works, the process, the artist’s vision, the journey of the making is an important part of the culture.
“Being involved in a community of artists, makers, people who are interested in learning and challenging themselves has unlocked my thinking. I don’t think I can look at any artwork the same way more than once, nor do I want to,” said Jenny Hillenbrand, SAW artist program coordinator. “I am challenged here to think beyond myself, to absorb as much from those around me as possible, and to expand my understanding of the process of making. It is a life pursuit to understand the motivation behind why artists make work, and how they get to the end result.”
SAW’s founder and director, Anthony Cafritz, a noted sculptor, said he wants artists to have an opportunity to work with new materials or to apply familiar materials in new ways.
“The experience will imbue the artist, as if a tincture to embrace all media equally,” Cafritz said. “The artist will be more emboldened, like someone who speaks four languages.”
Salem Art Works was founded in 2005 when Stanton Hill LLC purchased the old dairy farm along Cary Lane in Salem. The acquisition included 119.4 acres along with several structures, including a huge old barn, circa 1790. Cafritz said it was always his vision to create the art community at this spot.
Today it is a nonprofit art center and sculpture park dedicated to supporting both emerging and established artists in the creation of new and progressive work, Cafritz said. Now the mortgage is paid off and the LLC leases the property to SAW for about $20 a month. “Our intent is not to be a profiteer, but to keep the lights on and go into the next year,” Cafritz said. “There is no luxury here.”
And nearly everyone who lives or works at SAW is an artist in their own right. There are sculptors, musicians, painters, writers, wood artists, metal or glass artists and many who work in multiple mediums. Some come for a day, some a few weeks and some for several months.
According to Hillenbrand, they worked with 85 artists in residence this year.
The day before the iron pour, New York City-based artist Carole Halle, who was in the fellowship program, was finishing the surface of a large sculpture, now housed in the sculpture park. With a background in woodworking, blacksmithing and drawing, Halle said she was mostly exhibiting her work indoors. For her fellowship, she wanted to add an outdoor experience to her body of work. Halle hopes using a self-created mixture of peat moss, concrete and yogurt will encourage moss to grow over her sculpture.
“She made the large outdoor sculpture by carving foam and coating it with concrete — she researched new ways to produce outdoor sculpture for when she returns back to the city,” Hillenbrand said. “This experience provided her valuable time to experiment on new techniques, which has expanded her practice.”
Anika Cartterfield, now on staff as the intern coordinator, was originally a resident intern after she graduated from MassArt.
“I had only made art in a school setting,” she said, admitting that she had considered not pursuing an art career because she did not see possibility beyond the traditional gallery setting. But at SAW she discovered a community of artists working in a rural setting and informing each other’s work.
Initially, Cartterfield created several sculptures outside, a totally new experience that has informed her work and changed her thinking.
Additionally, as part of residency at the center, interns, fellows and residents are required to help cook the community evening meal in the outdoor kitchen.
From June to October, there can be as many as 40 for dinner with everyone eating in community.
“I think that’s a really crucial part of what makes this place tick,” she said, adding that she cooks twice a month.
On the Friday before the intercollegiate pour, another intern and a staff member were cooking huge pots of black beans in preparation for the students. And, Cafritz said, they try to get most of their food from local farms.
“We use simple meats and vegetables,” he said.
The center survives on grants and donations, and some artists pay for their time while there.
This week, about 35 to 40 high school students will experience the many facets of art including glass blowing, blacksmithing, welding, silk screen printing, stone carving and cuttle bone casting in a one-day field trip to SAW.
Called Art 101 and funded by the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council, foundations and local businesses, the program allows area students to participate in hands-on morning and afternoon workshops for $20 per student for the day.
Offered annually during October and April, more than 200 area students have already participated.
Adjacent to the actual artists’ living areas and studios is the Cary Hill Sculpture Park, filled with large-scale sculptures and five miles of walking trails for the community. Cafritz said there’s a group of 80-something women who walk in the park every day. And he hopes more people will come. More voices, different perspectives, alternative visions.
This past year, they planted 150 pounds of indigenous flowers in the fields at the sculpture park in hopes of attracting bees and butterflies. And when driving around the park in his truck on an early autumn day, Cafritz’s energy and enthusiasm are palpable.
Art is his life, and even though he only gets short blocks of time to work on his own making, he never misses a moment to stop and discuss the work of those creating at the center.
“Our emphasis is on intent,” Cafritz said. “It is all about work, all about extremes. Taking chances in a supportive and considerate environment.”