The School of Art and Design is built upon the foundations of hands-on learning experiences. For more than 20 years, the university's Iron Pour, sponsored twice a year by the sculpture program, has emphasized the educational philosophy that students learn best by applying the knowledge they are taught in the classroom to real-world situations.
The Iron Pour is important for students because it helps them understand the whole process of casting metal, said sculpture professor Carl Billingsley.
"I want my students to understand the entire casting process from the ground up," said Billingsley. "The basic knowledge that we can establish at this point will always serve them well because they will understand exactly what's going on whenever they approach a foundry."
During the Iron Pour, metal is heated in a furnace the art students have built themselves. The heat for the furnace is generated by refined coal. The hot, molten metal is then poured into molds created by students. The iron is poured into special types of molds rather than traditional plaster molds because the iron does not react well with the calcium in the plaster. Therefore, all of the molds used at the Iron Pour are made of either ceramic shell or bonded sand.
The end result is cast metal that the students can use in their sculptures. According to Billingsley, many of the pieces that resulted from the Iron Pour were not assignments, but projects the students had in mind and wanted to make. He added that the pieces run the gamut from highly detailed, figurative pieces, to small figures, or abstract components for sculptures.
All in all, the Iron Pour is an extremely unique experience for everyone involved, including students, spectators, and alumni.
"People traditionally think of artists as being lone wolves, working alone in their own studios on their own projects, and trying to express their own points of view," said Billingsley. "All of these elements are still relevant; however, everyone who is engaged in the Iron Pour is also interested in being part of a cooperative team effort."
To further explain his point, Billingsley used the analogy of a barn-raising.
"Barn-raisings occurred when people in part of a community realized that one member needed something bigger than they could handle alone, so everyone pitches in," he said. "The next time somebody needs help, whether it's a barn-raising or getting crops in before the hail hits, then people pitch in and help one another. That's kind of the same way we approach the Iron Pour."
Hanna Jubran, another sculpture professor, emphasized that everyone at the Iron Pour must help and rely on each other.
"This is a cooperative program, and we rely on one another for our creative processes," he said. "Our whole energy in the sculpture program is built upon this sense of community."
The students involved in the Iron Pour also agree that teamwork is essential to ensuring the event's success.
"The Iron Pour is an awesome bonding experience and a true group effort," said sculpture graduate student Chris Wooten.
Sculpture student John Burger echoed Wooten's thoughts on everyone working together. "The Iron Pour is a great group activity because we all help each other and work towards a common goal," he said.
Burger added that most of his work has been abstract and open-ended so that people can interpret the sculptures as they wish. Also, for this Pour, Burger focused on reaction molds, which occurs when the metal gives a reaction to a mold, normally made of wood. The overall effect of the reaction mold is a nice texture to the metal from the wood and a spectacular fireworks show.
According to Burger, normally reaction molds are created for purely a performance effect, but he hoped to create something from the iron and wood reaction.
Although the reaction molds can create an amazing fireworks display, Billingsley always emphasizes to his students the importance of safety.
"There is definitely an element of danger to the whole process, and everyone must absolutely follow the safety rules," he said. "Everybody must attend safety meetings and no one can participate in the Pour without the proper gear. Also everyone is trained one-on-one and they gain more responsibility as they learn."
As for reaction molds, Billingsley supports the creation of them as long as the students include him in the planning every step of the way and he is there to advise and help control the situation.
Not only does the Pour encourage teamwork, but it also fosters creativity. Students are able to learn more about how foundries work and incorporate them into their own furnace designs.
In fact, the School of Art and Design is home to its own foundry, the Irwin Belk sculpture foundry, which was made possible by the generous endowment Belk bestowed upon the program in 1998.
The foundry, in the Jenkins Fine Arts Center, consists of a foundry room, work spaces, a moldmaking room, and a kiln yard where artists can cast piece molds, flexible molds, waste molds, and sand molds in a variety of materials.
Sculpture students Jeff Kiefer and Richard Dudley have learned much about how furnaces and foundries operate. They were part of a team who recently constructed their own furnace, named Ogun after the African god of iron. Kiefer and Dudley will represent ECU at the National Iron Conference in Birmingham, Alabama.
"I have learned so much from building the furnace," said Kiefer. "Also, melting iron is a sustainable activity because we are recycling old metal."
Dudley added that he had also learned much from making the furnace and from being part of the Iron Pour.
"I really enjoy the sense of community here in the department, and Iron Pours have such rich histories," he said. "I enjoyed building the furnace. I had worked with metal a lot, but this was my first time fashioning a piece for functional use."
Alumni also participated in the Pour.
"The Pour is a great opportunity for alumni to come back and stay connected with ECU." Said Wooten
Jesse Morissey and Stewart Kent, both graduates of the sculpture program, were helping out at the Pour on Saturday.
"The Pour is truly a great lesson on how to work with people," said Morrisey. "We are not solitary artists; we need to help one another."
Kent, who owns a local custom furniture and fine arts business, added that as a student, he always got a lot of value out of meeting alumni.
"I have always learned so much from everyone's expertise, and it is great how all of the participants contribute and help each other out," he said.
Students Chris Morgan and Aila Anttonen attended their very first Pour on February 19.
"I really wanted to be involved in the Iron Pour because I enjoy the hands-on aspect of it, " she said. "I also enjoy the 3-D process."
Exchange student Antonnen, who is from Finland, originally planned to concentrate in photography, but she took a survey class in sculpture and fell in love with it.
She was working on a sculpture of a human brain, which was a hollow shell that would fit together like puzzle pieces.
"I love working with the metal," she said. "I want to learn as much as possible about the process of melting metal."
By Meagan Williford
East Carolina University
East Fifth Street | Greenville, NC 27858-4353 USA