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ECU sculptor takes students to Estonia

(Sept. 9, 1995)   —   Radiators heat most of the buildings in Estonia, a Baltic nation once locked tightly behind the old “iron curtain” of Soviet authority. But the emergence of western technology and the wear of years put more and more of these radiators into trash dumps and alleys. And only recently, with the arrival of some students from East Carolina University, has anyone realized the potential of these bulky, cast iron devices to become works of art.
“Old radiators can make some fine iron for castings,” says Carl Billingsley, an ECU art professor who accompanied a group of 15 students to Tallinn, Estonia this summer. The group were participants in the ECU School of Art’s new Baltic Program. The program lets the Americans learn, practice and display their art skills in the former Soviet bloc nation for five weeks.
The students also visited museums, galleries and landmarks in Helsinki, Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia, but the real impact of their experience was in Tallinn. There, among the city’s Medieval architecture, they worked with and demonstrated to other sculptors and students the techniques (and mishaps) of casting iron.
According to Billingsley, sculptors in Estonia use mostly wood, clay and sometimes bronze for their sculpture. They seldom use iron.
“These are tough economic times and we wanted to show them how inexpensive it is to work with iron,” said Billingsley, whose fascination for smelting can be contagious. The professor enjoys his work and his festive iron pours often match the splendor of a neighborhood barbecue.
“Iron is much cheaper than bronze and there are plenty of old radiators in the country that can be melted down and cast into art,” he said.
Melting the iron, however, requires a cupola (furnace) and the art school at Tallinn University, where the students stayed, didn’t have one. Billingsley’s first task when he arrived was to build a compact, low-cost, iron-melting furnace.
He constructed the cupola using a 50 gallon oil drum and a ventilation blower. The blower, used to enrich the oxygen and make the coal burn hotter, was borrowed from a building’s roof top. The finished device looked like a vertical oil drum on a welded stand connected by stove pipe to the blower. It was painted in the Estonian national colors—blue and silver.
In the first demonstration, attended by sculptors from Estonia and Finland, the iron melted but so did the thick clay liner inside the drum. As it turned out, the wrong kind of clay went into the furnace liner.
“We asked for ‘fire clay,’ but something got lost in the translation, and we got a low temperature clay instead,” Billingsley said.
After chipping out clay and melted iron, the sculptors packed the drum with clay that could withstand the intense heat. The correct clay came from a nearby ceramics factory.
Billingsley said the task of rebuilding the furnace greatly improved the rapport between the American, Finish and Estonian artists. The Estonians, he said, had been shy or distrustful of the Americans. The cupola’s failure, combined with the impending deadline for exhibiting their sculpture, inspired all of the artists pitch in and rebuild the furnace. This created a sense of teamwork that Billingsley believes is a necessary ingredient for a successful iron pour.
Another problem, tackled by the Americans, concerned the molds used in casting the metal. Iron sculptors often us sa