2012 Western Cast Iron Art Conference embraces a unique community

By Kayla Overbey

Monday, October 8, 2012

College students arrive in droves, eagerly scanning their surroundings. People hurry past, creating sporadic movement as preparation takes place. At the registration table, devilishly formed miniature skulls with horns and deep-set eye sockets are on sale, along with shirts, patches and welding hats.

The next room hosts a variety of eccentric young faces that watch as people rush past, preparing rooms for planned workshops and demonstrations. Beyond, a sculpture yard is full of twisted bits of rusted metal. To many, these contorted shapes may mean nothing, but to participants of the Third Biennial Western Cast Iron Art Conference (WCIAC), the pieces of metal comprise meaningful art formed by skillful hands.

Fort Hays State University hosted the WCIAC for the first time this year from May 23-26. This conference, held biennially, attracts national attention and includes visitors from almost every state, as well as international visitors.

The immense amount of work to hold iron cast conferences requires effort from students and professionals alike. For recent Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson, the conference was a personal experience.

“Basically I’ve been helping to set up the conference for a year now,” Thompson said with a smile. “It’s been a really great conference. I’d say it’s the best I’ve been to.”Photo by Kayla Overbey

Thompson attended her first iron pour conference at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyo. At the annual conference, she was exposed to the fast-paced, hands-on experience of iron pouring and casting, and she became addicted.

Prior to the conference, Thompsonenrolled in sculpture and blacksmithing classes, which prompted her to change her major from interior design to sculpture. The conference in Wyoming and each one she participated in after that confirmed her decision to make iron art a permanent part of her life.

“I was just hooked. After [watching] my first iron pour, I wanted be a part of that,” Thompson said.

For many, the friendly atmosphere at conferences spurs the addiction of pouring iron. While the Fort Hays State WCIAC was filled with workshops, molding, performances and lectures, there was one constant: community. Each iron art conference held seems to attract and hold the attention of a unique, inviting group of people.

Lee Powers ’70, Department chair of Art and Design, described the conference as educational for students and a community experience for the established iron casters and citizens involved. The art of casting iron is an exceptional, team-driven act that draws in a variety of participants and creates meaningful relationships.

“You know, sculptors carve stone; they carve wood. They work in a variety of materials. Well, the folks who pour iron are even a unique part of the pouring community,” said Powers. “There’s something about the process of creating iron in the kind of furnaces they use that bonds these folks together as iron-pouring specialists.”

The conference encourages anyone interested in sculpture and iron casting to become involved, regardless of experience. Walter Ware III from the University of Colorado, Denver, agreed that the close-knit community is what draws newcomers into iron conferences. As he forged a lump of iron that would eventually become a knife, Ware smiled and chatted with newfound friends and acquaintances.

“There are a lot of folks here from different places. Everybody sees you, and they act like they know you,” Ware said. “I think the coolest thing about it is the camaraderie.”

Ware, who has worked in blacksmithing and is familiar with the iron pouring process, believes that working in different areas and with different people make the conferences extremely worthwhile. The experience students can gain from conferences is memorable simply because it is unlike any craft that they may have specialized in before.

For Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., student Cory Nacniven, the experience at the Fort Hays State WCIAC exposed him to new art. Nacniven concentrated mostly in digital media during his time in school and decided to try iron casting after encouragement from his professor and because he needed one more credit to graduate.

Photo by Andrew Marsh“I had a feeling that metal was going to be a lot of fun,” Nacniven said. “I figured it was time to try something different. And this is really different. It’s a lot of fun and I’m starting to wish I did it more.”

Nacniven is only one of a few completely inexperienced students who participated in the iron pour. While most of the attendees are professionals and experts, Powers explained that the purpose of the conference is to broaden the iron casting community and provide students with a variety of educational experiences. The art of shaping molds and pouring molten iron, like many other hands-on art forms, is learned through mistakes.

“Sometimes there are some things that just don’t turn out, like anything we do. Not everything’s guaranteed. You gain through experience that quality of making [the molds] so they’ll pour correctly and break out well and the piece won’t have voids in it,” Powers explained.

After spending hours in workshops creating molds, Nacniven gained appreciation for the effort professional iron casters and sculptors put into their work. He said his time at the conference showed him a different kind of work ethic and learning technique than he could experience with digital media.

“It’s definitely a more hands-on experience. And even when it messes up, you feel like you learned something. Whereas in the digital world, if you mess up, you don’t really learn anything, you just undo it,” Nacniven said.

Even for those invested in sculpture and iron casting, the experiences acquired at Fort Hays State provide incentive to participate in more iron art conferences. For Peter Leones, also a student from Alfred University, working with iron broadened his academic and career goals from exclusively photographic to include sculpture.

After he applied and was accepted to art school for photography, Leones found himself interested in sculpture. This eventually led him to participate in “Meltdown,” an iron melting festival at his university sponsored by the National Casting Center Foundry.

“I realized I could do both photo and the whole hands-on sculpture stuff. And it could be a part of what I do,” Leones said.

After his initial conference, Leones found himself surrounded by artistic comrades and friends whom he could relate to. This is what drove him to cast iron art conferences again and again.
Photo by Andrew Marsh
“I like the community that surrounds it. I like how excited people are, how enthusiastic they are,” Leones explained. “And the majority of them are pyromaniacs, and I am too. So I guess it’s just a combination of that. And a drive to make sculpture, to make artwork.”

Leones, like many who have participated in the art of cast iron, has no doubt that he will continue to integrate iron conferences into his life in the future. Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson feels the same. She will begin graduate school in fall of 2012 at Southern Illinois University for sculpture, all because of her first sculpture class at Fort Hays State.

“So it’s definitely going to be a part of my life,” Thompson said. “For the rest of my life.”

(I wrote this article for FHSU’s TigerTalk Magazine in summer of 2012. It was published online and in print during July. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can find the original online publication here.)