As spectacular as the Meenakshi Temple complex is, our meditation study group did not travel to Madurai, India, in the winter of 2013-14, to visit it. Instead, our goal was to visit Sri Ramana Maharshi's uncle's house, a modest house on a small, busy street, which was the site of Ramana's enlightenment. Young Ventakatataman, as he was known before his enlightenment, went to live there after his father passed away. The house is now a shrine that pilgrims from all over the world visit for inspiration.. A block or so away is the Meenakahi Temple, where the young Venkataraman would go to commune with the Saivite Saints.
After his enlightenment, Venkataraman traveled to Arunachala, where he became one of the most revered sages of the modern era.
The temple complex, while probably not the principal cause of Venkataraman's enlightenment, certainly helped set the stage. And speaking of help, the Buddha, like Ramana, received life saving help at critical moments on his spiritual journey. This is to say that there are most likely more instances of enlightenment, spontaneous or otherwise, that occur in all human communities, than anybody is aware of. It seems that to have an enlightenment experience can be the work of a lifetime, or it can happen spontaneously. Either way, to stabilize in this experience can be almost impossible. Ramana, for instance, almost didn't "come back" from it. On the other hand, some may report that their enlightenment was "nothing special", or that they gained not the least little thing from it. After all, what is so special about being yourself?
The value of the Buddha and Ramana to me is that they help me comprehend and understand my own spiritual experience.
Finally, seeing this particular temple forever changed my sense of color in regard to sculpture and inspired me to express an appreciation of what I had seen.
And so, when Renny and Rocio of the Imperfect Gallery here in Germantown offered me a one man show in the spring of 2014 to be installed the following November, I knew I had something to say, and was ready to take a shot at making some colorful, playful sculpture. My first step in this direction was to go on a two week retreat to rest and relax before the big push.
The Towers of Meenakshi
This is one of the Temple's towers.The number of sculptures, and the color, is beyond grasping. And this is just the outside of one of the Temple Complex's towers.
Speedy Melt, pick up tongs, pouring shank, ladle, sand table
Your standard speedy melt furnace, which can melt 230 lbs. of bronze in 45 minutes. We do mostly 90 lb pots, and ladle rather than pour the molten metal directly into the shapes we created by pressing objects into the sand, and then removing them. We can also draw or embed objects in the sand that the metal can lock onto. The objects we used for the Toy Tower are toy cars, dice, toy figures, game pieces, and found objects of all sorts.
Issac Witkin was pouring bronze directly into open sand in the 80's at the Johnson Atelier, where I was an apprentice. Issac was interested in the flow of the metal. A somewhat less direct technique is to make impressions in clay, cast wax into the impressions, and then cast the wax into bronze via the lost wax process.
However you choose to make form, if you cast the forms in silicon bronze, you can weld anything you have cast together with great ease. Silicon bronze is as readily weldable as steel.
A wood table, 88" X 26", with a 2x4 wood frame on top, filled with 2 to 3 hundred lbs. of Olivine sand mixed with a clay body and water. The 3 runs here of silicon bronze have cooled down(about 15 minutes), and are now ready to take out of the sand to be preassured washed. The clean up here is a lot easier than ceramic shell, which generally requires glass bead blasting.
unwashed sand cast
A bronze run turned over in the sand, prior to being washed. The sand size determines the texture of the cast metal. The finer the face coat of sand, the less pebbly and finer the surface of the cast metal.
The beginning of the Toy Tower Totem
Here we go welding the pressure washed runs onto a round silicon bronze plate 5/8" thick. At this point, I am just "tacking" things together to see what works. I had the feeling at this point that this was going to be a lot of work with no guarantees in sight. But one has to start somewhere.
Of great concern was that the sides of 4 runs did not meet well, and there was too much empty space all around. The cardboard indicates what is missing.
Toy Tower Totem under construction
Three sides of the Tower are tacked to the bottom plate and to each other. Here you can see the sides don't fit that well together. Too much empty space and not enough sculpture. What to do?
One possible solution would be to design the shape of the runs so that they would fit together better. One way of doing this would be to make overall pattern shapes that "fit" like puzzle pieces. If I have time, I will give this a try. The toy tower pictured here was added onto with back pouring.
Note the orange cloth clamp up top. At this spot inside the 3 runs is a chunk of wood 4 X 4, which gives the tower its proper shape, when clamped.
Toy Tower Totem, under construction
Here is what things look like up top. Way too much is missing. What to do?
Backpour is what to do. Press one side of the Tower into the sand as firmly as possible. Create sand berms along the length of the run where necessary to create an edge of the run if there is no edge there to begin with, and then do more pattern work in the sand to fill the empty spaces. Now get yourself a length of angle steel, and weld a handle to it. Then, ladle the molten bronze, using your length of angle steel, to the places the bronze needs to be.
If the molten bronze doesn't lock on the already cast metal, it can be welded to it quit easily. I have to say...this is my idea of fun.
Photo by Kerry Michaels.
Toy Tower Totem
Here we have all 4 runs filled in. Note the hydraulic pump in the left corner of the photo. With a small piston set up placed inside the tower, the sides of the runs can be pressed out where necessary to effect a good alignment.
Toy Tower Totem
Another view. Notice the over run of metal a foot or so down on the left hand run. I was about to cut this extra off when I noticed that this extra little run might give the sculpture an organic, molting kind of feel. Let's try it!
In the backround is my Hobart Cyber Wave 300 Amp, three phase welder equipped with a water cooled TIG torch. This is a gift from George Burpee, my first father in law. Thank you, George. After 35 years, the welder is still going strong, and so is my regard for your generosity.
Having a water cooled TIG torch with a 60% duty cycle means you can do a lot of welding in a timely manner(you can weld 6 minutes out of every 10.). When I started out, Bernie Brenner(Vulcan to his friends and students), gave me a little buzz box with a stabilizer unit on top and an air cooled TIG torch. This had a 20% duty cycle, which means 2 minutes of welding for every 8 minutes of letting the torch cool off. Which is OK. A further complication was that I installed this welder in my garage 150 feet distant from my house which had an 100 amp service. Which is fine for a house, but not so good for welding, especially since the further away you go from your circuit box, the less volts you have to weld with.
Paige Working on Patina for Toy Tower Totem
Its sometimes helpful to do patina work outside. The two good things about working outside is that you can see what you're doing, and fresh air. Even outside hot chemical patinas create fumes that need to be carefully directed away from the worker. This is not hard to do, but it does need to be done to protect the worker from toxic fumes. Inside, a ventilation set up is necessary.
Paige helped me sand mold, pour, and patina the sculptures of the Totem series, from the summer of 2014 on. While I don't get paid that much to teach, I have the privilege of working with some of the very best students interested in art. Artists in their own right. As my students, I help them with their work. Later on, if things work out. they help me with my work. It is good to pay attention to honest, straight-forward, win- win relationships.
So it can be very joyful making sculpture with like minded people who are into it.