Every four years, professional cast-iron sculptors from across the globe come together for a conference to celebrate one of the most exhilarating art mediums. This year, Georgia State's newest sculpture faculty member (Assistant Professor Emily Baker) and its most senior (George Beasley, Regents Faculty Emeriti) joined forces to exhibit, present, and perform alongside one another at the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art (ICCCIA) in Berlin, Germany.
Working in the medium of cast iron is a process that demands collaboration. To ensure the success and safety of a pour, sculptors need assistance from a crew of additional artists. Thriving on teamwork and cross-generational apprenticeship, the artform and trade of cast iron values cooperation over competition. Conferences like the ICCCIA—which consisted of exhibitions, performances, large-scale pours, panel discussions, and workshops—create an environment for artists to share experiences and material research to build necessary community.
Micro-communities and schools of practice are so evident at iron conferences; so much so that photographer Gabriel Akagawa has committed to documenting it on his website “Foundry Tree.” Akagawa adds to this online database at each conference he attends, taking portraits of casters donning their protective leathers, and organizing them according to their lineage of practice. The site also includes maps for regions of style and instruction with 153 schools and institutions. George Beasley is the base of his own tree on Foundry Tree, connected to each of the numerous artists he has mentored over four decades at Georgia State, including such notable alumni as David Landis, Corina Mensoff, Curtis Patterson, and Nimer Aleck. A young Emily Baker smiles up from the “branch” of another tree, documented at a conference she attended four years ago, already tethered to students of her own.
The 2022 International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art opened in Berlin with an exhibition and live performances at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Campus Wilhelminenh. Artists with color-streaked hair and leather overalls passed around bottles of German pilsners, greeting old friends made over decades of conferences—a casual and convivial opening reception performance to what was also Berlin’s annual art week. Baker and Beasley were the sole two performers that evening, captivating everyone’s attention.
For her performance in Artifacts, curated by Stacey Holloway, Baker sat in the center of those in attendance, remaining focused on her task at hand. For the duration of ten minutes, she bent over a bowl of rust-colored water, cleansing her bare feet with a bar of cast iron soap. Her face grimaced as she rubbed the arch of her foot, attempting to wash clean an unrelenting pain, sloshing stains across the pristine white jumpsuit she wore. A stream of iron-oxide water began to run downhill over iron-cast orthopedic insoles set before her. Those in attendance stood around in silence, witnessing Baker, reminding all working in a grueling and hazardous medium to slow down and be mindful of the limitation of their bodies.
Beasley’s work also appeared to reference industry limitations and hazards. He hired a nurse to draw his blood on-site, however, at the last minute, the nurse failed to show up. Indicative of the live nature of performance, they worked collaboratively to reach an even more poetic solution. Using the syringe meant for his performance, George symbolically drew from Emily’s bowl of rusty water, accentuating the interconnectivity of their works.
His performance completed the final element of his work in the exhibition. An iron pendulum form hung above a wooden platform inscribed with a giant “X” (George’s signature symbol). This hollowed, vacuformed X was lit from within to highlight the “blood” pumping through the channels with an ominous beat. Iron is a natural component of human blood, like Baker, Beasely’s work also spoke of ephemerality and the body.
The third night of the conference provided the greatest spectacle. Held in the Industry Museum Brandenburg, just a train-ride outside of Berlin, the iron pour drew in a crowd of all ages and experiences. Teams of artists worked over furnaces in a giant sand pit of a cavernous, twenty-story factory. Decommissioned machinery, gears, and rusted cranes hung above in the space characterized by a post-industrial vacancy. Family caterers grilled brats and spuds over open fires while actors dressed in performative and protective garb added to the thrill of the evening. No gap could be found in the railings that surrounded the pit as people packed in, holding up their kids to get a good view of the furnaces below.
The iron community is an intrepid group; embracing alchemy like scientists, and experimenting like chefs. As sparks flew and molten metal gushed forth from the tap reaching 2800 degrees Fahrenheit, not a single artist in the pit flinched. Each wore protective gear with their own decorative aesthetic. Baker’s colorful bandana peeked out from under her hard hat, her name artistically scribed across the back of her leathers. Beasley’s gear was covered in patches acquired over years of commitment to the craft. For the occasion of this pour, risking bare knees, he wore a traditional Scottish kilt. On this evening, Baker was included in a team of seven international artists from the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, working under the direction of Beasley. Together, they brought the iron to melting point and poured the molten iron into a long mold that pooled into a giant X. For the grand finale, as their metal cooled, a musician playing the bagpipes performed a tune reminiscent of a commemorative burial service. This wasn’t just a creative process, it was a ceremony. Once concluded, the room erupted in applause as Beasley passed around Scottish whiskey and all toasted to his 50+ year legacy in the field.
With a medium that relies on cross-pollination and apprenticeship, using the symbol of a “Foundry Tree” to categorize the communities of iron casters is symbolically apropos. As artists meet and collaborate at conferences and move across regions from their schools and foundries, it makes tracking these interconnected lineages even more salient. There is a rare phenomena in nature called inosculation, when two trees growing in close proximity become fused at their trunks, branches, or roots, similar to the process of grafting. Beasley and Baker, along with their sculpture colleague Associate Professor Ruth Stanford, offer a broad range of practices and skill sets to the Georgia State students who study under them. A new era of sculpture at 246 Edgewood has begun, as students continue to benefit from the deeply-rooted legacy of Beasley with the fresh growth that Baker brings to the program—two intertwined foundry trees for a historied program in the heart of Atlanta.
For more information about our sculpture program, visit artdesign.gsu.edu/concentrations/sculpture
Follow the program at @gsu_sculpture on Instagram and be sure to attend Open Studios at 246 Edgewood Avenue on April 15.