Admittedly, Sabrina and I are somewhat “Forrest Gump-ing” our way through the Abacos. We had few plans before we left the states (we didn’t have time to make plans in the craziness) and while the information in the guide books will get you started, it doesn’t tell you about the truly cool stuff. We’ve lucked into great experiences from information provided by the kindness of other cruisers, and just being in the right place at the right time. Some of our better days include Ann drawing maps in the sand on Manjack, seeing the Abaco Parrot and joining the BNT, finding blue holes in the Bight of Old Robinson, and most recently, attending a casting at the famous Johnston Studio in Little Harbour.
The approach into Little Harbour only has 3.5 feet of depth at low tide, our boat draws a little over 5 feet and the current tide state in the Bahamas is a little over 2 feet. So, if you do the math, we had to enter the harbor at almost high tide, and we only had about 6 inches to spare! We had debated for over a week about when to head into Little Harbour, and we had no real reason for going in on Wednesday afternoon. But we headed in, grabbed a mooring, toured the gallery, the foundry, and Pete’s Pub and then dinghied out to the Bight of Old Robinson to check out the blue holes.
On Thursday morning, we were debating what to do and we heard on the Cruiser’s Net that there would be a casting that day at the foundry. By sheer luck, we found ourselves already in the harbor, and quickly headed to shore to find out more. We learned the casting would be at 12:30 or so and we were invited to stop back around then. The high tide wasn’t until 3:45 so we wouldn’t have been able to get in if we had tried to on Thursday morning.
The Johnston Studio and Gallery is a famous attraction here in the Abacos. Back in the 1950’s, Smith College professor and noted sculptor Randolph Johnston packed up his wife and three children into their sailboat and sailed to the islands to escape civilization and pursue his art. They settled in Little Harbour and the Johnston family reportedly lived in caves and thatched huts they built until they were able to build a house and a foundry for Johnston’s art. We took the dinghy to one of these caves and wondered about what is was like to reside, even temporarily, in the rocky interior. Randolph Johnston lived in Little Harbour until his death in 1992, and his son Pete, also a sculptor, owns “Pete’s Pub” and now runs the foundry and a gallery that displays and sells art from the studio.
We headed back into the foundry around noon because we didn’t want to miss the casting. The foundry uses the ancient “lost wax process” to cast sculptures out of bronze. I was relatively ignorant of the concept but the foundry director Richard was very patient, provided us information on the process and then took us on a tour of the studio. Richard (he’s French, so it’s pronounced Ree-shard) obviously very much enjoyed his job, he was charismatic, enthusiastic, and delighted to show us the various steps, I’ve outlined the process briefly here:
- Sculpt something out of clay or wax – bust, turtle, etc.
This is the really artistic part, and I was amazed by Pete’s “originals” laying around the studio
- Cover this clay or wax in plaster or rubber and make a mold
- Remove the clay “original” and set it aside
- Fill the plaster mold with wax
- Pull the wax out, inspect it, and fix any imperfections – basically carve the sculpture again
- Coat the wax in a mixture of silica and paste, and dip it repeatedly, like you’re making a candle, to make a hard ceramic mold
- Melt the wax out of the ceramic mold with a blast furnace at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit
- Heat your bronze to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pour this molten metal into your preheated ceramic mold
- Let it cool, crack off the hard ceramic mold
- Polish, sand, or grind out any imperfections to your bronze casting
- To make another casting of the same original sculpture, start back at Step 3
This is a very basic outline, and listening to Richard explain about the various gates (funnels to allow the bronze to enter the mold,) vents to allow the air to escape, and how they have to manage weight by providing cavities in the sculptures was very fascinating. He explained that bells use a different metal ratio for the bronze so that they are stronger, and showed some of the results they achieve with different chemicals to provide a patina, greening, or a shiny finish to the bronze.
Richard also explained that the “lost wax process” is the oldest known form of metal casting. One of the oldest known pieces is “Dancing Girl” and dates back 4,500 years. This process is also used to produce industrial parts, and NASA used it to cast pieces for the shuttle.
While the sculpting of the originals was light years beyond my poor artistic ability, the rest of the process appealed to the engineer in me. I was fascinated by all the variables they had to manage in this foundry located on a sand road in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention the bubbling cauldron of liquid metal and the layers of protecting clothes they donned to work with it.
The last step before the bronze is ready was to have Richard toss wine bottles into the metal. The glass melts quickly and attracts the impurities in the metal. He scoops it off and discards it before they begin to pour. I suspect that Richard tries to use bottles from nice French wines for this step. It was exhilarating to watch them lift the crucible and begin to pour. The heat is intense, even standing across the room, and I couldn’t imagine what would happen if they spilled. Their protective clothing only does so much, Richard suffered a burn on his hand, and explained that dealing with the kiln where they pre-heat the ceramic molds is worse than the molten metal because he has to reach into the kiln to pull the pieces out by hand (remember it’s 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.) After they finished pouring, the pieces were still glowing red hot until we left about 15 minutes later, and I don’t know how long it is until they can safely be handled.
Richard explained that every time they do a casting it costs $1,000. Therefore they only do castings when they need items in the store. Some years he said they had done 35 castings, but recently with the economy they’ve had as few as 8 castings. He said they’ve recently sold some pieces of Pete’s that depict various scenes from “The Old Man and the Sea.” They like to keep the full series in the gallery and that’s one of the reasons they decided to cast on Thursday.
Regardless of the reason for the casting, we felt very fortunate to witness something so strange in this tiny, little, remote corner of the earth. I guess Mr. Gump was right, “…you never know what you’re gonna get.”