Driving through beautiful Loveland, Colorado, an uninformed person would never suspect the intricate and historically rich art form that has flourished in this city for many years. As you walk through the shop-lined streets, enjoying Loveland’s picturesque environment sitting at the base of the Rocky Mountains, you begin to take notice of something that sets this special place apart. This difference is rooted in the beautiful and intricate art form of bronze sculpture. Numerous private galleries have windows filled with gleaming pieces. Representations of children reading books sit in parks with animals of all shapes and sizes. Lovers, frozen in time, hold hands and sculptures of historical figures abound in this small Colorado town. The civic center and surrounding park hold over a hundred sculptures alone. It is an art form that has truly flourished in Loveland and created an amazing community right along with it.
Loveland is the home of three large foundries. Art Castings of Colorado, founded in 1972, is the largest and oldest in town. It was the first to gain both national and global recognition in the world of bronze sculpture.
It is here that George Lundeen has become an iconic, internationally known and critically acclaimed sculptor. Lundeen knew he wanted to be an artist from a young age. Following that passion lead him through his education studying bronze sculpture where he began to develop his extensive skill set.
A remarkably well educated man, Lundeen studied art here in the US and then went on to study on a Fulbright grant in Italy. He thought he knew a lot about the art form, but forty years ago, when Lundeen paid a visit to Loveland, and was first introduced to Art Castings of Colorado, he realized he was far behind the times. At this point, the foundry only had about five employees, but Lundeen recognized it as a very special place and a leader in the industry. He had been teaching at a university in Nebraska and doing his own castings for ten years, but when he saw the quality and sophistication of the work this foundry was producing, he quickly relocated to Loveland to be near it. Soon after Lundeen relocated to Loveland, he began to gain a following. He developed a relationship with Deane Knox, owner of the Knox Galleries, which are the leading galleries in America for bronze sculpture. Lundeen’s beautiful works of art, which are still created in Loveland, are displayed at the Knox galleries’ Denver and Beaver Creek, Colorado and Harbor Springs, MI locations.
Loveland has now become a world leading location for bronze sculpture. Just in this small town alone there are around fifty artists, one to two hundred people working in the foundries and two to three hundred people working in mold making and patinas. At any given time there are several hundred people involved locally in the sculpture industry in town. Because of this, Loveland and its bronze sculpture industry have carved out their special niche in the art world.
How are these amazing works of art made? Something as grandiose and impressive as these sculptures must certainly be complex and time consuming to construct. The process of making these works of art is called the “lost wax casting process”. It all begins when an artist conceptualizes a piece and creates a clay sculpture that encapsulates their vision. This sculpture represents exactly what the finalized bronze piece will look like. The clay form is the genesis of the multi-step process that ultimately results in a beautiful bronze piece being created.
From the clay sculpture, the foundry first creates a mold. One of the foundry’s artisans, many of which have worked at the foundry for twenty years or more, completes this process. The mold is then taken into the wax room where hot wax is gingerly poured over it, entirely covering even the smallest detail. When the wax is about a quarter inch thick on the mold the sculpture is brought into the cold room to harden. Except for the type of wax that is employed, this ten thousand year old process, which first originated in China and Africa, is essentially the same one that is still used today. The bee’s wax that was historically used, has now been replaced by a petroleum based wax.
Once in the cold room which is constantly kept between forty and fifty degrees, the wax hardens to become stiff and brittle.
Because works of art can be very large in size, often many separate molds are created for the individual sub-pieces that make up one sculpture. A life size piece can be made of five to ten castings and, depending on its degree of complexity, a twenty-foot tall piece can be comprised of several hundred sub-pieces. Once the wax has set, the piece moves onto the next team of skilled artisans to polish out any flaws that may have be created. Smaller pieces are put together, scratches are smoothed out and fine details are gone over. The wax pieces are then prepared for casting by attaching sprues and vents. These create stability for the next steps, allow the bronze to be poured into the sculpture, air to be vented out and the wax to properly melt out of the mold.
It is at this point that the historical way of creating these pieces encounters a change. This is what intrigued Lundeen so much about the foundry back in the 1970’s. A new way of creating a stronger mold was developed called ceramic shell casting. The wax pieces, secured by the sprues, are alternately dipped into liquid silica and then granulated silica. Ten to fifteen layers are applied by alternately dipping the piece into the liquid and granulated silica, resulting in a heavy, almost three-quarter inch thick piece, that is hardly recognizable yet leads to a more consistent and detailed casting. The wax is still inside and it is set to dry and harden.
When dry, the pieces are moved to the pouring floor. The molds are put upside down in a car-bottom kiln, heated to twenty-five hundred degrees where the wax melts out of them.
Hence the name “lost wax casting”.
They are then carefully removed from the kiln. Bronze ingots are melted down and poured into the mold, filling the areas the wax just melted away from. The ingots, each weighing around twenty pounds, are ninety-five percent copper and are sourced from various locations around the world. This same percentage of copper is not always found in ingots sourced from overseas though, making it important to check the quality of the metal when purchasing a sculpture.
Art Castings of Colorado and Knox Galleries use only the finest quality metals and advise their clients that they should absolutely ask about the origin of the metal, where the piece was cast and if the artist has signed and marked the edition number. The prices for the bronze ingots have skyrocketed in the last five years, making copper a very desirable commodity.
Once the casting has cooled and hardened, the outer ceramic layer is carefully knocked off with a mallet and the underlying bronze sculpture is revealed. The clay, wax and ceramic fragments are recycled for future projects and the piece is whisked away to the sand blasters who use more precise tools to remove the ceramic from the deeper grooves within the form. If many sub-pieces are created they are then welded together, using mig-welding techniques. Details are revisited, welds are blended and sprues are removed using buffers and grinders to fix every visible imperfection. At this point the sculpture appears identical to the original clay sculpture envisioned by the artist at the very beginning of the process.
Moving on to get its final touches, the piece is sprayed with liquid sulfur, which turns it jet black and then is rubbed off where black is not desired. Different chemicals under different heats and atmospheric elements can be used to create patinas and whatever color is desired. These patinas are available in hundreds of different colors. The process of creating and applying them is again a specialty and science all its own. Once a coating of lacquer is applied to preserve the patina and a base is attached to the piece it is ready to be packaged and shipped out to join so many other similarly gorgeous bronze works of art from Loveland, CO that are displayed all over the world today.
Because the process of creating a bronze sculpture is so detailed and labor intensive, being able to complete all of the required steps right within the town of Loveland substantially sets the city apart from all other locations around the world.
Given all the history and tradition that Loveland holds that make it a world leader in bronze sculpture, it is easy to see why this beautiful small town nestled in the shadow of the Rockies is such an important stop for any true art lover today.
Those wishing to contact Knox Galleries may do so by phone at (303) 820-2324 or through their website at knoxgalleries.com.