Bronze stars

Local artists show mettle in their sculpting

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Patrick Zabel has reached a point in his life where bronze sculpting is a spiritual escapade.

When championship rodeo saddles were put on the shelf to remain only a memory, Zabel looked to the Native American culture for guidance and meditative healing in working with his hands.

"I love the focus it gives me the fantasy and the dream. Whatever I do, it has to inspire me," Zabel said of sculpting. "My sculpting has been like a spiritual adventure."

He researches old newspaper clippings and history books to find a clearer vision of his pre-constructed sculpture.

Zabel compares sculpting to his old rodeo days when holding on for dear life and feeling that rush of adrenaline run through his veins seemed the only high.

Now his charge comes from his closeness with the Earth and art.

This newfound peace with his life is something he said he thinks other artists strive for, too.

Jim Selbe, another local bronze sculptor, says his confidence established through his long career as a contemporary artist allows him to reach for abstract realism instead of an exact reproduction.

Although he said he doesn't bronze many wildlife pieces, the lizard on his wall, the expressionistic horse on a table and the flaming fish on the dresser in his studio reveal something quite different.

He was introduced to lost wax casting early in his artistic career through working with jewelry. And with the assistance of computer graphic designs, Selbe now is able to construct detailed bronze sculptures with the help of his foundry in Paonia.

"(Lost wax casting in bronze) gives a very accurate reproduction," Selbe said.

Selbe said he does most of his work in iron but, as one looks around his studio, it's evident this artist has more talent than just sculpting.

Sculpting for Selbe has been put on hold, he said, because of the demands of his 4-year-old son, though he does continue to delve into work commissioned by lovers of bronze.

Zabel said he has gained most of his clients through word of mouth.The rough pieces of molded clay sitting in Zabel's studio weren't quite ready for a mold maker or a bronze filling yet but his procedure is consistent and well thought out.

The process

Lost wax casting can reproduce a fingerprint and nowadays it is the most widely used way to construct bronze sculptures.

The days of sand casting are obsolete to bronze sculpting leaders of the world because it involves two-dimensional work without exact detail.

Even though technology has moved the bronze sculpting process forward, it still takes time and patience.

Selbe said the original mold can take about two to three months to form and the entire process may take years, depending on how dedicated an artist is to his piece.

Bronze castings have been around for about 10,000 years and have evolved over time from sand to now lost wax, Selbe said.

When a sculptor has an idea, drawings and photographs of the image is transferred into a clay, wood, wax or marble mold built on a stand.

A latex or rubber imprint of the mold is created to fit over the form with plaster poured over it. Zabel said a raw hemp paper is laid under the plaster marking various seams of the sculpture as a design outline. The plaster follows these seams.

When the plaster sets and dries it is pulled off the original mold to then be connected following the seams.

Hot wax is poured inside the plaster and silicone-lined latex over and over again and then poured out to get a detailed imprint of the sculpture.

The final wax piece, which for a large sculpture usually is hollow, is placed back together and is taken to the foundry.

Enamel is coated on the outer form and heated in order to melt all the wax out, leaving an epoxy crust on the outside.

The bronze is liquefied at about 1,500 to 1,600 degrees and poured into the heat resistant outer layer, Selbe said. The act of pouring the molten bronze into the mold is called casting. Once the sculpture has cooled, the ceramic shell is removed and more chasing will clean up various imperfections.

The second to the last step in this lengthy process involves welding pieces together that could not remained attached during the bronzing process.

Many of these items include legs, arms or people on horseback, for instance.

The art of patina is the final process in bronze sculpting. Patina is the end result of adding chemicals to the mixture of metal that make up a bronze sculpture.

Heat and chemicals can speed up that aging process in order for sculptures to take on a different look.

Patina will give bronze an aged look that greenish hue that usually accents a bronze statue after it has sat out in the elements for years.

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