“Iron Bridging Art + Technology: Past, Present + Future” The 5th International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art

Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, Telford, U.K., April 5–9, 2006

From the speculative and visionary to the practical and applied, artists today use a wide variety of processes in their work. Cast iron embraces all of these diverse approaches to the practice of contemporary sculpture. Iron has a unique natural depth and beauty and is one of the oldest elements in the universe, created by nuclear fusion inside first-generation stars about 15 billion years ago. Meteoric iron was first discovered on earth around 1,000 BCE, well before it was generally known that the earth’s core itself consisted of iron. In addition, iron has a rich industrial history as the plastic of the Victorian age.

Contemporary artists working with iron use it as a sculptural vehicle for the imagination, drawing on its innate material properties and rich historical allusions. Some respond to its transient liquid state, others to its weight and permanence: like wood, iron can be experienced as a living material as it breaths, oxidizes, and grows. At the same time, it is a commonplace feature of regulation manhole covers and postboxes; it can be raw and elemental, raised from the earth’s depths by volcanoes and embedded in meteorites; or it can be elaborately ornamental, tracing the balconies of New Orleans, the spans of great bridges, and the decorative functionality of Victorian potbelly stoves.

Iron has bridged art and technology throughout the ages, serving growth and development as well as cultural creativity. Contemporary artists continue to use it as a means of developing technologies that express and respond to current issues. Within the field of contemporary cast iron art, artists are, on the one hand, experimenting with the use of computer technology to create and alter forms and, on the other hand, building their own backyard foundries using readily available materials such as garbage cans to melt iron. The artist as caster also taps into the advantages of collaboration, forming a bridge between individual creative output and collective production, which in turn has resulted in a unique approach to collaborative public art projects and has created an energetic dialogue about the casting process as art in itself.

The objective of the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art is to focus attention on the growing interest in and use of cast iron in contemporary sculpture. It provides a platform for artists and industry to exchange ideas, debate aesthetics, and share and experience new experimental processes and technical developments. The conference encourages artists to learn and experiment with this relatively new language within a focused environment of critical dialogue with peers from across the world.

Iron casting made its debut in the academic environment in the early 1960s, inaugurated by Julius Schmidt who was teaching at Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Detroit. He began searching local commercial foundries for technical support, and through cooperation with industry he learned how to build and operate a furnace suitable for the needs of a sculptor. The idea behind the conference was conceived by Professors Wayne Potratz, University of Minnesota; Tom Gipe, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville; Cliff Prokop, Keystone College, La Plume, Pennsylvania; Meredith (Butch) Jack, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas; and Jim Schwarz, Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota at the University of Minnesota’s Annual Iron Pour, which has been running for over 36 years now. Since its founding, the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art has taken place every four years.

The first two International Conferences on Contemporary Cast Iron Art were held in 1988 (chaired by Wayne Potratz and Tom Gipe) and 1992 (chaired by David Hartman) at The Sloss Furnaces National Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama. The third and fourth conferences took place at Johnson Atelier, with exhibitions at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, in 1998 (chaired by Ken Payne and Diane Cox) and 2002 (chaired by Mary Neubauer and Butch Jack). The conferences sites have influenced their themes, from the history and aesthetic possibilities of the medium to the creative practice of contemporary artists. The portability of a conference with a changing venue allows for diversity of audience, location, facility, and exhibition spaces. In 2006, for the first time in its history, the conference will be held outside of the U.S. The move to England promises to add to the unique quality of all of the conferences, providing participants with a truly international opportunity to broaden the discourse and practice of contemporary cast iron art.

Chaired by British sculptor, Coral Lambert (based in New Orleans) and Nick Lloyd of Wolverhampton University, U.K., the 5th International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art will be held at the World Heritage site of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale in April 2006. Its theme, “Iron Bridging Art + Technology: Past, Present + Future,” comes full circle, as the art of casting iron returns to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It seems entirely fitting that in a postmodern age, we celebrate this material for its aesthetic possibilities. What Darby, Wilkinson, and others achieved in the Severn Valley in the late 18th century returns as practiced by artists in an information age.
Whenever I have visited Ironbridge it has been easy to see how it has inspired artists through the ages. Once described as “the most extraordinary district in the world,” the Ironbridge Gorge is still a remarkable, and beautiful, place to visit today. A huge amount of early industry survives as furnaces, factories, workshops, canals, and settlements. There are 10 award-winning museums, including the Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture and the Institute of Iron, which offers a wealth of information about the Earth’s most plentiful metal. It is the perfect place to convene.

Ironbridge is also the site of the famous Iron Bridge. The world’s first cast iron bridge still stands today, built over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779. Iron founders and industrial spies as well as artists and travelers have flocked to see this wondrous bridge, giving it a far-reaching impact on local society and the larger economy, on bridge design and on the use of cast iron in building. The story of the bridge’s conservation began in 1784 with reports of cracks in the southern abutments and was brought up to date with the English-Heritage-sponsored work of 1999.

Not only is Ironbridge unique in the world as an Industrial Heritage Site, but it is also home to a well-equipped international conference and exhibition center. The conference will include over 20 panels, four exhibitions, demonstrations, a trade show, hands-on workshops, iron pours, video screenings, tours, and lectures. The conference will open with a special celebration and iron works demonstration at Blists Hill Victorian Town, where one can see the products that set industry on its path and the machines that made them.

We hope that you will gather with us in Ironbridge, April 5–9, 2006 to experience this magical place and the unique discipline of contemporary cast iron art with artists from around the world. —Coral Lambert, Co-Chair, 5th International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art