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Volume 24, Number 5 — May 2017

Bronze Sculpture: Creating the Faery Fountain 'Midsummer Play'

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This "maquette" a three-dimensional miniature, was approved before work began.
Additional photos below »

By ANGELA WAMPLER | July 29, 2008

*** Story & Photo Essay by Angela Wampler and Hank Daniel with additional photos courtesy of Barter Theatre, Charles Vess and David Spence. ***

Like setting up a chess game, the figures for a fantastical fairy fountain are being added to the entry for Barter Theatre's Stonewall Square in Abingdon, Va.

About two years ago, the artists, David Spence and Charles Vess, began the long process that is leading to the finished bronzes.

The centerpiece is a 16-foot-tall statue of Titania, the Faery Queen from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream." At press time, her final bronze form was incomplete.

A structure of steel pipe, copper tubing and wire mesh was used to articulate her skeleton. With Plasticine, a modeling clay, she began taking shape, but not without problems.

Vess says, "We were, perhaps, a little more than a week away from completion when the faeries began to laugh at us mere mortals. I was working below the face and heard a series of small cracks. I looked up and Queen Titania slowly leaned forward, bending over as if to kiss me perhaps? But that's 300 or so pounds of clay we're talking about. A central steel pipe had snapped and down she came, to rest gently on scaffolding that I quickly swung under her form."

The clay was stripped off, and a new, and much sturdier structure of steel rebar was welded into place before the artists started over again. Vess recalls that another idea later "became both a blessing and a curse."

Spence decided rather than cut granite being used for the various boulders around the structure that they would use real boulders and make casts of those, to later be poured in bronze. Spence and an assistant covered real stones with rubber molds from which wax forms were poured. Once in the wax, the shapes were adjusted to suit the artists' needs, then cast in bronze.

In the studio, both David Spence and Charles Vess worked on the animals that will surround the faery queen, first molding their forms in clay. Vess says, "He would work on one end, while I worked on the other. When either of us ran into a dead end of 'this doesn't look quite right,' we would shift around, and a fresh eye and hand would take over. Oh, the conversations that we had...Slowly the figures would emerge from the plasticine clay."

For reference, Vess recalls, the studio was blanketed in downloaded printouts, most of them found during long sessions on Google image searches of the animals they needed. "A hare, for instance, is quite different in form than the more common bunny rabbit," Vess notes.

Puck's clay figure was cut into several sections, which were painted with many layers of rubber mold solution, from which a wax replica was poured. Any adjustments that were needed were executed in that malleable wax. The wax replica was dipped multiple times into ceramic material to form a hard mold. The wax was burned out and, later, bronze poured into the mold.

Various sections of the intended piece are welded back together. After weld marks are ground down and smoothed out, the reassembled figure is painted with layers of patina (liquid acids that produce various colors on the surface of the bronze).

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Framework is covered with a modeling clay, then coated with latex and plastic. Each section will become a mold for bronzing, then re-assembled by welding


Titania's metal "hands" are part of the steel reinforcing bars necessary to support the projecting areas and to keep the clay from collapsing under its own weight. Shown right is sculptor Charles Vess.


Shown is sculptor David Spence.


Titania looks like her make-up is dripping.


Karen Lewis applies the final coats of latex to Titiania's clay face.


Titania's arms are cut off with an electric saw, then carefully removed.


This is the inside of the latex mold of Titania's face.


Karen Lewis holds a mold for Titania's left leg. The red rods are wax "sprue" to keep the mold from collapsing during production.


After brushing several coats of hot wax onto the latex mold, the dark wax is peeled off.


Liquid ceramic is poured onto a wax mold.


The mold is coated with a ceramic dust that will harden for about 10 hours. This process will be repeated until the ceramic coating is thick and hard enough 2000-degree molten bronze.


Charles Vess feeds pieces of bronze into the melting furnace.


David Spence and Charles Vess wear protective gear as they take the red-hot crucible from the melting furnace, carry it into the foundry building, and pour molten bronze into ceramic molds, forming small parts that will be welded together to become fairies, leaves, and other pieces of the finished sculpture. As the metal cools, the ceramic molds will crack and be broken off, bronze shapes.


David Spence inspects the welding on the tree trunk upon which Titania will stand in the center of the faery fountain. Welding allows a large sculpture to be cast in pieces, then joined. Like wax chasing (cleaning), bronze must also be chased to correct slight imperfections that may result from the casting or shell building process. On larger sculptures, where assembly of cast sections is required, chasing is essential to reduce or remove weld lines.


A hare and a turtle are already cast in bronze and are in place at the site of the faery fountain.


A pair of foxes cast in bronze are also in place at the fountain.


Above is the grinning trickster Puck, one of the first pieces cast in bronze and installed at the site of the faery fountain. He is holding a comedy mask. Titiana, the faery queen, will be holding a tragedy mask.