Palmer sculptor heats up the art scene

Pat Garley in his Palmer studio. Photo: Ellen Lockyer, KSKA-Anchorage
Pat Garley in his Palmer studio. Photo: Ellen Lockyer, KSKA-Anchorage

The technique of bronze casting has been around for thousands of years, but more recently it’s found a foothold in Alaska.  At  Arctic Fires Bronze Sculptureworks in Palmer, a blast of 2000 degree heat from a furnace warms up the studio where Pat Garley melts down  bronze and iron  in the process of creating art.  Garley, a former contractor, has switched to art for his livelihood, and he is now populating Alaska buildings and parks with his metal designs.

The studio is a cavernous warehouse behind a tiny frame cottage on a rural Palmer street. Garley, wearing a beard, Carhartts and heavy workboots, looks like a typical Alaskan, except for the diamond in his earlobe. He’s leaning close … too close, I think…to a sturdy furnace on the floor, which is blasting enough heat to melt metal. That’s exactly what he’s intending to do.

Listen now:

“.. what I am doing, is I am loading in bronze into the furnace while it’s running. As it melts down and makes room, I continue to add bronze. But what I have to do is I have to pre-heat it all before I drop it into the crucible. You cannot drop cold metal into a hot crucible.”

“What happens if you do?” I ask.

“Well, if it has any moisture on it, and it gets below the surface of the metal, you get a steam explosion. That’s bad”

“That’s dangerous. You are not wearing a mask.”

“No, because I am being careful.”

He’s melting down pieces of a griffin design that didn’t work out. It’s the ultimate recycle..there’s no waste here, as bits of a bronze wing disappear into a crucible set into the searing red glow inside the furnace. He says when the crucible is full, he’ll let the molten metal cook for a while longer.

“Then we are going to wait until that metal gets up to a temperature of 2,100 degrees.”

“What is it now, do you know?”

“Right now it’s probably 1500. Around 1800, the bronze starts to melt.”

Garley is using an ancient technique known as the “Lost Wax Process”. He says it’s a method of casting bronze (has not) *that hasn’t* changed much since 3500 BC.

“If somebody came today, from that time, and saw what I was doing, they would know what I was doing.”

Garley with an in-progress Joe Redington statue. Photo: Ellen Lockyer, KSKA-Anchorage
Garley with an in-progress Joe Redington statue. Photo: Ellen Lockyer, KSKA-Anchorage

The ancients didn’t have the advantage of a natural gas powered furnace, though.

“They did it with charcoal, and bellows. Lots of labor. The way I do it is still a lot of labor.”

Garley’s two story warehouse looks like something out of a homesteaders’ dream.. shelves cluttered with old but usable items, bicycles, truck tires, hoses, tools of all kinds line three walls. The fourth side is all about bronze casting, dominated by primitive wax models, and silicon and rubber molds that litter a long table.
And the studio doubles as a regular meeting place for area artists.

Garley says blacksmiths meet here, and the studio is a place for bronze casting classes.  He even has a kiln for ceramics artists to use.

Nan Potts and Justin Spurlin drop by. Nan has a small iron sculpture she’s working on which will eventually become a sled dog.

Justin brings a life-like clay bust he’ll eventually cast in bronze.

“Yeah, I’m just finishing up the clay original right now. And then once I get that done, it will go to the molding process.”

” And it’s a 3D full bust.”  Garley adds.

“What do you mean, 3D?”

“Full round”

” Oh yeah, 3D”

In the bronze casting process, a wax duplicate of a design is made first, then a ceramic shell is molded around the wax. The hard mold is fired in a kiln, the wax melts out through vents installed in the mold, leaving behind a hollow cavity …a sort of inside – out duplicate of the original design, called a negative.

Justin’s bust is awaiting a little more work to make it even more lifelike. In clay, it shows minute details of hair and skin and facial expression.

“You can see the hair and the eyebrows. You can see the wave in the guy’s hair, you can see the crow’s feet around his eyes and his mouth. How do you get those tiny details in?” I ask.

“Well, all that is up to the artist to put them in. This is Justin’s bust, but all those details, to get them into bronze, you got to put them into the original. And then what we do.. the whole goal in bronze is to capture all those details through this process and reproduce it in bronze.”

Garley’s Sculptureworks is the only foundry in Alaska, and that’s a benefit for other sculptors, who are spared the big expense of shipping to foundries outside to have their work cast in metal.

Garley’s own designs can be seen at the Palmer museum and at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. He’ll next tackle a commission from the Mat Su Borough.. a life size image of Joe Redington. The Redington bronze will be an addition to the Borough’s newest school when it is finished.

Pat Garley  is one of the recipients of the 2016 Governor’s Award For the Arts and Humanities. He will receive the governor’s honor on January 28 in Juneau.