Workcontinues while fundraising heats up for Vigil sculpture

Published on Thu, Mar 9, 2006 by Jack Kintner

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Work continues while fundraising heats up for Vigil sculpture

By Jack Kintner

Blaine’s Pacific Arts Association hopes to install the Bob McDermott sculpture known as the Vigil next September on the plaza at the H Street end of the boardwalk. While fundraising continues, McDermott is overseeing the complex process that will produce a 1,200-pound life size bronze version of his original 23-inch clay statue of three people waiting on shore for fishermen to return to port.

The sculpture will be enlarged and then cast in bronze using a lost wax process that takes both time and travel. “We put a little over 4,300 miles on the car going to Los Angeles just to get the original enlarged,” said McDermott’s wife Joan, “with a side trip to a gallery Bob wanted to see in Phoenix.”

The actual sculpting and casting process is expensive, prompting sculptors like McDermott to refine their original ideas before working the clay even if it takes years. In this case he noticed some years ago that none of the fishermen’s memorials he’d seen say anything about the families left behind. It gave him some ideas, and he considered several variations before settling on the basic plan for the Vigil.

“At first I had more people in it but decided it would be too big, so I ended up with a small boy of five or six and two women, one who could be his mother and another who could be his grandmother, although not necessarily. In my drawings the boy was too short for people to see all three faces at once, so he got older and taller. That made him too old for a toy boat so we went with a small dog. You have to have something that’s believable,” McDermott said.

It’s said people occasionally are seen talking to one of McDermott’s earlier bronze creations, the statue of Dirty Dan Harris in Fairhaven that was erected in 2003. “That’s right,” McDermott laughed, “but the trick isn’t to be accurate so much as it is to be believable. For example, there are visible tool marks on that sculpture, but I found that if you take them away then the work is more perfect but less alive, less believable. I think it has something to do with suggesting something that involves people’s imagination being more effective than something that’s clinically accurate but leaves no room for the viewer to imagine.”

McDermott said that for a piece to work it takes collaboration between the artist and the viewer. “It depends on the artist’s vision, the work itself and whether or not people relate to it,” he said, “because people look at these things out of their entire life history. Hopefully, this will effectively show a moment that was shared by many people in the past, when Blaine’s fishing fleet was large and active. It’s also a reminder of those moments of separation and anticipation we all experience.”

When he had the configuration he wanted for this latest project, McDermott looked for models. He found Blaine native Jan Hrutfiord while making a presentation at a local Icelandic function, and Blaine sixth grader Andrew Dahl at the local Summer-Aire art show last July. For the dog McDermott borrowed Barbara Schugt’s small dog named Harmonies.

Wendy Dahl, Andrew’s mother, told him recently that because of the statue a part of him would always be 11. There are ancient bronze artifacts thousands of years old that were made by essentially the same lost wax process that McDermott is using, so the Vigil promises to be around for a very long time.

McDermott said his approach in sculpting the figures is to go from the inside out, to “put muscles on the bones, cover that with the skin, then put on the clothes.” The original version, called a maquette, French for model, was taken to Daniel’s Enlarging in Los Angeles, a place that specializes in making digital foam replicas and enlargements based on laser generated measurements.

“That saved time,” McDermott said, “over the traditional enlarging process based on making countless measurements by hand.” The laser measurements are made in a three-dimensional grid, scaled up to life-size and carved into several styrofoam blocks by a computer-guided machine. McDermott brought the blocks back to Blaine to re-assemble and cover with clay into which he’ll sculpt the life-sized version himself for a second time, minus the heads and hands. For greater accuracy he sculpted the heads and hands separately over the past several months and has already made the wax copies. He will also add such details as buttons and shoelaces at that time.

The finished life-size version, along with the unattached heads and hands, then goes to a foundry in Tacoma for casting. The main part of the sculpture is covered with a liquid silicone rubber that hardens in place, and that is in turn covered with a plaster support shell. The mold is cut into 25 to 30 sections in such a way that they can be easily removed from the clay sculpture when dry and will yield an individual piece of the sculpture that will be less than two feet square for ease in handling. Each of the pieces will be dealt with separately from this point on until the final assembly when the bronze pieces are welded together.
Molten wax is then poured into the molds or painted into the flatter pieces in a process that McDermott says is, “done like a lot of these steps, by one guy who’s been doing it over and over for years.” The technician, called an artisan, pours wax into the mold and then empties it out over and over again, each succeeding time cooling the wax slightly so it will adhere to the previous layer, until he builds up about a quarter inch thickness.

The wax is allowed to cool to room temperature and solidify, and when the support shell and rubber mold are peeled away what’s left is a solid wax replica of the original. This is the point that has been reached with the heads and hands.

The next step is called “chasing” the wax in which imperfections from the wax molding process are sculpted out of the replica so it resembles as closely as possible what the artist intended, although this part is also done by a skilled artisan and not the artist himself.

Each piece is fitted with a system of wax bars and a funnel shaped addition called “sprues and gates” that will become channels for the molten bronze to flow through the casting.

In one of the high-tech innovations in casting the Vigil, the foundry will make the casting, or ceramic shell, by dipping each wax piece repeatedly into a mixture of silica, maintained in a colloidal suspension in constantly rotating drums large enough to receive each piece.

When each piece is covered with a sufficiently thick layer of silica, it’s allowed to dry at least 24 hours before being heated to 1,500 degrees, a process in which the wax is “lost,” or melts away, leaving a ceramic shell of the original that is the same thickness of the wax replica.

Ingots of bronze casting alloy (95 percent copper, four percent silicon and one percent manganese) are then heated to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the shell is also heated until it glows orange. The bronze is poured into the shell, filling the void left behind by the “lost wax,” which is where the process gets its name.

The lost wax method has been used for thousands of years, but the recent introduction of silica-based casting in place of plaster has eliminated the problem of the bronze leaving voids in some of the smaller spaces, as unlike plaster the silica, or ceramic, is not air-tight. Bronze also, like water, expands slightly when it freezes, helping to get the metal well seated in the casting.

When the casting and the metal have cooled, the glass-like casting is removed by simply hitting it with a hammer. The bronze pieces are then welded together using a tungsten inert gas process that uses a welding rod made out of silicon bronze, the same material used for the casting. The statue is finished by a re-sculpting process in which the beads between each piece left by the welding are tooled to match the surrounding area and, in effect, disappear.

Internal stainless steel reinforcement is installed during the welding process. Stainless steel rods will protrude from the feet and eventually anchor the sculpture in a solid cement base that will be a part of the 10 by 14-foot two step pedestal that will be an integral part of the H Street boardwalk plaza. Support is being raised by selling individual bricks at $50 to paving stones for $10,000 that will be set into the plaza itself.

For more information, go to and follow the links to the Vigil sculpture.