UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

Sparking creativity at the UNCG foundry

This year will be Jon Smith’s 20th year managing the UNCG sculpture foundry. Every week, he guides undergraduate and graduate students as they cut and weld steel, pour molten bronze and aluminum and build 25-foot creations by hand.

Sixty to 70 students use the sculpture area each semester, working with equipment like a 10,000 pound capacity bridge crane, a scissor lift, plasma cutters, a robotic track cutter, a magnetic drill, industrial sanders, grinders and polishers, a hydraulic sheet metal shear, a forklift, stone carving equipment, gas forges, anvils, bandsaws and a gas furnace that casts up to 660 pounds of bronze in one pour. And those are just some highlights.

Smith came to UNCG as an art student in 1992. As an undergraduate, he participated in regional sculpture shows and won the Student Excellence Award. He earned his BFA degree in 1995, and in 1998, returned to UNCG as a sculpture tech assistant at the foundry. He soon enrolled in the MFA program, to work on his own sculptures and to increase his knowledge of casting in order to help sculpture students. He continued managing the foundry throughout his graduate program and up to the present day, and also teaches metal sculpture and metal casting.

Experimentation is key at the foundry, and it’s a place where students gain hands-on experience in a creative and noncompetitive environment.

“The energy’s contagious,” Smith said. “If we get a few people who are producing something, it provides an example for all the other students. They know about all the equipment and materials, but actually seeing someone build something ignites an energy.”

Smith supports that energy by helping students gain the skills they need—whether it’s operating an intimidating machine like a 155 pound air hammer or chainsaw, or using simple tools like hammers and drills. He sees a resurgence in making, with more makerspaces popping up in cities and in the popularity of handmade goods websites like Etsy.

At the same time, university sculpture foundries have been decreasing, because of the care required to maintain and operate them. As Smith points out, and as the Chronicle of Higher Education has found, hands-on experience in welding and casting at a university foundry is becoming rare. The skills students develop in foundries like UNCG’s can help them become sculptors, but can also help them establishing lucrative careers in metalworking, and various types of fabrication or art production.

“Some students come into the class afraid of fire or sparks, but some of those are the ones who get really into it,” said Smith. “They make something out of metal that’s solid and strong, and they never thought they could do something like that.”

One foundry alumna, Taylor Browning, operates Smart Department Fabrication in Brooklyn, N.Y., creating large-scale custom furniture, lighting and decor for restaurants, museums, retail spaces and outdoor spaces. Browning also produces sculptures and has mounted one in Franconia Park in Shafer, Minn.

Two others, Casey and Emily Lewis, established Beechwood Metalworks in Burlington, N.C. They provide sculptures for hospitals, museums, parks and other public places throughout the United States and internationally.

Another foundry alumna, Ivana Beck, produced an award-winning sculpture which was featured in the October 2016 issue of Sculpture Magazine and included in the fall/winter exhibition at the Grounds for Sculpture Park in Hamilton, N.J.

Professor of Sculpture Billy Lee reflected on Smith’s generosity and expertise in guiding students who develop their skills in the UNCG foundry.

“He’s one of those individuals who can fix most things,” he said. “And if he doesn’t know how, he has the initiative and ability to find out and get the job done. The sculpture area would not be able to function the way it does without Jon. He’s not only a dependable, responsible and reliable technician, but also an excellent artist. ”

By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photography by Susan Kirby-Smith