There are so many life lessons in art, and I’ve found particularly in my four sessions of metalwork summer camp over the past years that the metaphors are rich. In this one, I see the red wax leaf as who I was before Rader died.
Scroll through the photos below to see my process, start to finish.
The wax is hard, unyielding, a red cylinder a little larger in diameter than a crayon. I break off a piece and begin to work it. Slowly it warms to my touch and I can bend it in two. I start to flatten it out in my fingers until I have an oval about the size of the pad of my thumb. There's a valley down the center where the edges I folded together don't quite join. It reminds me of the vein in the middle of a leaf. I take the scissors and trim just a bit from the edges, encouraging it into a leafy shape. Then I roll the scrap pieces carefully, like when I was a child making a snake from clay. The snake becomes the leaf's central vein, and then the veins forking off from it. I heat my metal instrument in the flame of the alcohol lamp and use it to seal the veins to the leaf, a wax-weld. I use the heated instrument to score gentle valleys in between the veins, turn the leaf over and mark the back in the same way. I twist and bend the leaf to give it more dimension, more life. My wax sculpture is complete.
After fixing my sculpture by a wax "sprue" onto the flexible end cap of an open-ended metal flask, I fit the flask down over it. Then I fill the cylinder with a liquid plaster-type substance called investment. The investment hardens around my sculpture, and I'm ready for the first wave of destruction. The end cap is removed, revealing the button of wax sprue that held my sculpture in place inside the flask. The flask goes, button side down, into the kiln, where with heat and time, my leaf sculpture melts, and the wax runs out and burns away. Lost. Where my wax leaf once was is now a negative space inside the investment.
The next stage of creation begins, as much primal creation does, with fire. Bits of metal—pewter, for this first leaf I've made—melt in a crucible under the relentless flame of my torch. Once it's molten, I pour the metal, still firing it with the torch, into the funnel-shaped hole the end cap and sprue made in the investment. When it fills up, I extinguish the torch, remove my protective goggles, and watch the metal begin to cool.
And now the final destruction. This kind of lost wax casting is not for the sentimental. To get to my piece, I must demolish the mold. The investment, which held up so solidly under the blazing heat of the kiln and the glowing liquid metal, begins to dissolve when I quench the flask in a bucket of water. With my fingers and an old kitchen knife, I dig away at the softening investment until my piece detaches from the flask and falls with a chunking sound to the bottom of the bucket. I feel around for it in the cloudy warm water, find it, and bring it to the surface.
The wax is gone. The mold is gone. Those two iterations of my idea are utterly destroyed. But my creation has survived both fire and flood. I hold the leaf in my hand.