SCRANTON — A column of blue smoke rose from a roaring 6-foot flame Saturday afternoon as iron workers from around the world fed rusty brake rotors and fuel into a towering furnace at Scranton’s Iron Furnaces.
Saturday marked the sixth and final day of the eighth annual International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art, which included lectures, workshops, panel discussions, demonstrations and exhibitions. The conference’s events were slated to culminate Saturday night with a performance art wedding between two artists.
A hush fell over the Iron Furnaces as the roaring flames died down and leather-clad workers scrambled to fill a large container, or ladle, with half a ton of molten iron before carefully filling molds designed by participating artists.
“It can get primal because you’re trying to control this material that’s going to outlive you, and you’ve got it at such a vulnerable state where you can manipulate it,” said Michael “Bones” Bonadio, one of the iron workers participating in Saturday’s pours.
ICCCIA President and Co-chairman Vaughn Randall worked with Paige Henry and Matt Wicker to build the large furnace, known as a cupola, for the international conference. Nicknamed “Gomer,” the 10-foot-tall furnace reaches temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees and can hold about a ton of iron, Randall said.
“The ICCCIA has preserved the knowledge of how to run these furnaces,” he said. “If we hadn’t started this organization … back in the ’80s, then (almost) all knowledge of how to run this type of furnace would be gone in America.”
Cupolas aren’t commonly used in industry anymore, he said.
“It preserves the history of the technique, and it really is just a good way to learn,” he said.
Randall started working with iron in 1989 and has attended six ICCCIAs.
“Partly it’s a place to exchange ideas and about methodology, but it’s also about the art,” Randall said. “I see new art and learn to broaden my horizons within it.”
Sculptor and lecturer Hui Fang made the trip from Shenzhen, China, to Scranton to attend the conference.
“I met many, many artists from (around) the world,” he said. “It’s great. It’s wonderful.”
Fang enjoyed the conference so much that he bought 20 T-shirts to send to his sculptor friends in China, and he hopes to one day invite his fellow artists to China.
This year was Bonadio’s first international conference. Bonadio, who came from Massachusetts for the event, first got started working with iron in 2001. Participating in a large pour means iron workers “have to be a team,” he said.
“You all are sweating your butts off, and you all have to work to the same common goal,” he said. “Even at the end of it, you even have each other’s backs.”
Like Bonadio, fellow iron worker Tanner Hoffman of Grand Junction, Colorado, was attending his first international conference this week.
“These are something else,” he said.
Working with so many other artists from around the world is “like a brotherhood,” he said.
“It’s this camaraderie because we’re all unified about what we do,” he said. “It’s an extreme art form, so it’s mostly about talking to people, getting to know people, know their process and what they do. It’s gaining new knowledge about how things work.”
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