Sculptor practices ancient casting method

Piers Watson can find a lot of what he needs for his sculptures by walking through the forest, or on the sides of riverbanks.

After all, that’s how they did it in the 10th century.

For the better part of the past decade, Watson has been working to perfect his method of luted crucible casting, a centuries-old technique that can be seen today as a natural and minimalist way to cast metal forms.

Or, as Watson would call it, the “recycling of recycling of recycling.”

Watson, who has written the only book entirely devoted to the subject of luted crucible casting, was first introduced to it in India in 2008. There, in its rural regions, as well as in West Africa, it is still somewhat widely practiced, away from modern art techniques.

“At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual it is,” Watson said.

He returned to his home in France, where he struggled with the technique for four years. After returning to India and honing his skills, he has delved into it wholeheartedly and consistently. He has since written his book and held demonstrations on the art form, including a workshop Sunday at the Museum of International Folk Art.

The technique’s name refers to “luting” – connecting or sealing – two parts together. On one side of the connection, there’s a mold where clay is layered around a beeswax model of the desired object, and on the other side there’s a clay crucible containing metal.

Luted crucible casting goes back thousands of years and is still practiced in parts of India and Africa. (Courtesy of Piers Watson)
Luted crucible casting goes back thousands of years and is still practiced in parts of India and Africa. (Courtesy of Piers Watson)

Alloys for the casting can be made from various mixtures, including a combination of copper and tin to make bronze. When the connected form is baked in a furnace, the liquid bronze from one side funnels into the shaped cavity left by the burned-off wax. There’s no pouring of liquid metal into a separate mold and a single furnace or fire is used, instead of having to heat the mold and metal separately.

One of the traits of luted crucible casting that draws Watson is the artist’s ability to control the entire process. It allows for more flexibility than modern methods, and it’s more intimate.

“It brings people back to the origins of things, back to the more human side of creating,” he said.

Watson says he mostly creates smaller objects, such as bells and pieces of jewelry.

Luted crucible casting calls for using substances that nature can provide: the beeswax for models and clay mixed with rice husks, for example.

As for the metal used in the pieces, Watson said that, years and years ago, when the process was widespread, artists would use whatever random scraps of metal they could find.

It isn’t unusual for Watson to break apart pieces he’s made and use the same metal for new projects. “You can’t really tell what’s what. Once you’ve smashed it up and remelted it, you have no idea where it came from,” he said.

All in the spirit of recycling.

Watson said he’s created pieces numbering in the hundreds.

The caster has also been enriched by his interactions with people who supply some of his materials.

“I have a really great relationship with the guy that I buy beeswax from. He’s just a super guy. There’s guys that I get firewood from, and they’re just really sweet people,” he said. “By not doing something that’s totally commercial, you have more human contact because the process is more raw.”

Watson’s visit to the Folk Art museum will include a lecture and presentation on how the process works.

The event is part of the museum’s “Sacred Realm: Blessings and Good Fortune Across Asia” exhibit, which features pieces made using luted crucible casting. The exhibit uses the museum’s Asian collection to explore such beliefs as magical protection, blessings and good fortune

Watson plans on integrating some of the luted crucible pieces into his presentation, to contextualize them as being as rare and unique as the process used to create them.

“It’s not just looking at it from a theological point of view,” he said. “It’s looking at it from a historical point of view to try and get a sense of what these images come from, why they’re made and what they mean.”

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