LANDER — Beverly Paddleford carved the clay veil of a towering Virgin Mary statue. The sculptor’s small metal loop tool scraped off small clumps of the clay, which she collected in her hand.
Soon, it would be ready to cast at Eagle Bronze, the family foundry she co-founded with her husband, Monte.
A couple dozen artisans worked in the Lander foundry to turn hundreds of artists’ clay sculptures into bronze or steel pieces.
Some are small, like the golden microphones the foundry casts each year for awards at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Others are large outdoor monuments, like a 27-foot horse currently standing in the shop by Arturo Di Modica – who gained his fame for the iconic bull sculpture on Wall Street in New York City.
Eagle Bronze is one of the largest monument-producing foundries in the country, foundry manager Ed Hooper said. Local artists as well as the internationally-known cast their work at the foundry before the sculptures are placed around the world.
But it didn’t start off that way. The Paddleford’s started a small foundry in 1985 to cast sculptures by Beverly’s father, artist Bud Boller. Their daughter and son-in-law have since joined and helped expand the business into an art marketing group with services including helping artists find and place projects.
“We thought we would never have more than just a handful of employees,” Paddleford said. “It’s a very difficult kind of business and requires a lot of hard work and commitment and integrity.”
Clay to bronze
Paddleford’s Mary sculpture is bound for a church in Coronado, California. But before it makes the trip, it will be transformed from clay into a bronze that can withstand outdoor elements.
Workers throughout the foundry worked on sculptures in a variety of stages, from molding artists’ clay pieces to the final coating of their bronze surfaces.
“We’re on the manufacturing side of the art world,” foundry manager Ed Hooper said. He’s worked every step in the process since he started working at the foundry 17 years ago, and has managed the shop for about the last decade.
The casting begins with an artist’s original clay sculpture. Then workers at the foundry begin making the mold around it. First they paint the clay with layers of silicone then surround it with a plaster mold.
An employee worked on several pieces in the mold room, including two by University of Boise art professor Ben Victor, who’s also the only living artist to have two pieces in the national sculpture hall in Washington, D.C., Hooper said.
In the wax pouring room, another worker slowly poured molten wax inside the molds. After the mold is removed, the workers are left with a wax replica of the sculpture.
Artisans called wax chasers then set to work with sculpting tools to remove the seam lines from the mold, patch any holes and sometimes attach parts so the piece looks as close as possible to the original clay work, Hooper said.
Then the wax pieces move to another room where workers dip them in a rotating tank of white colloidal silica slurry, followed by coat of fine sand. That process must be repeated nine to 13 times to build the material into a shell that can withstand molten metal. It’s a long process — the pieces have to dry for at least 2.5 hours between dips.
Next, the shells are moved to the furnace room and heated to about 1,300 degrees for about 45 minutes to create the hard ceramic shell that can withstand molten metal.
Meanwhile, crew members tend to the molten bronze or steel that will create the final version of the pieces. The metal is heated to about 2,100 degrees and poured into the ceramic shells.
The shells crack as they cool, emitting a sharp popping noise. A crew member hammers off the shell to reveal the metal sculpture inside.
Then the pieces are sandblasted clean and finished in the patina room, where any colors the artist chooses are applied before a final layer of sealant.
In the monument room, where workers assemble larger sculptures, workers prepared a moose statue bound for Minnesota. The 27-foot horse rose above them, still in its clay stage and yet to be molded.
Monuments are created the same as smaller pieces, but molded and cast in sections to then welded together as one piece.
“Every single part is critical to the end product,” Paddleford said.
The largest monument produced by the foundry is the 37-foot-tall “The Equestrian” in El Paso, Texas. The piece by John Houser is the world’s largest equestrian statue, or at least was in 2006. Hooper hasn’t heard of one larger since, he said.
Another one of the larger projects out of the foundry features a full herd of bronze cattle representing a cattle drive going into Texas, Hooper said. The artist sculpted 10 original cattle, and the foundry crews adjusted details and positions so the 70-plus individual animals look different, Hooper said. The work now decorates the Pioneer Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
Other notable pieces out of the foundry include dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
A 6-foot-tall Airedale dog statue sat in a crate, ready for shipment to a new dog food plant in Nebraska.
Although much of the foundry’s work is from elsewhere, Wyoming artists also use the foundry. A sculpture of a grandfather and grandson hunting together, titled “Memories,” by Wyoming artist Vic Payne was cast at the foundry and stands at a Cabella’s in Buda, Texas. A smaller version is on display in the foundry’s gallery that greets visitors at the front door.
Many pieces from the foundry can be found around Lander, including a veteran’s memorial depicting a World War II soldier. The face is that of Chance Phelps, a Wyoming U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004. The Marine’s father, John Phelps, started sculpting the piece before his son was deployed, and it stands outside the town’s courthouse, Hooper said. Successful local artists, like Ben Foster and Sandy Scott, also use the facility.
Paddleford herself started sculpting about 20 years ago.
“I just always felt like I could do it,” she said. “But I was working on everybody else’s work, and finally I had an opportunity to try it myself.”
Now more than 50 of her monuments stand around the world. She focuses on Christian art, and has done some wildlife as well, she said.
She’s enjoyed seeing the family foundry grow for more than three decades and connecting with countless people through the artwork cast in the Wyoming town.
“It’s been hard work, but the rewards have been great — to see work that we’ve cast all over the county and across oceans,” she said.