It was only 10 degrees above zero that recent weekday, but Waterfall Arts program director Martha Piscuskas couldn’t have been happier.
At the Belfast arts center, the current gallery exhibit, “Cast & Found: The Art of Wooden Foundry Patterns, ca. 1900,” has been proving to be a big hit.
On view through Feb. 26 in Clifford Gallery, the exhibit is the first Piscuskas has launched since starting her arts center position in late October.
“It’s been a highly successful show. We’ve had lots of visitors, and we’ve never sold so much work from a show before,” she said, as strains of live violin music welled up from the center’s basement lounge — a rehearsal session of the Belfast Bay Fiddlers.
Piscuskas made a sweeping gesture toward a large display wall in the gallery.
“There are lots of red dots. That whole wall is red dots,” she said, referring to telltale stickers placed next to sold works.
Proceeds from the show will benefit Waterfall Arts and the Belfast Maskers.
The show, which features wooden foundry patterns handcrafted more than a century ago at the Waterville Iron Works Manufacturing Co. in Waterville, opened last month. Since then, about two-thirds of the original, 200 exhibited works have sold. So far, the sale has generated more than $5,000 for the joint fundraiser, Piscuskas said.
And stuff is still moving.
Moreover, the unique, vintage collection that the gallery is drawing upon is sizable. More foundry patterns are on view down the hall from the main display. And at least a hundred more such works are stored in a barn in Belfast.
“We keep adding more to the walls after pieces are sold. It’s a great way to start the new year,” Piscuskas said.
“Cast & Found” marks another gallery first.
“This show has been a departure — our first exhibit of industrial design,” she said.
Artfully arranged, the bold sculptural forms of the dark-wood foundry patterns stand out in stunning contrast to the gallery’s chalk-white walls.
The historic utilitarian objects, when seen as things in themselves, look incredibly modern. Set in the context of the art gallery, the aesthetic virtue of each pattern jumps into sharp focus.
“The pieces remind you of art by Louise Nevelson,” Piscuskas said, of the sculptor who was raised in Rockland and renowned for her abstract, monochromatic, wooden assemblages.
Nonetheless, it is likely that the turn-of-the-last-century workmen who cut and joined stubborn wood to form the complex casting patterns did not have fine art on their minds.
To them, it was all in a day’s dusty work. The solidly made wooden forms they crafted were destined to be embedded in moist casting sand to create a negative image. Molten metal was then poured into the negative form, or mold. When the metal cooled, the sand was broken away to reveal the cast object.
The Waterville foundry manufactured all kinds of industrial parts large and small, many of which were used in the construction of ships, trains and the region’s historic Lombard steam log hauler.
According to historical records, the now-defunct foundry was located at the end of Temple Street, an eighth of a mile from the Two-Cent Bridge. The wire-cable and steel suspension footbridge still spans the Kennebec River.
The Waterville Iron Works was established in 1833; the original plant burned down in 1895 and was rebuilt on the banks of the Kennebec in 1896. By 1900, the plant listed 30 employees, an annual payroll of $17,000 and 25,000 square feet of buildings.
“The woodworkers who made these [patterns] were high-end. Pattern makers were the upper echelon of woodworkers,” Piscuskas said.
“It’s been a popular show with men,” she added, noting that a group of Lombard steam log hauler experts came into the gallery, looking for foundry patterns used to build the ingenious machine. One enthusiast purchased at least a half-dozen such patterns, according to Waterfall Arts founder Alan Crichton of Liberty.
A gallery display of foundrymen’s tools, on loan by Skip Brack of the Davistown Museum of Liberty, helps visitors visualize how such patterns were shaped in wood.
Also on display is an enlarged old photo of men working in a Portland foundry, adding an important visual link to local history.
Pattern making is still a viable process, Piscuskas said. Several wooden patterns made by Belfast boat builders French Webb & Co. also are on display.
The exhibit would have benefitted from more displays of historical information, both written and visual, thus giving the old, Maine-made wooden patterns greater intrinsic value. But intensive statewide research by Piscuskas uncovered scant information, and as yet, no extant photos of the foundry, she said.
To her knowledge, the current exhibit is the first time the Waterville patterns have been shown in a gallery, in Maine or elsewhere. She is glad people are appreciating the pieces in a new way, she said.
Destined for the dump
If it were not for two, dedicated Maine collectors, however, the remarkable works could have been lost forever.
The wooden patterns were rescued from rotting in a Rockport dump by Lilias Outerbridge and her late husband, David Outerbridge, of Belfast.
“About 20 years ago, a group of architects in Rockport had about 10 pieces [wooden casting patterns] on their office walls,” Lilias Outerbridge said. “When the group disbanded, they put them up for sale. That’s when David and I saw them. We bought a piece or two.”
Then, the Outerbridges learned that a whole pile of the casting patterns were being stored in the basement of a Rockport art gallery, destined for the dump.
“It was a shame. All these pieces would not be seen again. They are fantastic. They have historic value and art value,” she said.
Her husband gathered hundreds of patterns of all sizes and shapes and stored them in their barn. Over the years, he had hoped to find someone who would like to buy the whole collection, she said.
“He wasn’t able to do it. We sold a couple of pieces now and then. In a way, it’s too bad. We worked for so many years to have something major happen with them,” she said.
After her husband died last year, she donated the works to Waterfall Arts for the joint fundraising exhibit.
“This seemed like an opportune moment for them to be seen by people who would like them. They couldn’t live in our barn forever,” Outerbridge said.
That day, a number of visitors popped into Clifford Gallery, despite the frigid weather.
Immediately taken by the exhibit, Ruth-Ann Spence of Liberty scurried around on a buying spree that afternoon, racing from object to object.
“I want that one. It would be lovely with a candle holder,” she said of a robust wooden form with a convenient, flat surface. “I have a black-and-white kitchen. … And, I like these, too,” she said. “They would make great presents.”
Spence had some time off that week from her research job at the Maine Center for Public Health in Augusta. By the time she was done, she owned seven pieces for approximately $200.
Apparently, part of the show’s enticement is the remarkably affordable price tags on displayed items. Works sell from $15 to $200.
“The goal was to have a great show and to sell them,” Piscuskas said.
That afternoon, house builder Jim Bahoosh, of Morrill, and his 15-year-old daughter, Tessa Isis Bahoosh, of Bristol, arrived on the gallery scene. Soon they were busily engaged at an interactive display table, pounding moist sand into a sample wooden pattern. The hands-on display, built by Alan Crichton, lets visitors practice the basic steps of sand casting.
“I came to see the foundry patterns. It’s fun looking at pieces and figuring out what the components were used for,” Jim Bahoosh said.
The popular exhibit has given the arts center a needed boost.
“This has been a hard year, a hard year all the way around,” Piscuskas said. She noted that the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport laid off staff last fall and has shut down until May.
“We’ve made it,” she said of Waterfall Arts. There was a period of time in 2008 when we got lean and had to let go of two, part-time positions,” she said.
For a while, the arts center carried on with two staff people and a lot of volunteers. Then, a $10,000 federal stimulus grant given in 2009 through the Maine Arts Commission in Augusta helped provide for her position, she said. The center’s new finance director, Kat Richman, of Appleton, is coming on board this month.
“Now we can get back to long-range planning,” Piscuskas said. New plans are under way for sculptures to be installed at rangeway sites in Belfast, thanks to a recent, $5,500 grant from the NLT Foundation.
“We’re still working with the City of Belfast on details,” she said, of the proposed project involving two sculptures placed at different rangeways, which are public access ways to the shoreline. The community project echoes the “art-plus-nature” theme of Waterfall Arts.
Piscuskas, who lives in Liberty, is a creator of art installations. She has directed several statewide nonprofits and has been involved with the Montville- and Belfast-based contemporary arts center ever since the Montville campus was established a decade ago. The center’s Belfast campus, located at the former site of the Anderson School, was opened in 2005.
“I was one of the percolators,” she said. “It’s the best job I could have. I love it.”
For more information about the exhibit, call 338-2222 or visit waterfallarts.org.
Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, gardener and freelance writer.
SEE THE EXHIBIT
• “Cast & Found: The Art of Wooden Foundry Patterns, ca 1900,” is on view through Feb. 26., in Clifford Gallery, at Waterfall Arts, Belfast. More than 200 historic wooden foundry patterns, handcrafted at the now-defunct Waterville Iron Works Manufacturing Co., Waterville, are on exhibit and for sale. Proceeds benefit Waterfall Arts and Belfast Maskers of Belfast.
• The arts center is located at 256 High Street. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, call 338-2222 or visit waterfallarts.org.
• At 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, Richard Remsen will speak on the process of metal casting. Remsen operates The Foundry in West Rockport. He will discuss the history of metal casting, the Maine foundry scene circa 1900, the foundry process and show examples of his own foundry work.