Men poured molten metal into sand casts at Waterville Iron Works — which was perched on the banks of the Kennebec River — in the 1800s and early 1900s. They manufactured gears, parts for stoves, plows and domestic ironware. Today, the foundry is gone, but a collection of the equipment the men used was saved. And thanks to Maine artists, these pieces have taken on new life.
The wooden foundry patterns can be seen at Waterfall Arts in Belfast through March 31. They’ve been painted, burned, nailed, carved and shredded to become art.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what a pattern may have been used to make, but the unusual shapes have sparked people’s imagination and given artists a starting point from which to launch their creativity.
“They are just beautiful parts, very inspiring to artists and designers of all types,” said Waterfall Arts board member Abbie Read.
The workers of the foundry packed the wooden patterns with a mixture of sand and clay to create a mold. Once the mold was set, the pattern was removed and the mold was filled with molten metal. The casting process still is used in foundries around the country.
Joseph P. Fairbanks founded Waterville Iron Works on the Messalonskee Stream in 1833. It burned in 1895 and was rebuilt on the banks of the Kennebec River in 1896. The ironworks continued to run into the early 1900s and was the birthplace of the Lombard Log Hauler, which was used to haul logs out of the woods and is the predecessor of every snowmobile and bulldozer.
When the foundry shut down, the patterns were stored until the early 1970s when David Outerbridge, a well-known author, book and newspaper publisher from Belfast, saved the patterns from the dump and stored them in his barn. Outerbridge died in 2008, and two years ago, his wife, Lilias, founder of the Belfast Maskers, decided to move out of the farm.
“She decided it was time to clear out the barn and raise money for the Belfast Maskers,” said Lorna Crichton, co-founder of Waterfall Arts.
Lilias worked with Waterfall Arts to put together an exhibit and sale of the foundry pieces titled “Cast & Found,” and the proceeds benefited Belfast Maskers and Waterfall Arts.
With flashlights in hand, Waterfall Arts board members hauled the foundry patterns out of the dark barn and dusted them off to offer them for sale. By December 2009, hundreds of patterns in their original state were displayed from floor to ceiling in Waterfall Arts.
“We sold every single piece [priced from $2-$300],” said Crichton. “It was fabulously successful.”
Last month, 15 Maine artists returned to Waterfall Arts with artwork formed out of the foundry patterns they’d purchased a year before. Their 29 transformed patterns make up the exhibit “Cast and Found Redux.”
Each artist saw a different opportunity in the foundry objects.
Crichton’s piece “Cope” was titled for the same word written on the wood by someone about 100 years ago. A cope is the top half of a sand mold and a drag is the bottom part, according to the Atlas Foundry Company.
“I like it as a verb,” Crichton said, looking at her wall sculpture, an antique mirror layered with bits of old advertisements and prints, framed by the square foundry pattern.
Though Crichton can’t specify the wood that the foundry patterns are made of, a modern foundry, Ohio’s Lorain Modern Pattern, Inc., constructs industrial foundry patterns out of mahogany, pine, maple, gelutong, poplar, ash and oak, in addition to metal and plastic foundry patterns. Some of the Waterville Iron Works patterns are painted yellow, red or blue, some are left unpainted, but the majority of the patterns are painted black.
The four sculptures Abbie Read of Appleton created for “Redux” have nothing in common except their base material: foundry pattern wood.
Read placed a small, black pattern inside a black box that props open like a book for her “Silhouette Sculpture.” If you look closely, the mirror image of the sculpture is repeated on the opposite side of the box and the cover of the box, as if the foundry pattern burns through the material.
“My motivation here was that beautiful black surface,” Read said. “I wanted to make all these different blacks and see if it still reads as a silhouette.”
Beside her small book, a scroll of paper, painted with black, geometric patterns, ran down from the ceiling and trailed along the floor. A foundry pattern, all bends and angles, was set on the floor inside the painted lines.
“I chose that pattern because it was such an unusual thing,” said Read. “I like making scrolls, so it just kind of begged to become a repeat pattern.”
Read said she wanted to add a two-dimensional aspect to the object.
Ben Potter took a foundry pattern home, burned it to a pile of ashes and painted a black-and-white composition with its remains.
Wesley Reddick hammered hundreds of nails into his L-shaped piece, “Nail Fetish #9,” a spiky wall sculpture with striking depth and texture.
The most notably unconventional piece was crafted — and baked — by Vincent Abaldo, who shaved wood off his foundry pattern, painted the wood shavings a chocolaty brown and carefully arranged them on the frosted top of a chocolate cake. Waterfall Arts decided to place a sign in front of the cake that reads “I am not edible” after a gallery visitor tried to sample it.
Waterfall Arts at 256 High St. in Belfast is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and by appointment. For information, visit www.waterfallarts.org or call 338-2222.