They call him "Copper Bob" because if you look at his face in just the right light, you can see on his skin the greenish cast of the copper he's been sculpting for twenty-five years. His studio is in an abandoned limestone quarry somewhere north of town. He's a stooped man, permanently fixed in an almost subservient posture. He doesn't make eye contact readily, but when he does, I can see the little boy he used to be still suspended in mischievous blue eyes hidden in a mass of curly honey hair. I can see the little boy in his art, too. A copper frog swings on a copper trapeze suspended from a copper limb. A copper gnome hides in a copper knothole. A copper sunflower dances in a passing breeze.
I'm learning the subtle differences between the iron and the copper sculptors. Iron artists work in casting teams of something like ten people. Everyone counts. Everyone matters when you're melting iron in a 2800 degree furnace that just might be named something like "Old Grumpy" to indicate it's propensity to blow up in your face. There's a feeling of glory and wonder at the human accomplishment of channeling nature and doing something you just, by all logical summation, shouldn't be doing. It's electric. It's sexy. It's overwhelming. Even the clothing cast iron sculptors wear belies the testosterone surge of man (or woman)-over-nature creation. Their leather jackets bear the mark of where they come from. One might say CHICAGO. One might be a picture of a fairy and and bear the mark ICPO WORLD FAMOUS FOUNDRY. I once saw one of them throw back his face shield and light a cigarette off a cooling sculpture. He reached for a swig of beer before he went back to tap-tap-tapping the furnace to start it's molten flow. Their casual approach to possible incineration lends them a mystery I haven't felt since I was ten years old watching a lion tamer at the circus. Immediately, I think I've gotta get in there. They say that the ghost of an old iron man killed at Alice Furnace more than a hundred years ago continued to haunt the catwalk at Sloss up until it closed so he could see the tapping of the furnace. My neighbor says he's still there on iron-pour days and that his shadow darts between the buildings trying to get a look at what they're doing. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch the tap of Old Number 2 from the First Avenue viaduct. The old furnaces can't be used now, but I'm grateful for their 8-foot replacements like someone who has never seen the sun is happy for the moon.
Well, I meant this entry to be about Copper Bob, but I'm too smitten with the iron to write about the copper. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: Susan in face shield pouring iron. June 22. Can't wait.