Sparks fly, literally, at Featherstone’s Iron on the Island event

Ironworkers, from left, Salvador Dominguez, Lloyd Mandelbaum and Fred Gerdes, pour molten iron into hollowed-out pumpkins at Featherstone. The pumpkins, as well as the wooden supports holding them up, caught fire. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The nighttime scene was one straight out of a science fiction/fantasy film. A team of about a dozen young men and women, dressed in an odd variety of flame-retardant clothing, bustled around inside a roped-off area with a chimney-like homemade furnace as the centerpiece. Some were feeding chunks of scrap iron into the furnace; a two-man team wielded a bucket supported by two poles and poured brightly glowing molten iron into a variety of carved molds. Other workers jumped into action to pour sand on small fires created by spills. All the while, sparks lit up the night.

With a full harvest moon as a backdrop, the scene was dramatic, with the superheated molten iron flowing from the furnace tap, pouring out of the bucket and setting off sparks and small flaming fires in spots where it dripped, punctuating the darkened, macabre landscape with vivid iridescent orange highlights.

The iron pour was the culminating spectacle in a daylong event hosted by Featherstone Center for the Arts. For the second year in a row, the Oak Bluffs arts campus brought a team of metal artists from Chicago for an interactive metalworking festival, Iron on the Island.

All afternoon, people stopped by to create molds for the the evening pour. Guests were provided with a sand and resin block on which they could carve, scrape, and scratch out a design with a variety of tools. Participants could chose from a mold for a plaque ($30), or a bowl which could be decorated inside and out ($50). Some of the carvers were artists, many were amateurs, and some were children whose efforts included charming simple drawings or handprints.

At 6 pm, the real fun started. An off-Island team made up of former students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago cordoned off a large area in the parking lot and set up a temporary forge. The ironworking team was made up of male and female artists (predominantly female), some of whom have earned M.F.A.s and are now working for metal forgers around Chicago, some of whom run their own metalwork studios.

Mara Goldfein, who has a studio space in Chicago where she makes large-scale figurative work from iron, bronze, aluminum, silicone, and leather, explained the process in an on-site interview.

The large block molds are made from resin-bonded sand, which can withstand the heat of the molten iron. After carving, the molds are treated with a mixture of graphite and denatured alcohol to facilitate removal of the finished product.

The metal is all reclaimed scrap from cast-iron sinks, bathtubs, radiators, and other similar supplies.

The furnace, a cupola-style construction, was built by members of the team last year. It is heated by coke — a compressed coal product favored for its efficient heat-producing properties. The furnace reaches a heat level of 3,000℉. The coke-burning process is initiated with a propane burner attached to the bottom of the furnace. Once the coke starts burning, it creates a perpetually self-propelling process.

It takes about 15 minutes for the scrap iron to melt. The perfect temperature for pouring the molten metal is 2,600 degrees. The iron will start cooling in around seven minutes, so the pour must be conducted quite quickly.

After the bucket has been filled with the flow from a hole at the bottom of the furnace, workers plug the hole back up with bott, a mixture of sand, clay, and sawdust which can then be broken loose for the next pour. One of the handlers uses a flat-edged tool on a pole to skim off any impurities from the metal. Things like rust and enamel from bathtubs will float to the surface, where they can be easily removed.

The pouring vessel, called variously a crucible or a bucket, is made of refracting cement and fiberglass. It is supported on a long steel shank that allows the two carriers, each holding one end of the poles, to carefully tip the bucket from a safe distance. Spills are doused with shovelfuls of sand and dirt.

After the 70 or so molds carved by the public were poured, along with some specialized pieces created by the visiting metal artists, the team provided the crowd with a final spectacle. A row of pumpkins had been set up on a raised wooden plank. Attached to each was a long bamboo pole slanting down toward the ground. When the bucket wielders poured the molten iron into the hollowed-out pumpkins, it shot down the bamboo tubes, causing sparks to fly from notches carved at intervals along the way. It was a fabulous natural fireworks display that drew gasps and appreciative applause from audience.

On Sunday, people stopped by to pick up their finished pieces, now cooled and ready for display, while the iron team members packed up and cleaned up random bits of iron and other refuse from the exhibit.

The iron pour was a dramatic display that rivaled the following night’s blood moon. We hope the Chicagoans will return next year for this not-to-be-missed fall spectacle.

Next up, Featherstone will host an event featuring another medium that can be heated and poured into molds. This time around, the product will be of the edible variety. Don’t miss the 10th annual Art of Chocolate Festival on Oct. 10 and 11 — the most delicious weekend of Featherstone’s year-round event calendar.