All photos of artwork courtesy and copyright of Eva Funderburgh
All bronze pour photographs by Sarra Scherb, taken at Pratt Fine Arts Center.
Deep in the bowels of Pratt Fine Arts Center—safety glasses on, fires whooshing, sand pit filling—I’m learning that bronze pouring is a very effective way to let out aggression. Students in the class get to swing sledgehammers, chop with axes, dig ditches, and hoist plaster investments using a rattle-chained winch. The pouring, though—with its crucible of magma-like bronze, and the careful two-step down the line—is reserved for the instructors. Moon-suited and moving in tandem, lead instructor Eva Funderburgh and assistant Mark Walker maneuver the cup over each plaster-encased mold, slinging globs of fiery liquid in volcanic slurps.
The pour is part of an eight-week class in bronze making co-taught by Funderburgh and Walker, who switch off being the lead and assistant each quarter. Though Walker has been teaching the class for years, he was ready to hand the reigns to thirty-two-year-old Funderburgh after just a few quarters.
“Eva’s incredible,’ said Walker as we watch her help students winch their plaster-encased molds down into a sand pit for the pouring. “We’ve had the same people teaching this class for a long time, and we just didn’t know what the future of it would be. But, she walked in, and I realized, wow, this is it. She gets it. She’s just so good.”
From across the room, Funderburgh smiles and waves us over to watch the work, obviously thrilled down to her toes. Clearly, Pratt needed her just as much as she needed bronze to revitalize and electrify her own art practice.
Funderburgh has worked in clay for most of her career, sculpting beautifully glazed creatures who are sometimes playfully roly-poly, and other times fierce, anguished or nurturing. Ranging in size from just a few inches across to a few feet long, they often lack even the most rudimentary eyes, nose, and facial bones. Nevertheless, Funderburgh clearly conveys great emotion from body language, the set of a jaw, or the angle of a neck.
“I’m kind of face-blind,’ Funderburgh told me over coffee after the bronze pour. “I’m really, really bad with faces. If someone always wears a hat and then one day shows up without one, I don’t know who they are. So, I guess it’s not surprising that I make figures without faces.”
Body language and physicality are a first language to Funderburgh, who spends most of her free time at the parkour or climbing gym, flying on a trapeze, or tearing up and renovating her Seattle home with her husband, Ben Hollis. She uses those muscles to wrestle clay and to weld and cast bronze, but also translates that awareness to every flex and bend in her subjects’ bodies.
While her sculptures are often frolicsome and high-spirited, Funderburgh keeps them from becoming cutesy, or that dreaded word in art—quirky. Many of the characters evoke a gravity and solemnity that belies their drooping paunches or stubby horns: some bear entire towns on their backs like mobile cities, or carry precious burdens of eggs, beds, ladders or homes. Others have secret interior compartments where tiny, dollhouse-like sagas play out.
An avid backpacker and scuba diver, Funderburgh spends a lot of her time considering how creatures are affected by and adapt to their environment. Since her creatures are clearly not of this earth, we have to pause and wonder about their size and shapes, to envision from whence they come. While evidence of human habitation occasionally crops up in the form of furniture, actual humans are never found in the work. The only example is the human infant laid in a swaddling cloth at the feet of a massive, horned beast. The title of the work? “The Invader.”
Funderburgh has a small kiln at her home studio, but most of her firing is done on the Kitsap peninsula, at two massive anagama wood-fired kilns. These room-sized ovens need over one hundred hours of constant firing, so it’s a full week affair that requires an army of people to chop wood, load art, feed and stoke the kiln, and unload. Windstorms, cancelations due to a dearth of artists, and exploding ceramics are some of the hazards of anagama firing, but the results can be spectacular.
But, after a decade and more of clay, Funderburgh starting casting around for something new; an expansion of her arsenal.
“I participated in a ceramics residency in Denmark and installed my first public art piece there. I loved it–and wanted to do more, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I felt limited by just working in wood-fired ceramics since I could only go so large, and the medium isn’t right for public art. I was looking for growth.”
After a session of Walker’s bronze casting class at Pratt, she knew that she’d found a new obsession, and a solution.
“Bronze has broadened my options. I do things I can’t do in clay: long-legged things, delicate antlers. They’d break in clay as soon as I looked at them.”
In Funderburgh’s recent work, creatures made of bronze twist and bend as if made of fire or consumed by it, and her ceramic beasts are sporting decidedly un-friendly horns, claws, and teeth in bronze.
With clay, the firing is the final step: once it comes out of the kiln, there’s no further you can take the piece. Attaching new parts and re-firing is basically impossible, as it would create seams that could explode. But with bronze, Funderburgh is able to weld sections after the pour, or sandblast the surface to remove a patina and try again. She’s also able to create multiples, since she can hang onto her molds, and limited editions runs mean she can show and sell works more than once. Still, she admits with a laugh that there isn’t anything easier about her new medium.
Bronze casting isn’t a simple process: just wrapping your head around it can take a little sit-down thinking. Think: clay to rubber to wax to bronze. Think: Positive to negative to positive to negative to positive. You sculpt a piece in clay, slather that with a solution of glycerin with silicone caulk, and encase it in plaster. (Positive.) Once the caulk has dried into rubber, slit the casing open and remove your clay. (Negative.) The rubber mold now has all your details, so pour molten wax into the rubber mold. (Positive). Remove your wax copy, reattach all your little sections, and attach sprues and vents in wax to it: sprues will let the molten bronze into your shape, vents will allow displaced air to leave the shape. Once you’ve got the final form, you’ll form an investment casing around your sprued-up mold; packing sand, chicken wire and plaster around it. The investment gets heated in an oven, whereupon all the wax will melt out (Negative), leaving only a void in the shape of your sculpture. The plaster investments get buried in sand and filled with bronze heated to 1200 degrees. (Positive). Once it’s cooled to about 600 degrees, you can bust the form out using your sledgehammer, and voila! A bronze is born.
Did you catch all of that?
“Some students get it immediately. Others…well, I think sometimes they need to actually see the pour in week five of the class to understand what exactly is going on.”
Funderburgh was a fast learner; even if she looks back at her early sprueing systems and rolls her eyes at their needless complexity. Her innate ability—not to mention her boundless enthusiasm and ready good humor—earned her the position of co-instructor with Walker by the time she cast her third piece. Meanwhile, in her home studio she invested in a blowtorch and starting experimenting with patinas, flinging fire in the backyard with glee and producing test colors. When Walker landed the commission to weld and finish Valve’s DOTA 2 trophy—a trophy in the shape of a bad-ass winged sword given to the winning team of the international video game championship—he turned to her to patina it. This year, they’ll do all three of the trophies for an upcoming championship in Europe.
The bronze pour is over, the students’ investments dug out of the sand pit, and transported outside. Funderburgh grabs an ax and nonchalantly begins to hack away at the thick layers of plaster and chicken wire. Plaster flakes off as the students look on, and she switches from ax to sledgehammer, tapping at the exposed bottom of a bronze.
A student goggles as she bangs away, freeing it from the plaster with a crack.
“You…you just hit the sculpture with the hammer?” he asks.
“Yup. There’s not much else you can do—it’s still 600 hundred degrees. It’s not like you can just pick it up!”
The students all begin to whack tentatively at their plaster casings, the occasional “ow!” resounding when one forgets that last bit of advice.
It seems like Funderburgh is drawn to any art form that combines muscle and fire. This winter she’ll take her first blacksmithing course at Pratt. I ask her if glassblowing is next.
“Maybe! Sure!” she says with a laugh. “Why not?”
Fire plus patience plus dexterity? Something tells me it wouldn’t take long for her to master it.
Eva Funderburgh’s work can currently be seen at the Seattle Center. Nine chicken-wire creatures chase each other across the awnings at the Armory Building, part of the Seattle Center Sculpture Walk. It is installed through January 2016.