Above: Faculty member Joel Kiser chips away the plug on a furnace marked by sacrificial marshmallow Peeps.
THREE KETTLE-LIKE FURNACES chug and hiss, hungry for their first loads of busted-up iron. Ceremonial marshmallow Peeps tied to helium balloons float toward the sky. Students, artists, and onlookers stand briefly in a waft of let’s-be-safe-out-there sage smoke. D’Jean Jawrunner has one last chance to bark out warnings and directions before a river of 2,800-degree molten metal turns this Tucum-cari gathering into an annual circus.
“I don’t care if you’re big or short or whatever—if you need help with something, say it out loud,” says Jawrunner, who is, it must be noted, kind of short and somewhat loud. “Don’t be quiet and don’t wait until the last minute. We can handle anything—if we can hear it.”
Huddled in the aluminum building that houses the foundry at Mesalands Community College, she points to the master chief of ovens, the two pour captains (she’s one), the shell team, the furnace team, and the water teams—people who will ferry bottles of water to everyone about to manage the high-temp transformation of heavy metal into swords, statues, and tiles. “You may not feel hot,” Jawrunner says, “but if they look at your face and shove a bottle of water in it? Drink it.”
Just then, furnace master David Lobdell lopes in. “I need a mold!” he shouts. Joel Kiser, Jawrunner’s fellow fine-arts faculty member and the foundry’s overseer, says in his laconic drawl, “Guys, let’s get to your stations.”
At 2:28 p.m. on a sunny March day on the eastern plains of New Mexico, the 19th annual Big Pour blasts off. The tide of liquid neon won’t stop until well after sunset. From local high schoolers to inexperienced hobbyists, veteran artists, and a few visiting art professors, this gang of about 70 people will lay hands on more than 6,000 pounds of iron, along with buckets of coal-based coke to fuel the low-tech cupola furnaces that help make this one of the largest academic foundries in the world. You can come to watch. You can enroll in a weeklong class and earn some cast-iron cred. You can pay $20 to carve a relief image into a sand block to create a super-heavy souvenir tile. The whole shebang is one of New Mexico’s best-kept secrets, but as its 20th anniversary nears, Mesalands president Thomas Newsom says, it’s time to start shouting: “This is our Super Bowl of art.”
“POUR TEAM READY,” Jawrunner yells on the patio behind the foundry’s aluminum building. A team appears with a bucket centered on a long pole. They hold it ready while Lobdell knocks a clay plug from the furnace’s bottom to release a gush of the most common element on Earth: ferrum, chemical symbol Fe, iron, the product of fusion high in the heavens, the cause of rich and ruddy layers of rock, the roiling core within our planet, the stuff that turns our blood red. Foundry fans, including a national network of I-40 truckers, help the school amass a year’s worth of old radiators, bathtubs, and skillets. Broken into half-dollar-size chunks by anyone strong enough to swing a sledgehammer, the iron melts into the radiant waterfall now surging into the bucket. A brilliant red, it’s mesmerizingly gorgeous and deadly as can be, on its way to reemerging as something beautiful, something useful, or, when a mold fails, something that can break a person’s heart. The team shuffles its 100-pound payload to a series of ceramic molds, hesitates, then braces while twisting the pole, tipping the bucket, releasing a messy dribble.
“HIGHER, HIGHER,” Jawrunner hollers. “KEEP MOVING, KEEP MOVING, KEEP MOVING. GOT IT! STOP.” First mold filled, a tail’s end of flame licking off its top, the team shuffles to the next. “GENTLY, GENTLY, GENTLY, GENTLY. GOOD JOB! NICE EYE!”
Courtney Ford, the other pour captain and an artist from Lubbock, shouts “POUR” at a second team as another furnace’s belly fills with lava. Yet another team mans a kiln the size of a walk-in closet. Ceramic molds for 3-D pieces firm up within it, ready to replace the poured molds and get their own shots of iron. Between the patio and a set of backyard bleachers, wooden pallets support at least 100 of the sand blocks. Pour teams hustle between those and the sculpture molds. Heat waves shimmy off the patio floor. Other crews toss more coke and iron into the ovens. Like fireworks, the furnaces shoot plumes of sparks 10 feet into the air. Orange smoke billows out. People cough. The smoke alarm erupts.
Sue Melton, a ceramist from Dallas, came with her sculptor husband to try embedding a piece of delicate lace from her mother’s collection into a sand block—an iffy experiment, she readily admits. The pandemonium has driven her to a back corner, where she watches and muses. “All these experienced people have been very interested in my lace,” she says. “It’s just the nicest group of people to spend a week with.”
By 5 p.m., about half the tiles are poured, but the work, the heat, the weight, and the noise have taken a toll. Nearly everyone is garbed in some version of firefighter pants and jackets (Ford wears fringed cowboy chaps), plus heavy gloves sealed to their wrists with duct tape—clothing better suited for a cold snap than a conflagration. A few overheated volunteers find folding chairs and sit, forearms on their knees, eyes focused blankly on the ground, bottles of water drooping downward. But molten iron waits for no one. “HEY, GUYS, POUR!”
STRADDLING I-40, Tucumcari (pop. 4,975) is best known for its kitsch-centric motels and Route 66 nostalgia. But there’s more. Dinosaurs, for one. Nearby soil regularly yields evidence of Cretaceous sharks, ferns, figs, and crocodiles. Mesalands’ Dinosaur Museum presents a menagerie of them and others from around the world, cast in bronze right there, by foundry students. A broad wind-energy program attracts some of the school’s 1,000 students, as does a top-notch collegiate rodeo team.
The fine-arts program owes its soul to the area’s ranching roots. Founded in 1979 as a vocational school, Mesalands offered farrier classes, teaching students to shoe horses and craft horse bits. “In a way,” President Newsom says, “bronzing is the same as working on the ranch, so it’s really at the heart of what we do. The flip side is that New Mexico is an artistic state, and this supports that as one of the best learning foundries around. Some of our students have gone on to being amazing artists.”
Patrick Garley was one; he now operates Arctic Fires Bronze, in Palmer, Alaska, where he and his fellow foundry alumni occasionally gather for big pours of their own. Jawrunner and Kiser are both artists as well as teachers and rely on the Mesalands foundry for pouring their works of aluminum, bronze, and iron. Lobdell brings his kit down from New Mexico Highlands University, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where every other year, international artists join his Iron Tribe for a Chinese-style performance pour, throwing molten iron at a wall. (The next one will likely take place in March 2019.)
At Mesalands’ Big Pour, a rotating potluck of carb-laden dishes—sandwiches, pastas, cookies, and cake—fuels the crew during the long day, just one sign of how the community cares for its own. “There’s a lot of everyone chipping in here,” Jawrunner says. “The first year, I forgot to buy banding to wrap around the molds. Oh, no! It was bad. Forty-five minutes later, someone showed up with a bucket of banding. Someone had called someone, who had called him. It’s hard not to stay involved in a town like this. You can’t let people down.”
She almost let them down early in the Big Pour’s history. A student who raised homing pigeons had, the year before, kicked off the event by releasing a triumphant flight of the birds. Everyone loved it and wanted to make it a regular event. But when it came time, the student said the pigeons weren’t ready. “Evidently,” Jawrunner says, “pigeons must practice.” So she ran to the store and bought marshmallow Peeps and a few helium balloons, and the “Tradition of the Sacrificial Peeps” was born—along with a side tradition of hiding them. For a full year, Jawrunner and Kiser will find them stashed in drawers, stuck under tables, and tucked onto high shelves, aged into an unappetizing solid.
Half of every year’s participants know these traditions, thanks to a devotion that draws them back. Locals expect them and often accost Jawrunner if a favorite visitor doesn’t pop into Del’s Restaurant or book a night at the Blue Swallow Motel. Mark Hilliard, an art teacher at Wayland Baptist University, in Plano, Texas, cites the camaraderie as part of the appeal, but also the chance to give his students foundry skills, and the plain old economy of the week’s $394 tuition. “For full access to a foundry?” he says. “They’re giving it away. To have my piece custom-cast at a foundry would be $1,000 at least, and I’m doing five pieces here.”
Thanks to all that veteran assistance, the program claims an exemplary safety record—“but for a couple of Band-Aids,” Kiser says. That’s how high school senior Ashle Brown can play second chair to Texas artist Charlotte Kimball, who oversees how much coke and iron to throw into one furnace. She and all the other mother hens maintain their attention as the hours plow past and the pours build up. A cool evening breeze blows in and, as the sun sinks, the visual effect—somewhere between a campfire and a Fourth of July extravaganza—turns spectacular. Even with their hands encased in safety leathers, students pull out smartphones to capture it.
Out back, the moon casts a pale light on the tile blocks, some still glowing red. Lobdell shuts his furnace down. A little after 7 p.m., the other two blink out, their last spits of slag doused into slurry. A few people head to their motels, but most ignore the exhaustion and crowd into the Tucumcari Elks Club. There, they dance until management kicks them out at 1:30 a.m.
THE NEXT DAY, Jawrunner far more quietly oversees a morning-after breakfast buffet in the foundry’s kitchen. Kimball peers into a sack of pancake mix and concludes there’s enough left to feed a small family. “Except,” she says, “we’re not a small family.” Out back, artists pick through the cooled molds, hunting down their creations. Of the 38 steps involved in crafting one iron sculpture, a few more await—breaking them out of their molds, sawing off errant bits, buffing them, adding a patina. Some people throw their pieces, molds and all, into truck beds and start the long drive home. Others take on the first tasks here.
“We’re bound to find some defects,” says Albuquerque artist George Salas as he examines his pieces, including an experimental logo. “Look: One worked, one didn’t. I goofed. I’ll grind it off. Any goof in the art world is an opportunity to seek a solution.”
Chances are he’ll return this March, when Jaw-runner and Kiser solve a years-long space problem by moving into a newly renovated building with a covered patio so large and so well lit that “you expect an orchestra to break into the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus when you walk out,” Jawrunner says. She hopes an army of past participants will join her and Kiser, their students, and the drop-ins. For those who can’t come, the college will webcast the whole week. “This event is important to our survival,” Jawrunner says as the bacon sizzles. “We’re a small school. There has to be a reason to make us a destination. These people here? They’re rock stars.”
FROM IDEA TO IRON
Most of the participants in Mesalands Community College’s Big Pour utilize these two methods to craft their works:
Sand casting. Resin-based sand blocks, which look a bit like oversize adobe bricks, allow artists to carve relief designs on one side. You have to think backwards and with an inverted eye—the deepest parts of the design will stick out the farthest in the final product, which resembles a tile.
Lost-wax casting. Methods differ, but for the simplest process, imagine sculpting an object from wax. When it’s finished, dip it into silica and then into a stucco-like substance. Allow it to dry. Place it in a kiln to harden the coating and melt the wax out. Poured iron replaces the wax and replicates the original object.
POUR IT ON
The 20th annual Big Pour at Mesalands Community College welcomes spectators from noon forward on March 9. Show up on or before March 8 and you can carve a sand block for a $20 donation to the school’s art club. Contact Kimberly Hannah at email@example.com for information about enrolling in this or next year’s weeklong course. Watch the week’s action live at mesalands.edu.
The Mesalands website also has information about the college and its campus, including the Dinosaur Museum.
Soak up the town’s other attractions while you’re there. Scope out where to stay and what to see at tucumcarinm.com.