The first two or three times I met Carl Glowienke he wore a tuxedo. We weren't at a society function.
He wasn't on his way, each time, to the prom. For his day job — which actually takes place at night — he works as a maitre d’ and, on some nights, as a waiter at a restaurant in Coronado. I don’t remember in which capacity he was working when we first talked. It turned out that, unlike most waiters in most restaurants in New York or L.A., Carl’s not an actor waiting for his big break: he’s a sculptor, in bronze, most often of sea mammals — whales, dolphins — and of other sea life — rays, turtles, sharks.
He’s not worried about a big break — he wants to make sculptures of these animals he loves and he insists on making them with absolute precision and accuracy. I won’t do a generic dolphin, he told me — each species is different and the anatomical details that distinguish one species from another must be exact, be true.
He once turned down a lucrative and needed commission because the buyer wanted him to put eyelashes on a sculpture of a dolphin. Why wouldn’t he do it? I asked. Because they don’t have eyelashes, he said. His passion for accuracy and a love for the creatures he sculpts was greatly influenced by his work with the late Dr. Stephen Leatherwood, with whom he studied dolphin and whale anatomy at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute.
Carl, who is 44, told me that for the past several years he’s had a kind of student/mentor relationship with an older and more established Mexican sculptor, Guillermo Castano, who is 60. Guillermo is, in fact, an internationally known sculptor and an acknowledged master of the art and craft of bronze casting. As well as his own more metaphorical pieces, Guillermo has made many very large public sculptures, of which several are in Mexico and many others are in the United States — Portland, Dallas, Miami, L.A., etc. I was curious about how a relationship like theirs came to be and what it was like for two artists from different cultures — one younger and seeking knowledge from the older, and both loving the art form — to work together.
The tuition Castano charged Glowienke? English lessons. Castano spoke little English when they met. He’s fluent now. Carl started working with Guillermo 14 years ago. They are close friends, but Carl was quick to point out his respect for Guillermo’s talent, accomplishment, and skills: “He could forget 90 percent of everything he knows and still know 20 times more than I know.” On his first day working with him, Carl asked Guillermo what he wanted him to do. Guillermo saw this as a good sign. He told him to get a wheelbarrow and move the sand from the bottom of the hill up to the studio at the top of the hill. Sand is used in a casting process. Guillermo regarded Carl’s willingness to do this for most of the day as an even better sign, sign enough for Guillermo. Carl is fluent in Spanish but they usually talk to each other in English because, as Castano told me later, “His Spanish is still better than my English.”
One of Castaho’s large public pieces is in Tijuana, outside the Centro Cultural. On Glowienke’s suggestion, I went to see it. It’s very large, 30 or so feet tall and weighing a few tons. It’s a huge wave or scroll with a face, framed by wild flowing hair, representing Columbus and the conquest of the New World by the Old. It seems to . surge forward, it seems about to crash on a shore. There is also in it a sense of something being tom, ripped. It also has the feeling of a large spring, a coil holding huge energy inside. Because of its angles, some rounded, some sharp-edged, I found it moving, both emotionally and literally — the way its shadow fell on the ground and on itself somehow caused me to lean, literally, forward, or backward with it.
I have a picture taken at the dedication ceremony for the sculpture. On the far left a young, attractive woman stands at a podium and to her left stands a row of men in suits and ties, the penultimate an officer of the Mexican army. I can’t tell his rank, but he looks like a general. To the general’s left, but with more space between them than between any of the others, stands Castano. He’s wearing a sports jacket and slacks but no tie. His feet are slightly spread and his hands crossed in front of him. He’s still, even with his legs somewhat splayed, the tallest man in the line, the slimmest, the best looking, and, even though he in no way looks like the stereotypical artist — wildeyed, disheveled, half an ear missing—you could tell, if you saw this group on the street, that there is something different about him. The men stand behind a red velvet rope attached to silver posts, the kind one sees outside restaurants or in museums. Castano’s body language says: This is okay but I can’t wait to get back to my studio. I see him gone the second the camera clicks and before the general can relax even a shade his military posture.
Glowienke arranged for me to meet Castano at his studio and home in the La Presa section of Tijuana. His property, maybe a few acres, begins at the top of a hill and slopes steeply down to his house, which overlooks a reservoir.
When I first walked into his studio, and then around the grounds outside, I thought I’d entered a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It was magic realism made real. When we arrived, Castano was working on a sculpture of one of his several Mexican hairless dogs. He was engaged in the first step in making a bronze sculpture: modeling the original out of plasticine or water-based clay. Castano spoke about the clay, how he loved to have his hands in/on it.
This is where a sculptor begins to make palpable what exists in his imagination. Carl likes this part of the process too, but since he most often, in sculpting sea life, is trying to copy nature exactly, he doesn’t rhapsodize about it as much as Guillermo does. Carl said, “The work is about mirroring what I see is beautiful.” I soon noticed another dog lying on the floor. I looked at it two or three times before I realized it was a sculpture. It turned out the dog, whom Castano owned for many years and loved, walked into the studio one day, lay down on this exact spot, and expired. He was old but not ill. He was one of those English bulldogs (his name, appropriately, was Belvedere) that often got too fat if they’re indulged in their dotage. Before the dog was cold Castano made a plaster mold of him, just poured it on him where he died, and then cast him in bronze. I loved its detail — stubby toenails, floppy jowls, heavy eyelids— right down-to his tongue, which protrudes from his mouth and lies on the floor, askew to the right. Since the dog was not exactly svelte and somewhat looseskinned, he looks a little melted. The piece is — all at the same time — touching, humorous, and a memorial. Your average dead dog, no matter how much it’s loved, doesn’t get immortalized like this. Castano invited me to look around the studio and the grounds and said we could talk later.
Here is some of what I saw; a large (maybe six by four) aquarium in which grew an intensely alive living reef. I stood before these undulating colors, mostly pastels, in slack-jawed wonder for several minutes as the sea anemones did a kind of inverted hula dance and the coral itself seemed to in- and exhale. I noticed next three or four sets of small antlers on the wall. They had eyes—glass eyes that taxidermists use when they mount deer — set just below the antlers in a jagged piece of skull fragment. It was one of the only things I saw that I thought influenced by surrealism, yet its metaphor, its meaning, its “ulteriority,” as Robert Frost liked to call the intent of a poem, was both fresh and lucid and not without a sense of humor: if you took these antlers home and hung them on a wall as a trophy, the eyes would forever mock and rebuke you. Is this why some hunters mount only antlers and others have no qualms about mounting an animal’s entire head? The former afraid of the evil eye? The latter not? There were two or three other large aquariums, these with both reefs and fish. There were sculptures everywhere, some finished, many in plaster only, lots of nudes. Castano’s nudes are not particularly large-breasted but are wide-hipped, strong of thigh, a little round-bellied, fecund. He’d recently been commissioned to design a plastic water bottle for a Mexican company. He showed us a prototype: a nude torso of a woman, in his style. It felt good in my hand. I’d be happy to drink water out of this bottle, I thought. Then I thought: This would never fly in America. Not only would there be an outcry because it uses a woman’s body to sell water but also because that body is headless, armless, and legless and has perky nipples. As I walked around, one of the hairless dogs nervously followed me.
If inside the studio is interesting then outside is fantastic because this is where many of Castano’s larger pieces — or at least their molds — are kept, being much too large for even his large studio. The first thing you notice is Rodin’s Thinker sitting on the roof of a shed, his legs dangling over the edge. He looks as if, in this context, he’s thinking, “How did I end up on a shed’s roof in the hills of Tijuana?” Actually, it’s a foam copy and weighs only 40 pounds. Castano was asked to carve it when a Rodin exhibit was due to come to Mexico City. The real Thinker, being one of Rodin’s, and one of the world’s, most famous sculptures, was not in the exhibit. Castafio’s copy, its patina exactly the green -black color of the weathered original, was in the show so people could see a facsimile. Across from The Thinker are two giant horses, each about 30 feet tall. Again, these are molds, in this case fiberglass. Where the finished bronzes now stand, outside a shopping center in Portland, the horses face each other, both rearing, teeth bared, and hooves flailing. Here the horses don’t fight. One’s caught up in scaffolding that holds it semi-erect and the other leans against a tree.
I wandered into the greenhouse/hothouse. Actually, it’s a hothouse in a greenhouse. Castano is a grower and collector of orchids, and his orchids are in the warmer and moister hothouse. He used to tramp the jungles of Mexico and other countries collecting orchids. His collection numbered 5000 plants. Once, he discovered a previously unknown orchid, an orchid collector’s dream. He has a few hundred plants now, and at the moment only a handful are blooming. I looked closely at a sassy and many-skirted low-and-white orchid — it looped and whirled and danced on its stem without ever moving a centimeter and immediately broke my heart. It doesn’t surprise me that orchid people are a little nuts — read Susan Orlean’s wonderful book, The Orchid Thief, for more on this. Nor does it surprise me that the human obsession with orchids has been going on for centuries. This from a 17th-century British horticultural guide: “They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominion of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly.” In the larger part of the greenhouse there’s a boomerang-shaped pool filled with huge multicolored — red, black, white, orange, mottled, gold – koi.I tossed a handful of fish pellets into the water, and the koi lazily roiled up to feed, a living kaleidoscope turning in the water. Castano told me later that they add nitrogen to the water, which he then uses for the orchids, which like nitrogen-rich water.
The path that leads down to his house is lined on both sides with sculptures, a lot of them highly allegorical, disturbing, intense, and sometimes using themes from Mexican or Spanish literature — Don Quixote, for example. There are other sculptures out here; a rhino, a sailfish with sail fully unfurled, nudes of men and women, a large monkey (part of a promo package for the movie Mighty Joe Young), and a stunning bronze self-portrait. Also: a pile of used crucibles. The molten bronze is poured from the furnace into the crucible and then from the crucible into molds. The crucibles are made of graphite and clay and can hold molten metal with a temperature of 2600 degrees. They come in different sizes and can be used 50 or 60 times, but they eventually become unsafe. Ancient, craggy, blackened, and crusted, they look like something dug up at ground zero a thousand years after a nuclear explosion. These things, along with cockroaches, probably could survive a nuclear explosion. Both Glowienke and Castano use them as planters when they’re retired. Note to anyone wanting to start a gardening craze: get some of these, sell them, get more, sell them too, and so on. People will like the notion: in what once held the closest thing to man-made lava now grow peonies and other gentle flora.
Castano was born in the spring of 1938, in Mexico City, during a turbulent time in Mexican politics and Mexican art. His father, a sculptor, spent 20 years in New York, where he learned to cast bronze. The dominant figure in Mexican art at this time was the great muralist Diego Rivera. In the seven or eight years before Castano’s birth, Rivera was painting murals in the United States: first at the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco, then (where the first major controversies began) at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and then in the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center in New York City. When it was discovered that his incomplete fresco there included a portrait of Lenin (Rivera, at the time, like many other Mexican artists and intellectuals, was a Communist), the fresco was canceled and Rivera went back to Mexico.
Castano told me that it was about this time that Rivera called for all Mexican artists working in the United States and other countries to return to Mexico, “to restore Mexico’s art, to begin modem art in Mexico.” This was when his father-to-be returned to Mexico. In 1934, Mexico’s president Lazaro Cardenas was elected and started a vast program of land reform. A few years later, Rivera helped convince Cardenas to allow refuge for Leon Trotsky in Mexico City. Trotsky was on the run from Stalin’s henchmen. One of them eventually caught up with him, and he became the first major political figure assassinated by an ax to the brain. In 1938, Castano’s birth year, Trotsky, Rivera, and the French surrealist poet Andre Breton traveled throughout Mexico and produced a “Manifesto for a Free Revolutionary Art.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall during discussions by these three! As a child, Castano, because his father was a friend of Rivera’s, was often in the household of Rivera and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. He remembers Kahlo more particularly — remembers her being grumpy and cross much of the time, perhaps understandable because she was in considerable pain most of her life from a bus crash when she was 18. Perhaps she was also vexed by Rivera, who probably had more affairs than any married man in this or any other century. Plus, he was violently jealous of Kahlo’s affairs, especially the brief one she had with Trotsky because, some people speculate, Rivera was having an affair with her sister!
Although one of Castano’s sisters is a painter, none of his other three siblings became an artist, nor did any of his four children. Castano was drawn to art early, even though he tried to resist. He told me, “I tried to be a chemist, I tried to be an attorney, I tried to be lots of things, stupid things I don’t really want to be, but I found that the way to express my feelings was by modeling in clay.” The family finances were up and down — his father owned several small pottery factories that specialized, at Rivera’s suggestion, in pottery in the Aztec and Mayan manners, using ancient Mexican sources rather than looking to the United States or Europe for models. He told me, “So what they were trying to do at that time was develop a Mexican art, a Mexican movement.” Once when the factory went bust after a period of prosperity, Guillermo told me, “I went from being a nice boy with everything, with money and with toys, I saw my father crying one night because he didn’t have a place to put us to sleep, to give us food to eat.” He idolized his father, a charismatic man, a man known for his generosity. Castano later told me a story about a winter coat his father had brought back from America. It was a camel-hair coat, his father’s finest piece of apparel. One night, seeing a homeless man on the street with no coat, he took it off and gave it to the man. Guillermo loved the coat and was angry and frustrated that he gave it away. “But,” he said, “little by little I understood that when you give to somebody, or try to help somebody, give the best you have.” This kind of generosity of spirit is evident when talking to Castano today or looking at his work. He seems uninterested in his renown and success. He described an almost mystical (I don’t think he is conventionally religious in any way) or epiphanic experience he had as a young man on one of his jungle forays. Bitten by a poisonous snake, he was found unconscious by local villagers who, thinking he was dead, carried him back to their village. He was in a kind of coma, paralyzed, on the floor of a hut with candles lit and set around him. He was unable to talk or move, but he could hear what was going on. A priest was called to perform last rites. The possibility of being buried alive occurred to him. Then he began to come out of the coma, much to the astonishment of the priest and the villagers. He counts this experience as one of the most important of his life. He sees it as a sign saying he has a mission, an obligation to fulfill as an artist and as a man.
Besides collecting orchids and besides his small menagerie (doves, a parrot, chickens, a huge Doberman puppy), he’s owned a string of other animals in his life: a lion cub, a golden eagle, a 12-foot boa constrictor, and “we had an ocelot that ran away and was found eight days later, hiding in a Jewish synagogue.” It was the ocelot that later got traded for the lion cub, which, when it got too big, he traded for something else. And he said: “It was good because it became a star, a movie star, in a Tarzan movie done in Mexico. No, it’s not a story,” he said.
“I have pictures to prove it!” Castano told an anecdote at lunch one day about a very hot young artist, making money hand over fist, who approached him once with a napkin she had just moments before twisted into some shape she thought brilliant. She wanted Castano to cast it in bronze and make it about eight feet tall. In her estimation, she’d done the creative part. Now she wanted him to immortalize her genius. He refused. He rarely showed any kind of negative emotions when we talked — none of the aesthetic-defending or territorial squabbles that occur commonly enough when artists talk about other artists. This time was an exception, and even then, it was subtle. It wasn’t contempt that he showed but more like embarrassment that someone could make something out of a napkin in six seconds and consider it art. I asked him later about abstract art in general, why he never works in the abstract himself. “Why I don’t work in the abstract or modem type— People choose to look at my figures and they have to speak the language or they have to understand the language I am talking— If I begin speaking abstract, I will have no public or the public will be reduced to a few people who try to work to understand, to be elite. I am not working for the elite, I am working for the human. If it’s African, or Asian, they will see my figures and they will understand exactly what 1 have in mind.” Then he said, “My first love is clay, and I don’t think I can get rid of this love of clay — it’s just like a part, an extension, of my hands — when 1 make clay to mold, it does as I want, as I think — my brains are connected to clay.”
Visiting Carl Glowienke’s studio in a residential neighborhood of small houses in Lemon Grove is a somewhat different experience. Two things stood out for me before I went inside: his front gate is like no other I’ve seen, and there’s a tree right behind the fence wearing formidable thorns on its trunk. This tree and the garden and cacti flourishing all around it are the work of Glowienke’s wife Lynne, a psychiatric nurse. Evolution decided that climbing this tree will cause whatever climbs it pain. Glowienke made the wrought-iron gate— it’s a desert theme, painted in blues and greens. Glowienke makes and sells some of these to fund his more ambitious projects. He told me that last year was the first year he made more money than Lynne. I think he meant with his two salaries combined. Glowienke is an exceptionally accomplished artist and craftsman in an art form where the materials to make the art are very expensive and the labor, the man-hours, prodigious. Not to mention all the tools, large, high-whining tools, to make hard metal move and shine. It made me glad I was a writer— when push comes to shove, all that writers need (as tools) to do their jobs are pencils and pieces of paper.
Giowienke’s studio is a metal building, about the size of a small garage. He has the world’s smallest office in the rear. The studio is crammed with sculptures, tools, metal bars and rods and scraps of all sizes and shapes. Barrels, buckets, vises. Here and there, amid the clang and clutter, were finished pieces. Two green turtles, a six-foot shark with a double row of teeth (each made individually) that caused me to shiver, a pair of bottle-nosed dolphins, and, my favorite here, which was wearing as dust cover a woman’s slip: two rays. They seem to be flying. Glowienke learned to scuba dive so he could observe the animals he sculpts in their natural world. The way the rays are attached to their base (important, particularly when mounting fish in the sea or birds in the air) is almost invisible. They seem to be swimming over and around the piece of sculpted marble, when they are, in fact, attached to it.
Something dawning on me: these artists not only need the imaginative abilities all good artists need, but they must also be skillful craftsmen, workers with all sorts of tools: blowtorches, grinders, drills, sanders, hammers, saws, welding apparatus. Glowienke has an anvil outside his studio. I don’t know a single poet who has an anvil, nor a painter I can think of, and I’ve never heard of a dancer needing an anvil. Then it occurred to me that both Castano and Glowienke have strong handshakes and that both are physically strong — Castano about six feet tall and slim but wiry and Glowienke an inch or two shorter, boyish looking and with large-lensed glasses but built like a bull. I quickly ran through my head all the artists I know and Glowienke is the one I’d pick to back me up (God forbid) in a bar fight. That is, of course, if I had to pick an artist rather than, say, a linebacker or longshoreman.
One of the saddest things I’ve seen on many visits to artists’ studios (except, of course, at times, really bad art) was right outside Giowienke’s studio: a sculpture of a gray whale, 12 feet long and weighing 1300 pounds. It’s one of his first major pieces, and a lot of his heart and a huge amount of work went into it. The sculpture once was on the lawn in front of the San Diego Museum of Natural History, but vandals did their dirty work and Glowienke had to remove it. He didn’t mind at all that people put their children on it to take pictures. He’d go there sometimes to watch as people reacted to it, touched it. The whale sits on a crumbling wooden pallet and, since its back is arched in a loose U-shape and there’s a rope going from its tail to around its throat, it looks like it’s hog-tied and strangling itself. Glowienke can fix it — the damage is largely to its base—but when he does, it’s unlikely he’ll put the sculpture somewhere it can get damaged again.
I asked Glowienke to explain the process to me, the steps one must go through to make a bronze sculpture. I already mentioned the first step: sculpting the original, most often with clay. Aside from firing the piece — hardening it by baking it in an oven or kiln — that’s where a lot of sculptors stop. It’s just the beginning for a bronze sculptor. Next, the artist makes a mold of the clay figure, using plaster, latex, ure-thene, or silicone. The clay is removed and recycled. Large chunks of industrial wax are melted (another feature of the studio are huge pots and cookers) and poured into the mold. The wax coats the inside of the mold and makes a hollow wax cast of the original. Then the mold is removed from the wax. The wax has to be very carefully detailed — it can pick something up as subtle as a fingerprint.
At the foundry, the artist, the worker/craftsman, attaches wax tubes and cones called pouring cups, vents, and gates—to allow the gasses to escape when the molten metal is filling the mold. The pouring cup is the mold’s mouth. Then a second mold is made — called a ceramic shell mold. This is done by dipping the wax cast in a slurry (a wet mixture) of a silica-zirconium-based compound, in what looks like a giant mixing bowl. The same material is used to make a solid core that fills the cavity of the hollow wax cast. Then this wet mold is dusted with the same silica-zirconium mixture in dry form and hung on a rack. After about seven coatings, each taking a day to dry, the mold is ready.
There are at least two large rooms in the foundry where rack after rack of molds dry— it’s damp, dark, and cool (unlike everywhere else here), eerily quiet (unlike anywhere else here) and smells of wet cement. It made me think of a meat locker designed by Salvador Dali. This is one of the most crucial and time-consuming parts of the process. Glowienke used the word “crucial” meaning it. If any little thing goes wrong in any of the steps — and often the artist might not know he’s made a mistake until two or three steps down the line—then disaster, literally, can strike. He told me a story about one of his most valuable lessons from Castano: Castano knew Glowienke made a mistake in an early step but Castano didn’t say anything. During a later step the mistake caused a kind of explosion. Castano could have told him and prevented the explosion, but he thought a better way for Glowienke to learn was to make this mistake and see how bad the results can be. Glowienke said they both danced a little to avoid the spray of molten metal.
Castano figured Gtawienke wouldn’t forget this way. He hasn’t. At one point, when we were talking about some of the physical dangers of this work, Castano said: If just one drop of molten bronze were to fall on your arm or your head it would go through you like a large-caliber bullet through butter.
The next step is to fire the mold — upside down so the wax all runs out — hence the term (which I found more intriguing before 1 knew what it really meant) “lost wax” method of casting. If even the tiniest little fleck of wax is left in the mold it can ruin the piece and create a dangerous reaction when the metal is poured into the mold and hits pockets of air in the wax: bang! The mold is baked at about 1200 degrees. How long depends on how large the mold is. The high temperatures these men mentioned interested me — making me think of blast furnaces and Hell. Glowienke said, “If you figure that oak, one of the hardest of all woods, burns at 500 degrees, then you have a sense of how hot 2200 or 2600 degrees is.”
Then, while the mold is baking, melt the bronze. And while you’re at it separate a few egg whites from their yolks and whisk the whites until they form little peaks! At a big foundry they might melt 1000 pounds of bronze at once. Next, pour the metal into the mold, filling the space left by the lost wax. Let cool 18 to 24 hours. Here’s another thing not many artists use: a pneumatic hammer, with which you break away the ceramic shell mold and the core. This is your bronze sculpture, or a piece of it. Then you sandblast it. Then cut off the gates, vents, and pouring cup. Then you grind off any imperfections. Now you weld the pieces (all but the smallest bronzes are cast in pieces) together. Until the seams are ground away, the unfinished sculpture looks like one of those charts you see at a butcher shop dividing a cow into sections, or cuts. Then sandblast it again. Are you still thinking about going to art school? Finally, apply the patina, a whole area of expertise in itself, which often requires dangerous chemicals, gasses, and fumes. One more step, according to Glowienke, tongue in cheek, is this: “Mount piece and sell it for a lot of money.” Or, at least enough money to buy the materials and time to make another piece.
I’d been to the foundry that cast a lot of Castano’s sculptures, but I hadn’t yet seen a pour when the bronze is melted, then poured from the furnace into the crucible and from the crucible into the molds. On my last visit, I had that chance. I wanted to see this for several reasons, the primary of which was: I love the color of molten metal or rock, i.e., lava. One day, I’d like to watch a lava flow, although I hope not through my backyard.
The ingots do not look like bars of gold — they’re dingy and dirty and stacked up like cord wood. The furnace looks somewhat like a large cement mixer. A pour is at least a three-man job. When the bronze is melted, one man tips the furnace forward on swivel-hinges and pours the bronze into the crucible. Another man skims off the impurities that rise to the top. He uses a long iron pole with a hook on the end. He flips the clinkers, “the big bloody clinkers,” onto the floor, and then takes care not to step on them. The crucible glows a kind of yellow-orange, not unlike the color of a lit jack-o’-lantern, but redder. Fiercer, and with black smudges where the graphite is particularly strong and doesn’t get red hot. The crucible sits in an O-ring at the center of an eight-foot-long iron pole. One end is fitted with handlebars, the other is as bare as the end of a broomstick. The team captain holds the handles. When the bronze is poured from the crucibles into the molds, this man controls the pour by turning the handles. It’s a job that takes a great deal of finesse and brute strength. The man at the handleless end of the pole holds it level and lets the pole turn in his gloved hands. The molds, a dozen or two, are sitting upright in a large bin about 20 feet from the furnace. The men maneuver the crucible over the bin, one standing on each side of it, and pour the bronze into the molds. No wine steward, no waiter, ever poured a more precise or more fiery flow of liquid into anything. The metal slips over the crucible’s lip and, directed by subtle shifts of the wrists of the man working the handles, streams into the small but gaping mouths, the pour cups, of the molds.
The liquid metal is yellow-gold, so alive with light and lit from within — making it, to my eye, a breathtaking color. Maybe I like the color so much because it’s also dangerous. Maybe I like the oxymoronic metal-to-liquid quality. Maybe I like it so much because it reminds me of one of my favorite justice stories. In the mid- 16th Century, Pedro de Valdivia, the incredibly cruel (known for amputations and mutilations of the Indians) conqueror of Chile, after marching from Peru, was captured about 500 miles south of modern-day Santiago by the Araucanians, an indigenous people. They killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat, saying, “You wanted gold, we’ll give you gold!” Like a bullet through butter. The men move from mouth to mouth smoothly, sometimes spilling a few drops in between molds and sometimes overfilling them so that little glowing rivulets slide down the craggy slopes of the mold like a miniature volcano. The men wear masks over their noses and mouths, dark goggles and heavy aprons but no other protection.
The man manipulating the handlebars doesn’t (the others do) wear gloves—his touch has to be so sure he can’t afford the luxury of gloves. It’s very hot in this place, needless to say. At least 110 degrees. It’s also incredibly noisy. The flame shooting out of a porthole in the furnace sounds like and looks like an acetylene torch but magnified 100,000 times. Sometimes Glowienke and Castano do their own pours but on a much smaller scale. The men working the pour are large and strong, and the man on the handlebars wears a tank top. His shoulder and arm muscles ripple. A steel worker in Pittsburgh never worked harder or hotter.
I continued to be amazed by the toil and the sweat, the sheer physicality, the knowledge of tools, chemicals, metallurgy, mathematics, dozens of skills needed to make this art that starts with an artist pushing and shaping a mound of damp clay, trying to make it take some form in his imagination or trying to discover while working on it, the shape he wants it to be, or, the shape it wants to be. Statuary, sculpture, is the earliest known art form. Figures found in prehistoric graves predate cave paintings by thousands of years. Castano and Glowienke are wired into ageless artistic impulses.
I wanted to talk more to Carl and Guillermo, separately and together, so I could try to figure out their relationship and what it is that drives them to make bronze sculpture.
One of the things both artists like about sculpture, and bronze sculpture in particular, is its permanence. Carl said: “This type of work necessitates your being honest and doing your best work each step of the way — after about five or six years working with Guillermo, you start to feel you’re in a small fraternity of people who do this, then there’s ego involved — a little bit — and you feel, you want 200 or 300 years from now, when somebody takes one of your figures to re-patina it or put it on a new base — I want that guy to go: They really did a good job back then. Look at this, they really knew what they were doing.’ There’s a sense of wanting to perpetuate the craft at a high level.” Both of these men have work ethics that will match that of any Protestant I ever knew. Carl said Guillermo called him one night, late, and when Carl picked up, Guillermo asked why he was wasting his time answering the phone when he could be working. He was only half-kidding. Guillermo said: “A figure is like a son. You create a son — you give him Pampers and you feed him, send him to school But there’s a time when you say, ‘Well, son, this is your life’ — the sculpture, the figure — you are involved in creating a figure that doesn’t exist before. After you are done, it doesn’t care, it goes—maybe it goes to the junkyard, or you mash it up and melt it again. Maybe it goes to a museum, maybe it goes just to being not great someplace, you don’t know where — the important part is that you did it, and you made it well, as best as you could.” Carl said at one point, “The best compliment I can get is when someone says—‘Is that real? Did you — is that a stuffed dolphin you have there?’ Every once in a while that will happen — so if it looks real enough to people, yet it’s static, then you know it’ll last.” He feels he’s accomplished this with his largest piece, two life-sized baiji (Chinese river dolphins) commissioned by Ocean Park aquarium in Hong Kong. The baiji is the world’s most endangered dolphin — only about 85 still live. If it does become extinct, this sculpture will show people what they looked like, exactly.
Several months ago, there was an article on the painter Chuck Close in the New York Times Sunday magazine. At the end, the writer asked Close how he’d like to be remembered, what he would like people to think if they looked at a painting of his in 100 years. He works in a painstaking manner, hundreds of thousands of precise, planned, impassioned brush strokes. He said he’d like people to look at his work and think, these paintings were made by hand. He meant that it would be enough for him if it was recognized how much work went into them, that they were made, that a man worked on them. I asked Guillermo and Carl what they thought of this. Carl nodded. Guillermo said: "We feel that inside of this hill is a diamond, a big, beautiful — the best diamond in the world — and we are taking granite, sand, the earth to make a big tunnel to get the diamond. Where we are now, maybe we are just beginning to build the tunnel, maybe we are near to the diamond, but we don’t know exactly. We are working to get it.” I thought, that’s what Castano and Glowienke are doing: working to get it.
— Thomas Lux
Thomas Lux teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book of poetry is New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (Houghton Mifflin).