I’m stating the obvious here, but making art is hard. Writing words, shooting photographs, painting paintings, printing prints…It’s all freaking difficult. But sculpting sculptures — especially sculptures made from white-hot molten metal that turns into rock-hard bronze — at least logistically speaking, might be the trickiest of all art forms.

I never thought about how bronze sculptures get made, just as I never think about how iPhones or microwaves or railroad bridges or pencils get made. They’re just amazing things created by people way smarter than me, put on this earth for my consumption.

Then I visited the Workhorse Bronze Foundry and gained a whole new appreciation for the creation of this type of art.

I went to Workhorse last week as part of the Long March to Freedom art walk. Several of the Long March to Freedom sculptures were made there, and it was cool to follow the path of these historic bronze figures that I’ve now visited several times in different locations. More generally though, it was cool to visit the place where so many of South Africa’s great sculptors make their art.

William Kentridge's work at the Workhorse Foundry
Sculptures by acclaimed artist William Kentridge on display at the Workhorse Foundry.

The Workhorse Bronze Foundry

The first interesting thing about the Workhorse Foundry is its location, smack in the center of downtown Joburg and not in a trendy neighborhood like Maboneng or Braamfontein. This is “deep CBD”, in an area scattered with semi-abandoned buildings and stray piles of garbage.

Outside the Workhorse Foundry.
Outside the Workhorse Foundry
The Foundry building.

You step inside the building and suddenly find yourself in this cool, quiet, oasis of art, a million miles away from what’s happening outside.

Workhorse Bronze Foundry entrance hall
Entrance hall of the Workhorse Bronze Foundry.

Let me very briefly, and probably inaccurately, summarize the bronze casting process.

First the artist creates a model out of clay or wax or some other material. The artisans at the foundry then create a mould of that model, which is the exact negative of the model itself. Then the artisans use the mould to create a wax copy of the original model, which is dipped into a silica slurry and turned into a hard shell.

Making a wax model at the Workhorse Foundry
Oscar Mhaka creating the wax version of a sculpture.
Wax department at Workhorse Foundry
Nandipha Pambo, also in the wax department. This whole process blows my mind.

The metal is heated to a temperature of nearly 1000 degrees (literally), poured into the shell, and eventually cooled and turned into a bronze replica of the original model.

I don’t have any pictures of the molten metal part of the process because that wasn’t happening the day I went. But this is Mbongeni Qholani performing what is called fettling, when the moulding shell is removed, the pieces are all put together and the sculpture returns to the exact shape of the original model.

The final step is the application of patina — a chemical finish sprayed on with a blowtorch, which makes the sculpture look shiny or colored.

Taurai Kazi of the patina department.

See the Workhorse website for a much better explanation of this process. Also, studio manager Rina Noto does a fantastic job of leading guests through the foundry and explaining the bronze casting process in just the right amount of detail. I highly recommend touring the foundry with Rina, but tours are strictly by appointment and only during the week.

The lovely Rina.

Everything that happens at Workhorse is mesmerizing, and on top of all that the owner of the foundry, Louis Olivier, is a sculptor himself and has his studio in the building.

Studio of Louis Olivier in Workhorse Bronze Foundry.
Inside Louis’ studio. Most artists’ studios are beautiful in my experience, but Louis’ is especially so.
Sculpture in Lousi Olivier's studio
So pretty.
Bronze sculptures in the window at the Workhorse Foundry in downtown Joburg
In the window.
Inside the Workhorse Foundry entrance hall
Louis has a really cute dog who seems to like being photographed but then growls if you come too close.

The Workhorse Bronze Foundry embodies Joburg art at its best. It’s at 2 Grahamstown Street, Marshalltown. Call 011-334-0657 or email rina@workhorsebronzefoundry.co.za for information.

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