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For Clancy Gray teaching is everything, as he has already seen his impact—Art is the extra

justin brotton - Friday, April 01, 2016


By Darl DeVault

On his way to becoming a physical education teacher, Broken Arrow resident Clancy Gray ended up teaching art, the love of which he discovered right before he began his student teaching. That new love of art added onto his first love of teaching and coaching allowed the Osage Nation member to create an art legacy of intergenerational impact in the Tulsa area.

The University of Central Oklahoma art education graduate says teaching all that art keeps him excited about his own artistic efforts. Gray, now 66, creates his own art, mostly in his summer breaks. He says he is too busy during the school year, busy those 37 years of shepherding thousands of students through a rigorous art curriculum. The two concepts support one another in addition to having an impact on nearly 4,000 former art students, as Gray has become a fine art modern master. The art teacher and artist has been doing pottery, painting, sculpting, and designing jewelry in his Native American themes of collectible quality from the start.

“For me teaching is sharing, sharing those things I hold precious to me…..so it is only natural that I care the most about sharing my art through teaching since I get to see it affect young artists positively every day.” Gray said.

His dramatic use of depth in the impasto style of using a palette knife to apply his vivid acrylics allows light to animate the painting. The style allows Gray to create a modern ruggedness that celebrates the sparkle built up in some areas to ceramic glaze depth with skillful repetitious palette strokes of the water-based acrylic paint. Those high gloss highlights have a richness of color that captures the eye, whether portrait and figure, still life, and landscape.

There is a stillness, balance and yet movement in his work. He can build up depth in the painting that can be highlighted by brilliant hues or light catching the shiny acrylic as intended.

The artist’s fondness for color, texture, and asymmetrical design is also reflected in his jewelry and his love of nature shows up in many of his portrayals of animals in action. This has allowed him to win many prestigious art awards in his long career in designing silver jewelry and sculpture. His silver jewelry is often the most collected of his work. This nationally collected art teacher has won numerous awards in exhibitions and museum shows, such as in 2012, he was part of a Red Earth invitational sculpture exhibit at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City.

He is equally proud of the achievements of his art students in Tulsa, both at McLain High School for 17 years, East Central High School for 18 years and these last two at Edison High School. He insists the students master the basics and then encourages them to create original works rather than copying pictures. Gray has guided many art careers as he has taught more than 4,000 students have graduated from his careers at three schools.

Along the way he has often coached boy’s and girl’s soccer, baseball, girl’s softball, boys and girls cross-country and boys and girls swimming. "We've had student artists earn important scholarships, and become award-winners in art competitions and students whose work is shown in galleries,” Gray said. "We have high expectations, we really want them to grow as much as possible as artists along the way, and hope that means some will win numerous art competitions in the state and nationally.”

"Students are given strong basic skills, as they learn those skills can take them anywhere they want to go as artists.” Gray said. The result is a highly productive teacher who has helped many graduating students receive college scholarships and awards.

Passion for teaching and creating a nurturing educational setting for all his students was a given. After his double major in art and physical education, Gray went on to earn a master's degree in education at UCO. In his case he gets to see the talent evolve and adapt to create great art. That often stimulates him to keep up with his own art career. Gray sells his artwork and jewelry at surrounding area art shows, usually setting up his work at shows about seven times a year.

Locally, his work can be found at the Greater Tulsa Indian Arts Festival, Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival and Oklahoma Indian Summer Festival, he said.

He said it has been satisfying as a teacher to see his student’s foster multigenerational relationships within the art community as they seek their fortune. After talent, the intangibles make the artist, he said. Gray communicates the positive outlooks on those intangibles to model positive outcomes for his students.

Although he points to his influence in nurturing artists as a teacher in the formal setting of a high school as his greatest success, often spanning generations, Gray has mentored his own family. While showing respect to his forefathers’ art, Gray’s multigenerational influence as an art educator has already given him a rich legacy, including an art teacher son and an education administrator son.

The artist’s legacy started with his family, where his two brothers and sister all have artistic ability. Younger brother Shan Gray is known as a world renowned sculptor in bronze. Gray’s older brother is talented silversmith and his sister is known for her watercolor and pottery.

His son Brett is teaching art at the Freshman Academy in Broken Arrow. He also is a UCO art education graduate, teaching since 2006. And his youngest son Dax is a former history teacher and now an assistant principal in Broken Arrow at Ernest Childers Middle School. Mendi Gray Parker, his daughter, is helping manage store marketing and public relations for Quik Trip in Tulsa.

Gray is humble in person, often more comfortable talking about his artist friends and family. “My wife Sherry’s support for my art has made a huge contribution in our 37 years of marriage,” Gray said of his spouse who manages a catering firm in Tulsa.

“My younger brother Shan Gray has always had the natural ability to see things and recreate them in three dimensions. Shan is a true artist with a God-given talent,” said Clancy. “I got to help on the statue’s hands when Shan did the Shannon Miller statue in Edmond.”

He was able to teach his father, once he started teaching, saying “Yes, I taught my Dad how to do silversmithing. And then later I taught my older brother Greg to do silversmithing and jewelry makingHe became quite an accomplished silversmith, as well.”

The Navajo style jewelry Gray creates has a story, where the design is built around the stone. His jewelry can range from $20 up to as much as $8,000.

But it is still about the teaching, interacting with young people, he says. He points out that youth are far more visually oriented at their age than he was at the same high school age in the 1970s. He attributes the graphic rich world we now live in as stimulating younger artistic eyes and how they recreate the world in art.

Firmly on the path to being a physical education teacher and coach because his love of playing baseball had motivated him in college, Gray embraced art late in his college career.

No doubt he could get a college degree; no doubt could he become a teacher. The only question was: Could he create the same intensity and robustness of teaching art that he displayed as an athlete and coach. Now 40 years from that fateful decision to change his life’s direction, it is evident he has displayed an intense amount of interest and caring in his life’s work—that shows in thousands of artists he has instructed and nurtured.

Throughout Gray’s teaching career he has planted the seeds of art and art appreciation in his student artist’s lives, opening them to growth in self-awareness, self-expression, and self-confidence. Some would say his impact is profound. Inspired by his teaching and his love of art and freedom of expression, many of his students have gone on to become professional artists, designers, architects and educators. Hundreds more still have a deep love of making, and looking at art, and participate in these interests whenever they can, recognizing the enrichment it brings to everyone’s lives.

Bronze Horse Foundry Fine Art Graces Oklahoma

justin brotton - Friday, April 01, 2016


By Darl DeVault

Oklahomans have created a quiet world-renowned fine art legacy in a northeast Oklahoma town that carries on today at the Bronze Horse Foundry.

A three-generation family of Pawhuska residents and members of the Osage Nation have created this legacy for more than 35 years now. The John D. Free Sr. family have built an epicentre of world-class fine art bronze casting in their rare artist-owned bronze foundry.

When a fire destroyed half their foundry in 2012, the family’s long-time promotion of the Pawhuska community worldwide allowed city leaders to justify providing the family business help by quickly leasing work space.

“With the recent accommodation our community made for our business in 2012 and the outpouring of respect when my father died in 2014 we are blessed that our family has deep roots in Pawhuska.” John Free Jr. said last month “My brothers, Matt and Mark were just discussing at Thanksgiving how much all that support means to our generation of the Free family. It meant the world to us.”

While the Free family casts all types of art in bronze, when you look at their heritage as Osage-Cherokee they are counted among the premier Native American artists in the world. Just finding another full-service fine art foundry with their Native American artist pedigree is daunting, much less at the skill level they provide their client artists needing their art transformed into bronze sculpture.

This tradition and legacy began when already accomplished artist and Pawhuska native John D. Free, Sr. expanded his art horizon by building Oklahoma’s first fine art foundry in 1981. This effort followed a renowned art career that still resonates in Western heritage today. Free’s Wrangler bronze sculpture is the award each year for the six categories of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Western Heritage Awards.

The awards were established to honor and encourage the legacy of those whose works in American West literature, music, film, and television to tell its stories. These awards have achieved iconic status for Western performance artist through the decades, beginning in 1961. With hundreds of the small statues earned by Western theme creators, and on display throughout the country and abroad, the Wrangler is now truly iconic for Western excellence.

The Free family’s contribution to the Pawhuska’s reputation internationally has been immeasurable since the 1960s when John, Sr. was sculpting his most daring treatments of Western themes. Free, who died in 2014 at his ranch north of Pawhuska at 84, called his painting and sculpture ''traditional realism,'' much in the spirit of the great Western artists Charles Russell and Frederic Remington. From his prodigious output it was obvious he excelled at creating horses or sculpting scenes of ranch life and cowboys.


That legacy of John Sr. lives on and will grow in 2016. The Free family is working with the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, Okla. to produce a show of John Sr. works to open in October that will show through the end of the year.

By the 1980s Free Sr. taught his sons Matt and Mark bronze foundry techniques and they began helping to cast their father’s sculptures. John Free, Jr. joined the business 34 years ago and became the co-manager with his brother Matt 28 years ago.

As the three men grew up in the fine art bronze casting business, both as artists themselves and as employees of his father’s foundry, they proved him right when the elder Free thought that other artists needed fine arts foundry services in Oklahoma. The family has since established long relationships with the bronze sculptors worldwide while heading up what many believe to be one of the best fabrication and casting teams in bronze sculpture.

The Bronze Horse became the first sustained fine arts foundry in Oklahoma and thrived because of its artist-owned emphasis. Achieving iconic status means having high standards. The Free family, artists and sculptors themselves, take great pride in working closely with their artist clients to ensure they cast a finished bronze piece that is faithful to the original in clay.

At its peak capacity the foundry handled the casting work for more than 100 artists that amounted to 1,000 pieces a year at the two and a half acre foundry site that provided 8,000 square feet of workspace for its artisans. The foundry was able to become known worldwide for large-scale public works of art, which grace numerous museum, corporate, public and private collections prominently exhibited in many American cities.

John Jr., 60, graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in construction management. He worked in the commercial and residential construction trades for 11 years before taking over the management of the day-to-day operations of his father’s foundry in 1986. He has since brought in his wife Cindy to work in the office as well as make molds and work waxes with the help of Dreama Tyng and Lisa Weaver.

The foundry grew to employ 17 highly skilled artisans and many part-timers hired for special projects to meet the casting and fabrication requirements for sculptors, architects and designers throughout the Southwest. They cast monumental sculptures up to 16 feet high indoors, and with proper fabrication structure, any size outdoors.

An example of bring positive attention to Pawhuska was August of 2003 when then Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin visited Pawhuska to celebrate the sendoff of a Bronze Horse creation. She and Spahn spoke to the hundreds gathered to see a bronze sculpture of National Baseball Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in his high-kicking windup be unveiled outdoors at the Osage Tribal Museum.

The 9-foot statue of major league baseball's winningest left-handed pitcher was on its way to Turner Field in Atlanta where statues of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro and Ty Cobb were already displayed. It was sculpted by Shan Gray and assistant Joel Randell.

Matt Free, who also studied at OSU, oversees the casting operations. This entails the red-hot bronze pouring foundry work being done at the part of the original facility saved from the 2012 fire four miles south of Pawhuska. City leaders found a way to lease parts of the former Pawhuska National Guard Armory to help continue the foundry’s other work. The mold making and detail work in wax now occupies the main room of what now looks like a stone fortress to our generation, but was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1938.

“A group of city leaders including the previous city manager came to us right after the fire to offer any help the city might provide,’ said Matt. “I knew our bronze pouring could still continue, so we were really appreciative when the strong support from Pawhuska started offering a place to continue with our mold making at the armory.”

Matt's two sons, Cameron and Matthew have joined him in working at the foundry. This multigenerational approach is one of the reasons the foundry has seen continued success and great reputation.

John Free Jr. overseas the mold-making operation at the armory, only a few years after the National Guard decommissioned it. Now owned by the City of Pawhuska, located at 836 E. 8th Street, it was deemed a surplus National Guard Armory by the Oklahoma Military Department.

The two men and two locations now create another way to complete casting in silicate bronze in the multiple-stage "Lost Wax" method. The armory workers make latex molds of clay sculptures, duplicate them in wax, and attach sprues to channel molten bronze to all parts of the work, encase it in a concrete-like mold and send it to the foundry. After the molten bronze pour, the piece is returned to the armory. The pieces are welded together and the detail put back with grinders by the artisans, then they finish and sand to perfection. Once smooth, they add emphasis with a patina and seal the resulting bronze.

John Jr., a former Osage Nation congressman, oversees and manages all departments, including sculpting, mold making, pouring, finishing. He has overseen the fabricating and installation of more than 90 large outdoor sculptures across the country

The foundry provides expert mold making, ceramic shell casting, fabrication, application of patina, basing and shipping, and delivery and installation. They also offer restoration and collection maintenance while helping artists with design services and consultation on large-scale projects.

A large scale project coming up is close to home, as John Jr. has been commissioned to scale up his clay maquette to larger-than- life-size sculpture of Chief James Bigheart for the Osage Nation’s new campus.

The artist already had a background with the project when Bigheart’s great-granddaughters talked to him about a statue of the renowned chief. Bigheart was the Principal Chief from 1875 to 1906 who is credited with negotiating the 1906 Act and preserving the Osage Minerals Estate.

The nine-foot statue will grace the front of the new Osage Nation Welcome Center on a large sandstone base. The welcome center is the larger of the two new buildings just completed on the Osage Nation's campus in Pawhuska at 239 West 12th Street, where the smaller building is the new law center.


World Beats Path to Chickasaw Master Artist’s Door

justin brotton - Thursday, October 01, 2015

By Gene Lehmann

In 2005, Dustin Mater could not have fathomed he would be counted among the premier Native American artists in the world. Today, his work is in Paris, France, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chickasaw Nation, adorning Pendleton blankets, and in private collections spanning America.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said Mater is very deserving of his success.

“Dustin is a very talented artist who understands the value of incorporating Chickasaw culture into his work,” said Governor Anoatubby. “He is a great example of artists who are helping revitalize our culture through the use of symbols and designs, which have had significance to Chickasaw people for hundreds of years.”

His art once was dominated with drawings of “super heroes, monsters and robots.”

In California, he struggled to pay bills; hopped from one freelance job to another; labored as a bellboy at a large Los Angeles luxury hotel; and bitterly opposed a valet parking assignment placing him in the cockpit of cars costing $100,000.

Highways were clogged and art commissions were elusive. Jobs to tap his artistic abilities did not seem to exist.

He met his wife, Titi, while both toiled in the hotel and restaurant business in California. They fell in love and eventually married. He also hustled jobs as a graphic designer.

He shared his artwork with Titi, who first observed recurring designs, patterns and swirls resembling Native symbolism. She shared her observations, but Mater dismissed them.

Looking back, Mater now knows he was “resisting” art that would launch a national and international career.

“None of this – the Paris sale, the Pendleton blanket design, the Smithsonian, the art commissions – none of it would have happened had I kept resisting where my ancestors and the Creator were wishing to take me,” Mater explains. “This is the art that was in my soul and in my heart the whole time.”


An unusual occurrence reinforced the notion for Mater that it was time to return home.

“I was driving to work one morning and a red fox ran across the freeway. You never see any wild animals in Los Angeles – ever! That fox crossed eight lanes of traffic and made it safely to the other side at rush hour,” Mater recalls with awe.

A phone call from Titi beckoned him home from work early.

“Come home now!” she exclaimed. He listened, and on the return trip, the vixen reappeared. It again successfully navigated eight lanes of traffic safely.

“I knew it was the Creator speaking to me through that creature,” Mater said. Arriving home, Titi delivered great news – a family was on its way.

Living the life of a starving artist in California is an acceptable gig as long as artist and spouse are fine with it. When Titi made the announcement that Sophie Elizabeth Mater would soon be joining them, the lifestyle lost its luster.

It was time to head back to Oklahoma.


Mater was born in California. It was not long afterward that his family returned to Oklahoma. Mater attended school in Ada, graduating in 1997.

It was in Oklahoma, in his formative years, he learned he was Chickasaw. He listened to his grandmother tell stories about his tribe, its heritage and its importance as a sovereign nation. He learned he was merely five generations removed from the Trail of Tears.

“Grandmother Carolyn told me all about the old times. I heard all these amazing stories, but had no visual context to make stories become applicable to art,” Mater relates. “But she was planting seeds. I didn’t know they were planted. They took root when I was about 19 or 20 years old and first saw Mississippian-era art.”

Chickasaws forged pottery with elaborately etched designs, usually something meaningful or spiritual to the tribe.

Of particular interest to Mater is the French gorget, a piece of jewelry worn around the neck. Chickasaws acquired gorgets and metal armbands from, ironically, the Spanish and British. Multiple gorgets may be worn by tribal members, usually as a public signal of their “rank” or “status” within the tribal hierarchy.

Mater painted. He carved. He toiled at being an artist when the family arrived back in Oklahoma. He attempted to find work with the Chickasaw Nation. With jobs being so scarce, Mater did what he always has done – he hustled work.

While his grandmother told stories, his mother, Charlotte Elizabeth Milligan Carpenter, took a different tack to introduce her son to his Native American roots. They ventured to a Sundance Lakota pow wow when he was a youngster.

“It was amazingly beautiful and impactful,” Mater remembers. “When we were there, my heritage came alive for me, and that experience still sticks with me to this very day. Really, for the first time, I saw the world through my Native American filter. Our culture is alive”


Pendleton wool blankets have been a part of Native American culture since the company’s founding in 1863. The blankets are the crème da la crème of quality craftsmanship. The company also is savvy about marketing and branding. Almost

from inception, Pendleton produced blankets specifically aimed at Native Americans. The blankets were bold and bright, with brilliant colors dyed deep into the scoured wool. Linked with the colors were Native American symbols unique to the southwestern tribes.

Mater admired the company and its dedication to quality, yet the Chickasaw artist saw immediately that Pendleton had no blankets featuring southeastern tribes’ ancient designs and symbols. So he contacted them.

Mater pitched his “Spring” design featuring symbols of a southeastern tribe – specifically Chickasaw, but symbols accepted by other members of the Five Civilized Tribes. Pendleton loved it. When it was accepted for production, it marked the first time the company featured designs of a southeastern tribe.

The Creator’s ever-watchful eye is in the design, as is his hand, as he is the craftsman of all things. The revered woodpecker brings good luck and protection.

And, typical of Mater, he colored outside the lines. Life-giving raindrops pepper the work of art.

Mater believes the blanket’s designs, signifying rebirth and fresh beginnings, are especially appropriate as Mississippian-inspired art is currently enjoying a renaissance. Mater’s creation is quite popular, and an impressive financial success for Pendleton since market introduction in 2012.


Mater is a self-described nerd. Recently, a Facebook post showed him in an amusing wig channeling Princess Leia from “Star Wars,” with villainous Darth Vader lurking in the background.

“I haven’t forgotten the nerd that resides within me,” he says with a grin. “I still love superheroes, robots and monsters,” he says, almost defending himself.

It was a real-life Chickasaw “superhero” that inspired one of his greatest works of art. That action figure is of astronaut John Herrington, the first member of a Native American tribe to blast off from Earth and walk in space.

Mater was in awe of the great Chickasaw. His gorget shell carving of an ancient Chickasaw wearing a modern-day helmet, his arms bearing the feathers of a falcon, was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the Native American. The work, entitled “John Herrington: 21st Century Bird Man,” is part of the permanent Smithsonian collection, and is on display.

“John Herrington is the man!” Mater exclaims. “He’s a genuine superhero.”


In June, a Mater work was sold in Paris, France. He was commissioned to produce the work and sold it to the buyer, who in turn hoped to make a profit for charity. It, too, is considered a classic Mater piece, entitled “7 Days and 7 Nights.” A shell carving with many sacred Chickasaw symbols, the hand and eye of the Creator is the focal point of the piece. With the art came something money cannot buy: international acclaim and notoriety for the Ada resident.

Other first-place showings – such as Mater’s three-tiered gorget carving with pearls – catapulted him as one of the “must-see” artists at the second annual Artesian Arts Festival during May in Sulphur. Mater is a frequent finisher in the world-recognized Red Earth Festival, and he is preparing works to show in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Southwestern Association of Indian Arts event is a juried show exclusively for the finest Native American artists in the nation.

Mater works for the Chickasaw Nation as a graphic artist. A son, Hawk Illetewahke Abdurhman Mater, joined the family not long ago. Illetewahke is the name of Mater’s ancestors from the Chickasaw homeland; Abdurhman the name of his wife’s father.

Not resting on his laurels, Mater is negotiating with art buyers in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. He has also been approached by potential customers in Asia.

The world is beating a path to Dustin Mater’s door.


The Crucible Foundry – Preserving the Legacy of Heroes

justin brotton - Tuesday, September 01, 2015

By Staci Elder Hensley

“Legacy and tradition is what our work is all about.”

inclined by David phelps in Oklahoma CityAll it takes is one glance around the gallery at The Crucible Foundry in Norman to see that its owners, brothers Mark and Steve Palmerton, are truly dedicated to their mission of preserving history and perfecting their craft as two of the country’s leading bronze artists.

The Palmertons purchased The Crucible in 1998, and under their guidance it is producing some of the most distinctive and beautifully detailed metal sculpture available in the United States today. Examples of their work can be seen everywhere around the state, starting with “The Guardian,” a 17-foot bronze replica of Native American artist Enoch Kelly Haney’s sculpture, which stands proudly atop the Oklahoma State Capitol building. A visit to Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district isn’t complete without a stop at one of its greatest attractions, the Centennial Land Run monument. This iconic piece of art was created by Crucible artist Paul Moore, and features 45 oversize figures of land run participants frozen in motion. Begun in 2003 and completed this year, it’s now one of the largest freestanding bronze sculptures in the world, standing over 16 feet high and spanning a distance of 365 feet by 36 feet.

Expanding beyond Oklahoma, the foundry has created statues large and small for clients throughout the U.S. and locations around the globe, including England, Scotland and China.

Mark Palmerton recently spoke with us, and explained that one of the joys of making bronze statues is that they bring the additional element of touch into the art appreciation experience.

“Most other types of art you can’t touch or you’ll destroy it,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about bronze, you can touch it. Touch away!”

Much of the work produced at The Crucible follows Western and military themes, or immortalizes specific historical individuals and events. Some projects are unique, an example being a statue of the Tesla coil commissioned by the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering. Other requests are more offbeat, such as an actress client who requested a two-faced statue, one side featuring herself as she is, and the other showing her as the mythological monster Medusa.

The most outrageous project they’ve been contacted about occurred about 10 years ago, and was for a statue of pop star Brittney Spears giving birth.

“We bid on that one but didn’t get it, which doesn’t upset me too much,” Palmerton says, laughing.

These days, Palmerton is pretty much confined to the business side of running the foundry. He leaves the artistic side to his brother, Steve, and their 13 employees. Each member of the team has his own unique set of skills, developed under the Palmertons’ guidance.

“Most of them came to me pretty green,” he said. “I hired them based on integrity, hand-eye coordination and attitude, and today they do great work.”

Reality TV & the Bucket List

Two years ago, Palmerton was approached about doing a reality television show starring The Crucible team at work. The result was “Monument Men,” a series showing members of the artistic team researching, creating and casting works such as an oversized gorilla, a commemorative pirate mascot statue for Putnam City High School’s 100th anniversary, and a bust of famed aviator Wiley Post for the Oklahoma History Center. Although the series was not picked up for renewal, episodes were recently aired on the History Channel, and they’re available on The Crucible’s website as well,


Filming the series over an 18-month period was definitely intense and intrusive, and made it more difficult to get the business side of things done; but Palmerton said he doesn’t regret it.

“It’s a good show, with a lot of iconic Oklahoma people in it. It was a lot of work, but the exposure has been solid,” he said. “I always thought about having a TV show, so now I can check it off the bucket list!”

Facebook has been another medium that’s been very helpful in boosting awareness of The Crucible to another level, one that’s necessary to survive in the current economy.

“We survive on making art, which is not easy. I’m pinching myself here, because that’s pretty awesome,” Palmerton said.

How it’s Done

From start to finish, the creation of a bronze, stainless steel or aluminum statue requires 14 precise steps, all of which must be completed perfectly to preserve every detail of the original sculpture. Each foundry does things a bit differently, and artists at The Crucible use what’s known in the business as the “lost wax” technique.

Modern technology makes it possible for a customer to request a statue of just about any subject, Palmerton explained. Some clients submit their own photos or design that can be reproduced using a 3-D scanner. If they request a more general subject (as with Putnam City High School’s pirate), then the team springs into action, thoroughly researching the individual or item to be cast to achieve as much historical authenticity as possible. Often that involves traveling around the country to obtain help from local historians and other experts. For the pirate piece, for instance, they traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida to track down authentic pictures of Blackbeard, the ultimate pirate, to serve as a model for the sculpture.

Watching The Crucible’s artists work through the 14 steps to create each piece, as demonstrated on “Monument Men,” is fascinating (and highly recommended). The key first step is to produce a small, finely detailed clay sculpture, called a maquette. From there, specific to the project, a number of complex additional molds are made using wax, foam, silicone, rubber, ceramic and plaster. Lasers are used for some initial cutting work, while the artists hand-sculpt all the fine details. During the process, a wax mold (which has been covered with a ceramic “slurry” to form a shell) is melted and removed, thus the reference to “lost wax.”

The molds of large statues are cut into sections, which are then cast individually. Some of the Centennial Land Run horses, for instance, were divided into 16 sections prior to casting. Once they’re completed, the pieces are welded together and the welding spots smoothed to create a patina, and then followed by a coat of wax. The majority of the pieces produced at The Crucible are bronze (which, by the way, is made up of 94 percent copper, 5 percent silver and 1 percent manganese). Others, however, are produced from stainless steel or aluminum.

“Every time you see that metal hit the mold, it’s like the first time,” Palmerton said. “There’s just something special about it.”

Unfortunately, visitors to the foundry aren’t generally allowed behind the scenes, not because of trade secrets, but because of the amount of danger involved. Just one drop of the 1,600-degree molten metal, for example, can burn a person’s flesh through to the bone in less than a second.

The Crucible’s artists have produced pieces ranging in price from $200 to $2 million. With the cost of bronze alone being $5 a pound, most are well into the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars just for the materials.

“Each of our artists have their own niche; their talents are above and beyond just making a piece of art,” Palmerton said. “There is a complexity to bronze that people don’t realize; that’s why these things are so expensive.”

A Family Talent

The Palmertons’ foundry success isn’t surprising – they were literally born into the trade.

“It’s all I know,” Palmerton explained. “I come from a long line of artists – my father was a painter and sculptor, and my mom was a chef and artist. I think my dad put me to work around age 7; me and my brother were his free labor!”

After a stint as a professional musician (he played guitar, mandolin, bass and sang vocals with a folk music/jazz band called Morning Sky), Palmerton returned to casting sculptures as a way to better support his wife and family.

“I was doing well with the music, but I had to make a decision,” he said. After working with Steve in a foundry in Texas, the two purchased The Crucible in 1998 and have built it into its current international success.

A huge part of their satisfaction, he said, comes from knowing their work preserves a piece of the past, and that it will last long after they’re gone.

“We need art in this world, so I’m doing my fair share,” Palmerton said. “It’s something good – a legacy I’m leaving behind. That makes me happy.”

From his gallery, stocked with the amazingly detailed sculptures produced by his work family, Mark Palmerton has one message to send to everyone.

“Go out and buy art, America!” he says emphatically. “Keep art alive. I don’t care what it is – you’ll be a better person for it!”


If You’d Like to Visit

The Crucible Foundry, located at 110 E. Tonhawa St. in Norman, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and other times by appointment. There is no admission charge, and group tours (adults only) also may be scheduled by appointment. For more information, call 405-579-2700.


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