Jason Sanford



Back in the mid '80s, my high school decided to expose its ignorant student body to the great history of our home state. The school stuffed my entire class onto two buses, designated a few parents and teachers as chaperones, and drove all of us on a three-day field trip across Alabama.

As a travelling history class, the trip failed big time. In fact, the only historic item to register with everyone was that even with teachers and parents watching over them, high school kids staying overnight in hotels could still find a way to get into both alcohol and trouble. To my knowledge, the school has never done another Alabama history trip.

However, the event wasn't a total waste. On the last day, our buses pulled into Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham. There we were: sleepy, dazed students, overdosed on history and just wanting to go home. But as we walked that jumble of rusty pipes, catwalks, and old buildings, the immensity of the place began to impress us more than anything we'd seen on the trip.

I mean, this was history. We could smell the iron and slag scent among the saplings and scrubs that now grew between abandoned bricks and metal. One student said his grandfather and great-grandfather had both worked at Sloss. Another asked how long a human body would have lasted in the blast furnace. Sloss Furnaces and its cast-iron legacy generated more actual interest in us than three entire days of traveling through Alabama's history.

I bring all this up because of Allen Peterson, an Alabama artist who practices cast-iron sculpture. To Allen, casting iron isn't merely a process to create an artistic shape. Each time he pours molten metal he is a part of the same process employed at Sloss Furnaces for generations—albeit on a much smaller scale. Every sculpture of Allen's is part of the history, environment, and community that created Sloss and hundreds of other blast furnaces, and provided the industrial revolution with everything from railroad rails to steel girders to the cast-iron chairs sitting on porches all across the south.

Allen Peterson and examples of his sculptures.

Allen Peterson: I became interested in cast-iron sculpture when I saw my first iron pour. Back in college I originally focused on painting, but even then I was exploring different ways to express my art so that first pour hooked me. There is such a visceral energy to (casting iron), and the long process of creating a mold to contain the iron contrasts so much with the immediacy of the pour itself.

The cast-iron movement started in the '60s, in part, as a way to make casting more affordable to students. In some ways, bronze (which is the traditional metal used to cast sculptures) is about wealth. Bronze is expensive and the people who can afford to buy bronze sculptures are by and large the wealthy. The history of iron is totally different. Iron has always been a part of industry. In fact, the whole history of iron is a history of industry.

Iron is industry, and Allen grew up around both in Birmingham. Throughout north Alabama, iron dictated the life of small towns and communities, as generations of men migrated to the city for jobs in the furnaces or worked in the coal mines that fed the furnaces. Even though these industries have waned in the state over the last few decades, their history still impacts countless communities across the Rust Belt.

The history of cast iron is both simple and complex. Because iron only melts at incredibly high temperatures, large furnaces like Sloss employed thousands of workers to stoke, cook, and pour the iron before it could be cast into the proper shapes.

The casting was originally done in the massive openness of a cast shed. Here, blast furnaces separated the molten iron from its impurities. The iron then flowed down hand-formed channels made in the sand floor before eventually making its way into individual sand molds. The shape that resulted from all that moving red-hot iron mimicked stylized piglets suckling on a sow. Hence the name pig iron.

It was hard work. Twelve-hour shifts over six days and seven nights that flipped over and over again in the worker's lives. Activist and poet John Beecher, who grew up in Birmingham and worked such shifts in the furnaces, wrote about them in poems such as "White-Eye":

he couldn't remember ever such a hot night as this was
with the wind off the furnaces
what wind there was
he could have drunk the waterworks dry
only he dasen't
fear of cramps
he said what a hot night it was
and they said he must be getting too old for the work
yes he was old
fifty years old
he felt of his arms and legs
not as hard as once but hard
it wasn't them but something else wore out

he tapped number 9
then shoveled a good round of bottom
usually he sweat good but tonight he didn't
he felt like he was going to white-eye...

Allen Peterson knows all about life in the blast furnaces of Birmingham. He just finished three years as the artist in residence at Sloss Furnaces.

Allen Peterson: The history of cast iron is one of the reasons I began to investigate (the art form). At the time, I had just started playing old-time fiddle and I wanted (my art) to question history, culture, and the south. All of these areas converge with cast iron.

To me, cast iron is a tool to delve into the south through the tradition and history of Birmingham. This is especially true coming from Sloss Furnaces. Every day at Sloss I walked through rusty towers, pipes, ladders—everything held together by 1890s pre-welding rivets. The functional look of Sloss forced its way into my own artistic work. Industrial history is the wealth and strength that comes with cast iron. But my work doesn't just focus on the past. All of this tradition and history merely enables me to show how things are right now.

You need to know several things about Allen Peterson that have nothing to do with casting iron.

First, Allen has spent his entire life in Alabama. Second, for many years he played the fiddler in the Birmingham-based Appalachian-style band Vulcan's Britches.

Third, he has now left Alabama for Minnesota.

Allen now works on the University of Minnesota campus, in a studio sunk deep into the cliff-side bank of the Mississippi River. To reach his workspace, one enters the side door of an ugly prefabricated cement building and descends several floors by—appropriately—a staircase made of cast-metal grates. The contrast between snow and cold above, heat and char smells below, shock the nose and mouth.

Allen relocated to Minnesota so he could study with acclaimed cast-iron sculptor Wayne E. Potratz. He also hopes that the change of climate will give him a greater understanding of both his home state, since he is now away from it for the first time, and of his art form, since he is now studying under a master iron caster.

According to Allen, casting iron requires a community of sculptors. Because of the high temperatures required to melt the iron and the effort to pour it into a mold, a single sculptor simply can not do the entire process by himself.

Allen Peterson: There is a lot of labor involved in setting up (an iron) pour. Iron pours involve the entire community of artists. The practical minimum number of people to do a casting is three people, but it makes more sense to have as much help as possible.

Allen's workspace—which he shares with several other students—is a combination of industry and art. On one side sits a small blast furnace, on another are long tables covered in scrap metal and casting molds. Outside his studio are his experiments into new musical instruments, which he creates by combining upturned bicycle wheels and guitar strings so the pedaling vibrates the string in ways similar to a Chinese lute.

Inside his studio, several molds and wax test castings rest on the cement floor. One is a giant bumblebee; others are links in a ship's anchor chain. Allen says the molds are for an upcoming performance at the International Conference on Contemporary Cast Iron Art. His performance there will combine aspects of cast-iron history with the community of artists that make contemporary cast-iron sculpture possible.

Basically, he says, other sculptors will help him pour large cast iron chains and bees. The chains will be symbolic of the industrial nature of cast-iron art. The bees are mostly for fun. Allen plans to cast them onto long poles and have his helpers dance the red-hot bees around and around in the dark.

Allen Peterson: As you know, iron is one of the few truly recyclable materials around. You can take radiators and scrap iron and melt it down and make it new. But there's still an environmental cost. Burning coke (a highly refined form of coal) pollutes just like the old industry furnaces, even though its on a smaller scale than industry. Casting iron still does harm to the planet. In fact, this message is part of what my upcoming performance piece is all about. Cast iron is a warning about the health of the planet, but it is a warning you can only give by implicating yourself in the process.
from the "News from the Iron Planet" series.

Perhaps Allen's most well-known sculptures, and the images featured in this issue of storySouth, are from "News from the Iron Planet," an exhibit of cast iron planets that were showcased at the Center for Cultural Arts in Gadsden, Alabama.

Allen created the body of work in 1999, while working at Sloss Furnaces.

Allen Peterson: (News from the Iron Planet) was more of an emotionally expressive series than anything else. While working at Sloss Furnaces I felt I had lost touch with my friends and family. Even though Sloss was in the middle of Birmingham, it was isolated because everything in that area has been abandoned. Everything had moved away to different parts of the city.

So I made this series of planets that talked about emotional reconciliation and internal landscapes.

sculpture above from the "News from the Iron Planet" series.

Allen isn't sure when he'll go back to Alabama, but he knows that one day he will return.

Allen Peterson: I can't see where I'm going with cast iron right now. In some ways I'm just going through the processes, learning all I can. I think it's like leaving the south. Sometimes you get perspective on the south only from the outside.

One suspects that Allen Peterson also casts perspective on the south—through its iron history.

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Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth. Read more of his essays here.

(excerpt from "White-Eye" by John Beecher originally published in Beecher's book Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, MR Press, New York, 1962)

Images of sculptures copyright © 2002 by Allen Peterson. Article text copyright © 2002 by Jason Sanford.