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It's “hot, dirty, heavy, and sweaty and women do it!" Lisa Elias, Phoebe Adams, Judith Shea and Cynthia Dickinson pour molten iron at the Women, Fire and Iron Conference held this spring at the University of Minnesota. (Photo: Katherine McVety)

FINDING THE SACRED IN POURING IRON

WOMEN, FIRE AND IRON CONFERENCE 1993

by Rosemary Hultman

It was an unseasonably chilly, rainy day as I walked across campus to join the already-in-progress conference. I knew nothing of casting metal, but, as an artist, jumped at the chance to expand my knowledge by participating in a project whose brochure stated, “It's hot, dirty, heavy, sweaty, and women don't do it.” As I felt the energy that filled the lecture hall, I knew I was with a group of like-minded women who rose to the challenge.

The two days of lectures allowed me to hear women sharing their experience and expertise of living a life of expanding boundaries. Going beyond the norm and challenging the system is a normal part of everyday life for these women.

On day three, the day of the actual iron pour, the rain increased. The two cupolas (furnaces) outside were shut down. Everyone would work inside in shifts. My team was scheduled to meet fully suited at 4:20 p.m. Until then I looked for helmet, face mask, leather chaps, mitts and jacket to protect me from the 2900 degree heat of furnace and liquid iron. I watched from the sidelines as teams of women filled the foundry floor working with the precision of a well-disciplined dance. It was a ritual of fire, a liturgy of harnessing the spiritual power of nature. As the first fiery yellow gold liquid poured out from the cupola there were shouts of joy as full of praise as any halleluja or amen.

My friend was suited and waiting for her team to begin. She was pale, terrified, wondering why she was participating in this completely new and unknown experience. Her dread would not allow her to join her team- mates in eating before the work began. It was a fear not unlike being face to face with the "mysterium tremendum", for she was about to transcend the world of ordinary experience. Her job was to help carry the heavy crucibles of hot liquid metal to be poured in the molds.

Observing from the sidelines was like watching a movie. Joining my team on the floor I felt a thrill of heightened senses, increased focus and alertness. My leader trembled a shudder of fear that went to the core of her soul as she prepared to face her fear of fire as we charged the furnace with coke and iron. As the lid of the cupola was raised, the heat of 2900 degrees hit my face hard through the mask. I held my lips tightly together and feared my safety glasses would melt on my face. The asbestos gloves smoldered and the heat seeped through the leather chaps to my legs as we worked in tandem so as not to knock each other off the tiny platform. We did it again and again, each time better than the last, each time with the thrill of facing and going beyond fear.

We were hot, sweaty, dirty, with muscles trembling from the weight lifted and carried. We were women and we did it! As I joined my friend breaking apart her mold to see the cast iron sculpture she had designed I could see her face was full of light. I saw in her what we were all experiencing --the bliss of something being awakened in the spirit. To know the spiritual experience of an iron pour requires getting hot, sweaty, dirty and tired with a team on the foundry floor.

Editor's note: WARM was pleased to host the celebratory reception for the University of Minnesota Studio Art Department and School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Women, Fire, and Iron Conference held May 21-23, 1993. Assisting were Maureen Bums-Bowie, Rosemary Hultman, Rebecca Pavlenko, Kathryn Rosebear, Rosemary Smith, Jan Thurston-Davis, Jane Waldoch, Phyllis Wiener, and Chris Wilson. Thanks!