Friday, 2 December 2016

Oxen of the Sun: John Books at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Emblematic works of bronze sculptures by John Books at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery inhabit and reference the human condition in ways that are dramatic and subtle, historic and present day. You have to be a bit crazy to dedicate your life to such an intensive art form. In John’s case it’s an unending love for exploration of the medium, one that generates a sense of awe and respect for anyone who knows something of the complicated process involved. That process gives bronze sculptures the advantage of being taken more seriously over other forms of art, partly because the expense and process weed out artists who have little talent or patience. Most often works of bronze are truly great and John’s work is no exception.
      Another reason for respecting the medium is that bronzes will last for thousands of years. They immediately resonate with history. And aware of this John has added features that further deepen connections with the past. A beckoning pathway of canvas with topographical footprints stretches across the floor amongst tall ochre lichen earth coloured podiums and walls. The canvas imitates the impressions made by the first humans. The dramatic podiums encourage reflection upon the small sculptures that animate their tops. When in your hands the weight and solidity of the sculptures will take on new dimensions. Along with being encouraged to hold most of the pieces, John also welcomes photography of his works.
          John is interested in sharing his love of art as best he can and he’s particularly proud of this show, putting a lifetime of knowledge into his work so much so that he’s currently taking a breather. This is a signature show revealing a mature artist in love with life, art and literature with an endearing commitment to an exploration of the human subject with all its glories and foibles.
  After thirty years of living in Thunder Bay John now lives in Grand Marais where he continues his study. “in the past two years I have taken workshops using techniques from two thousand years ago that were used to make moulds and pour bronze.” Results of these and other process span works in the show created from 2009 to the present.   
     “I really like where this show went artistically. I feel like I stepped into myself, intellectually and as an artist. Emotionally too.” 
     The bell placed centrally in the show over the pathway is of special significance to John. “I lost a brother a year ago and always wanted to do a commemorative piece for him. For a long while it was a piece of wood I was carving. And then I made the ringer. And I thought of my brother.”
  Of the show, John says, “It was a delight that it came together. It was very satisfying.” John adds, “It looks like I’m taking a break. I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve been thinking about this show for years. I’ve been writing for the past few months and its’ been the writing that’s pulling me together. It’s not postpartum depression. It’s just breathing.”
    A good deal of equipment and tools are required when John proceeds with the 24 to 30 steps in the process from moulding a model in microcrystalline foundry wax, carving it with various tools, then applying wax “pipes” to bring the molten metal uniformly to the mould, brushing it with alcohol and varnish, dipping it into a chemical soup of ceramic material a number of times, sprinkling or rolling it in sand with a final coating of slurry that is a centimetre thick. The piece is suspended while it dries. The wax is carefully melted from the ceramic mould with a propane torch so the mould becomes hollow. The piece gets fired in a furnace at 2000 F for an hour, buried in sand or cast in resin. The bronze is melted in a furnace and poured into the cup on the top of the sculpture. When cooled the mould is removed with a hammer and chisel. It might get sandblasted, then is filed, ground, after which a wax finish and patina are applied. And be aware, this is just a harshly abbreviated version of John’s description of the process.
     John Book’s show, Oxen of the Sun runs till January 8 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. 
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

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