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Casting Giant


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:32 pm

Near Stewart Airport, inside a four-story skylit building the size of a football field, a man sits at a metal table polishing a section of a cast stainless-steel head for sculptor Rona Pondick. The front of the sculpture is a life mask, a cast of Pondick's face, and to the bodiless head will be added castings of the artist's thumb and second toe. For the past eight years or so, Pondick has entrusted Master Craftsman Jerry Tobin, and other craftspeople at the Polich Art Works foundry, to assist her in creating intriguing, amazingly durable pieces of three-dimensional art.

On the vast, open floor, sculptures by Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Otterness await the next step, whether to be waxed, dipped, cast, finished, patinated, or restored. Large architectural castings also take up space, including a massive bronze façade that will be finished to give the appearance of water flowing over its surface. Once completed, it will be shipped to Osaka, Japan, where it will gild the front of a Harry Winston jewelry store.

With sparks flying from welding torches, hammers pounding, and machines rumbling, the foundry resembles a giant toymaker's workshop, with one-of-a-kind, expensive pieces of art instead of dolls and model trains. When CEO Dick Polich talks about the excitement of working at the foundry, he compares it to being "like Christmas every day."

Growing up as the son of Yugoslavian immigrants, near Cicero, Illinois, Polich was drawn simultaneously to making art and excelling in business. He remembers living in his "little house on the west side of Chicago" and being fascinated with the attenuated sculpture of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. He would make "things with hangers and dripping wax on them. I was doing that when I was 14, 15, something like that."

After earning a degree in Economics from Yale in '54, Polich worked in the engineered castings division for the American Brake Shoe Company, which manufactured jet engine parts and tire molds. A few years later, he wondered if "there was something more going on," and joined the Navy. Polich recalls the relative ease of day-to-day life in the Navy. "After eight hours, somebody comes and says, 'Okay, I'm here now. You can [leave] now.' Suddenly I had more time than I could remember having anywhere else, and I decided to do some painting and drawing. I decided to be an architect."

Polich was accepted at Harvard in the Graduate School of Design. "That was a disaster, a disaster in the sense that I really had no artistic training. You'd work on a problem for what seemed like a month, and then the faculty would come and destroy it. I took it all so personally. Anyway, I left."

Around that time, Polich met Merton Flemings, an inventor and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was interested in bringing a science-based approach to metal casting research as well as in finding ways to unite art and technology. Polich studied with Flemings and others at MIT and received his Master's degree there in metallurgy in 1965.

Polich took a job at the Bendix Corporation and became general manager of the foundry division, which was involved in making weapons systems and aircraft parts. "I did that for a couple of years. Again, I had to wonder about what was going on and what I was doing. I decided to start an art foundry."

In 1968, with the help of fellow MIT graduate Sandy Saunders, Polich set up his first foundry in a Quonset hut that Saunders's parents owned in Cold Spring. As the business expanded and bigger facilities were needed, the company moved to Peekskill, then Beacon. At one point, Polich thought, "Hey, we're doing work with metal, metallics, let's call the place Tallix."

In its simplest form, the craft of casting involves making a mold of an object, filling that mold with a liquid that will later solidify, and removing the mold to reveal an exact, durable copy of the original.

To make a mold of a hand, for example, a polymer glove, or mold, is first created. It is then removed from the hand, and any lines "fixed" (essentially, erased) before the glove is filled with wax. Once a wax replica is made, a second mold is crafted—this time, out of ceramic. The ceramic shells are made with as many as seven or eight layers, each dipped into a ceramic slurry and then dusted with sand. For the ceramic shell process, two systems are created. One is for handling and supporting the fragile wax replica. The other is a plumbing system that lets wax out of the mold and metal back in. Since metal shrinks, or reduces its volume, as it cools, that loss must be compensated for by the plumbing system. Otherwise, the mold will not fill evenly, and the sculpture will be incomplete.

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