In a sprawling brick building at the corner of 25th and Fawcett, some of the most amazing sculptures are known to take shape.
One example: a 14-foot monument of Meriwether Lewis. The explorer looms large — a sword in one hand, walking stick in another, and a feathery plume that tops his hat. His Newfoundland dog, Seaman, stands nearby.
Another example: a sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, which rests a few feet away from Lewis. Today, the sculpture is in pieces. But when it is installed in Oyster Bay, New York, later this year, Roosevelt will appear on horseback, surveying the landscape of his hometown.
These are only two examples of projects under way at The Bronze Works, a foundry and art gallery located in downtown Tacoma’s Brewery District.
“At any given time, we have between 100 and 150 projects going through the foundry,” says general manager Kevin Keating during a recent visit to the shop. “It ranges from little tiny things a couple inches high to 14-foot monuments. It just kind of varies.”
Keating and artist Jeff Oens operate the business, which employs 13 people who create bronze casts of sculptures installed locally (at city halls in Federal Way and University Place, as well as Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, and locations in Bellingham, Whidbey Island, and Tumwater), nationally (in Alaska, at the starting point of the Iditarod race), and internationally.
“A lot of our work goes out of the area,” says Keating, pausing at the Meriwether Lewis sculpture. “It’s kind of fun working on a project like this one, where it will stay right here in the area.”
Before the bronze sculptures leave the foundry, however, they go through a meticulous, step-by-step process that takes anywhere from 12 weeks to more than one year.
“Casting itself is mentioned in the Old Testament,” says Keating. Though new technologies such as ceramic shells and welding tools have been introduced, the process has changed very little. “It’s thousands of years old,” he adds, ”and one of the earliest technologies. The process, at its most basic, is the same: melting metal and pouring it into a form.”
What sets most foundries apart, however, is the artisanship of its employees. “Most of the people who work at the foundry here are artists themselves,” says Keating. “In addition to the work they do here at the foundry for other artists, they also create their own original artwork, and they studied art at a university.”
Keating arrived in the foundry business as a result of what he calls serendipity. His background is in business and production management in the metals industry. He worked for many years at an Asarco smelting plant in Helena, Mont. When the company was purchased in a take-over, the new owner closed down most of the U.S. operations.
Keating was out of a job.
“I wanted to do something different,” he explains. “I wanted to do something where I could use my background and experience melting and casting metal, but outside of that industry.”
Keating discovered The Bronze Works, which was originally started in 1995 and located in Mason County. Along with Oens, Keating formed a partnership five years ago, purchased the assets from previous owners in 2001, and moved the business to Tacoma the following year.
“There was certainly a learning curve,” Keating recalls. “Because of my background, I had a good familiarity with a lot of the processes involved. But producing fine art is different from any other form of casting, so there are certain things you have to learn through experience. I’ve relied pretty extensively on the staff here who are all experienced and professional.”
Keating’s current challenge is staffing, particularly in light of a surge in business. “We have a number of large projects going on, and more projects coming up,” he says. “We’re at a point where we want to increase our staffing level. At the same time, we are pretty selective about who we hire. They have to have a lot of talent, and they have to be able to work creatively with the rest of the staff.”
The Bronze Works is located at 2506 South Fawcett Ave. in Tacoma. For more information, contact (253) 396-0396.
Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State; third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; and third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright. His work has appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.