Cast in Bronze: Lost wax casting used to create original works of art

In a remote, forested area of Orange County, close to the Crawford County line, sculptor David Cox built – mostly by himself – his home, two studios, a gallery and his bronze foundry. This place that he shares with his partner, emerging artist Ann Burns, may not be the easiest place to get to, but once there, the sylvan landscape, with its nut-brown buildings nestled in a hollow, is idyllic.

The function of a foundry is to take an original sculpture in clay, wood, stone or other material, and replicate it in cold metal. Cox creates his original sculptures in clay before rendering them in bronze. He has also produced work in bronze for dozens of other sculptors who must trust him to execute their sculptures – large, small, in various styles and materials – to perfection. One national caliber work that Cox, as head technician, cast into bronze is the Blue Ash Veterans Memorial in Blue Ash, Ohio.  

Sculpted by Ken Bradford, the work consists of 11 life-sized figures in period military uniforms representing 11 wars of the United States.

The method Cox uses to turn sculpture into bronze is called “lost wax casting,” also known in French as cire perdu. This is a painstaking process with deep roots and a distinguished lineage. A variation of this method dates back 5,000 years ago, with the ancient Sumerians getting credit for developing it most effectively. 

The method Cox uses to turn sculpture into bronze is called “lost wax casting,” also known in French as cire perdu. This is a painstaking process with deep roots and a distinguished lineage. A variation of this method dates back 5,000 years ago, with the ancient Sumerians getting credit for developing it most effectively. 

Today, it is still the most accurate and reliable method of turning sculpture into metal. Rodin and Brancusi, to name only a couple, both had works cast using this method.  Cox summed it up this way: “Lost wax casting is the gold standard, the only method sculptors use because of its precision.”      

There are at least seven distinct stages of this complex process. Cox thoroughly enjoys talking abou them. “The original sculpture, called a ‘positive,’ is used to make a ‘negative’ rubber mold,” he explained, simplifying as much as possible. “Hot wax is poured into the rubber mold to make another ‘positive.’ This wax figure is dipped into a mixture called a ‘slurry’ to create a negative mold that can withstand high temperatures. This is heated to 1300 degrees to melt, or “lose,” the wax, leaving an empty mold. The molten bronze is poured into this empty mold, heated to 1850 degrees, and when cool, the mold is broken open to reveal a solid bronze sculpture.” But there is more. “In a process called ‘metal chasing,’ the sculpture is chiseled into its final form. Finally, chemicals may be added to create a patina – a gloss or sheen – on the metal,” Cox concluded, acknowledging that a lot more could be said. But one thing is clear: The work requires an immense array of intricate technical skills and knowledge, as well as a whiff of brawn.

The more imaginative side of Cox’s work happens when he creates his clay sculptures. These shapes arise, he said, “from looking at the world askance rather than directly. I am open to shadows and forms that appear out of the corner of my eye. They seem to come out of ether.” In his sculptures “Leap” and a horsehead that is “Untitled,” he seems to sculpt movement itself. There is so much swirling and flowing vitality in these sculptures that the viewer might feel lighter – freer to move and transcend limitations – after seeing them.   

Some of Cox’s ideas come from books. He is an avid reader, with a floor-to-ceiling library that stretches the length of his living room. His sculpture “Jherek” is based on a character in Michael Moorcock’s science fiction trilogy “Dancers at the End of Time.” “The sculpture is pure fantasy,” Cox said. 

“This is how I imagined him. I was inspired by the book because the characters had powers to transform into other creatures.”

His largest sculpture, “Totem,” weighing over 120 pounds, is also a fantasy that was inspired by Inuit carvings and totem poles. Other influences on Cox’s work include Cubism, Art Deco and the S-shaped curve of design. His sculpture “Bull,” for example, he said “is an exercise in Art Deco stylization.”

“My work has its own rhythm,” Cox said to describe how he works. “I don’t follow a schedule. I moved here 20 years ago to get away from all that scramble and noise.” Before moving here, Cox had traveled the U.S. in search of technical knowledge; over the years, he supervised numerous employees, and was the first to open a gallery/studio/foundry in Fountain Square in downtown Indianapolis where he worked for 30 years. But he is more himself here: “I love the quiet, the solitude, the freedom and being close to nature,” he said.

He is also supportive of his partner Burns’ drawing and painting. Burns is unassuming and does not like to shine a light on her own work, but Cox pointed it out, noting that she was previously selected by the Krempp Gallery in Jasper to exhibit her work in a juried show.

In this out-of-the-way place in Southern Indiana, off the beaten path, creativity and the artistic process matter, and are treated with unconditional respect. •

For more information about Cox’s work, go to dlcoxsculptor.com. 

Story by Judy Cato

Photos by Lorraine Hughes

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