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Enter the new bronze age at Butley Mills Studios

PUBLISHED: 11:01 25 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:01 25 August 2015

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.
Laurence Edwards and Stuart Anderson during the  medieval process of the bronze pour.

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios. Laurence Edwards and Stuart Anderson during the medieval process of the bronze pour.

Archant

Butley Mills is a crucible – literally – where a group of experienced and emerging artists forge their careers. Lucy Etherington went to meet them

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to witness a traditional bronze pour, you’ll know how magical and dramatic it is.

The molten bronze heated to over 1,100°c radiates an extraordinary, unearthly orange. Two figures in protective clothing, covered in eerie white dust, lift the shimmering crucible using some rusting clamp tool and between them tip the lava into the casts, which glimmer like pods in the film Alien.

It feels like an occult ritual – especially the part where one of the pourers pokes his “willow wand” (I’m told it’s actually called that) into the glowing liquid, creating sparks. In fact, it’s all very scientific, something to do with carbonising (don’t ask me, I got a D in chemistry).

Very simply, the wax mould in the pod will melt away, the bronze will harden, and after a lot of chipping and filing, a beautiful sculpture will emerge.

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.
Stuart Anderson in his studio.Artists at the Butley Mills Studios. Stuart Anderson in his studio.

“Wax bronze is an old Italian method,” the sculptor Laurence Edwards tells me above the roar of the furnace. “It’s not used in this way anywhere else in the UK. Most bronze artists send their work away to a foundry.”

Indeed, it was through casting for other artists that Edwards developed his skills. In his twenties, he set up a foundry in a 16th century moated farmhouse in Laxfield, which developed into a lively artistic commune. When the lease for that ran out, they moved here, to a bunch of farm buildings on the banks of the reed beds around Snape.

Butley Mills Studios is an extraordinary place, a ramshackle shanty town of art studios in a picturesque setting. Filled with surreal statues and dusty machinery, it reminds me of an eccentric pirate ship, with the foundry as the furnace firing the engine.

“It’s not as chaotic as it looks,” says Laurence as he shows me around. “There is a journey through the different buildings, from the wax casts to the foundry and through to here.”

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.

We enter a vast space full of wonderful sculptures. These are mostly Laurence’s work. He’s getting ready for exhibitions in London and Sydney. At one end is a corridor leading to some old grain silos, two of which have been converted into a ‘pub’, complete with sign, wooden seating and tables and, of course, a bar.

“It’s based on The Low House in Laxfield,” he says, fondly. “We’ve had a lot of good parties here.” Ingeniously, in another silo, a past tenant has constructed a fully functioning camera obscura, the surrounding reed beds and vast skies cast onto the dusty floor.

“It’s run as an artist community, but also based on the old atelier system,” Laurence tells me as we return to his studio. “It’s a place where artists not only learn about the casting and foundry process, but also where they can build their businesses and develop their philosophies.”

The idea being that the older, wiser artists, such as Laurence, Stuart Anderson, Sian O’Keeffe, Chris Summerfield and Jennifer Hall can give guidance to the younger or newer members. Freddy Morris, Tobias Ford and Alice-Andrea Ewing are Laurence’s current apprentices who recently had a successful residency at the Alde Valley Festival, with Freddy making bronze casts of trees on site while living in a tree house. Ipswich born artist Craig Hudson, whose funky tourist and clown bronzes drip with pink paint, is also being touted as the next big thing, having just had his own show at Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s White House Farm.

Artists at the Butley Mills Studios.
Sarah Pirkis in her studio.Artists at the Butley Mills Studios. Sarah Pirkis in her studio.

Sarah Pirkis, who started as an apprentice, has had a studio at Butley for eight years. She says she loves the way the process brings everyone together. She loves the mess, even the fact spiders often drop from the barn roof onto her work.

“Or in winter, snow flakes,” she says, smiling up at the huge holes in the roof above her head.

When I visit, Jim Racine, who currently has work at the Venice Bienniale, is demonstrating another method of bronze casting that involves flames swirling dramatically around a dangling metal drum.

Occupational health would have a field day at Butley Mills, but that’s what’s so fantastic about it. It’s romantic, but also earthy and hard work, dispelling the modern idea of the artist working on an ipad in the comfort of his/her bijou Hackney studio. And what’s doubly pleasing, as Jennifer Hall informs me, is that Bronze Age axe heads have been discovered on this site. It is likely that there was a foundry at Butley thousands of years ago.

Not everyone here is a bronze worshipper. I also meet Otis Luxton, who makes instruments in his studio space. One of the original inhabitants is landscape painter John Barker, who hung out with Francis Bacon in Soho and was photographed by Don McCullin for Vogue. John now lives in cabin at the back of the studios with his partner, Viv, and dog, Flynn, and is an important member of the extended Butley Mills family.

At the end of the pouring, everyone comes together and celebrates, either in the ‘pub’, or if it’s sunny, as it is today, in the yard outside the foundry. The drink at the end is all part of the ritual, but also important to ensure the sense of community remains solid.

“I didn’t want us to be shut off from each other in our studios,” says Laurence. “Basically, all I’ve ever done since leaving the Royal College is try and re-create my college days, to capture that fleeting moment in my life that I loved and extend it as long as possible. And it’s the foundry that creates the rhythm here - it’s what brings us all together.”

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