Cupola helps artists, disappoints viewers

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By Steve Hansen

QCS Managing Editor

Peachy Keen represented new technology for the 17th Annual Mesalands Community College Iron Pour last week.

Peachy Keen, a 9-foot-tall cupola, or melting furnace, came to Tucumcari with its owner Donnie Keen, from Houston. This apparatus, Keen said, can melt a small engine block in one piece and produce several hundred pounds of molten iron in a single batch.

Peachy Keen required a three-phase electric motor, which means a large one. That’s about as technically advanced as the Iron Pour’s ancient art of “lost wax” sculpture gets. The other steps in the process haven’t changed substantially since about 4500 BCE.

For the Iron Pour’s artists and students, that big new furnace meant less hammering at discarded cast iron bathtubs, radiators and other items to break them into the small pieces that smaller cupolas require, even though they did that for the smaller melting furnace on the site. It also meant that it took far less time than usual to fill their sculpture molds with molten iron.

For those of us who come to watch, Peachy Keen created a disappointment.

The Iron Pour lost its most spectacular visual impact, the glow of heat and fire against the darkening sky. We missed the drama of shadows as a crew in protective gear tips a glowing ladle to let an orange-red stream of liquid iron fill a flaming sculpture mold against the darkness.

We missed the blue-tinged flames emerging from the melting furnaces as the light fades from the sky and the sudden brightening when the furnaces are bottomed out at the end of the pour, sending red-hot coke and iron crashing onto the sand.

A little after 4 p.m., word had gotten out that the pour was almost done.  The whole exercise would be done well before dark.

While that disappointed the spectators, it was great news for the furnace feeders, the furnace tappers and the heavily armored ladle carriers and their protectively clad sentinels who stood by with shovels.

To them, it meant the whole process occurred in the light of day, making it faster, safer and in all likelihood, more thorough.
Even in daylight, however, the red-hot liquid metal glows and the flames added excitement to the process.

Morning visitors witnessed a flurry of activity as the same artists who were carefully sculpting wax and making molds all week became the labor force. They prepared molds for curing, packed sand and plaster inside the furnaces, gathered sacks of iron pieces and coke to feed to the cupolas, and did a thousand other tasks to get things ready.

In daylight or darkness, the Iron Pour has become a tradition that is rewarding fun for participants and spectators alike.

And if Peachy Keen comes next year to make the work shorter and safer, even if less spectacular, we can live with that, too.

Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at shansen@qcsunonline.com

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