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ASU art grads sculpt careers close to home

April 02, 2012

When a nationally or internationally known sculptor such as Tom Sachs or Donald Baechler receives a commission for a large work of public art, it's a sure bet that the artist won't be the one pouring hot wax into rubber molds or the one welding large pieces of metal together.

The people who do the highly skilled work of bringing the artist’s vision to life  – who are artists in their own right – are likely to be found at such places as Bollinger Atelier, a large sculpture studio/factory near ASU’s Tempe campus.

That the Bollinger Atelier is so near to ASU, and the ASU School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, is fortuitous for both the atelier and the students: The atelier needs skilled artisans in its workforce, and the artisans need a place to work when they graduate.

Interns also find a play at Bollinger, getting a taste of what it’s like to work in the “real” world of art production.

What they will find, said Tom Bollinger, sculptor and owner of the atelier, is that in professional level work, it is essential to “maintain the efficiency and quality levels expected by our clients.”

That means, for example, for an artisan in the wax department, preparing molds into which metal will be poured, must spend hours fine-tuning the molds, correcting imperfections and making repairs so that each impression is an exact duplicate of the model for the sculpture to be created.

Ron Lyons, who earned his degree from ASU in 2011, started working at Bollinger Atelier in July 2011. “My degree was a bachelor of fine arts with a focus in sculpture,” he said. “The foundry program at ASU instilled many of the skills that I use every day at work.

“What I enjoy most about the job is that it constantly improves my skills and I get a chance to work on art by world famous artists.”

Michael Bortfeld, a current ASU student majoring in sculpture, is an intern at Bollinger this semester. He said that though his classes at ASU didn’t focus on large-scale art, “the knowledge accumulated from the BFA program translates very easily to a larger medium.”

“The sculpture department at ASU has taught me so many skills that I realized are just second nature to me now,” added Bortfeld, who hopes to attend graduate school after an internship at an art institution, and then teach or run a studio. 

Bollinger, who is a sculptor, majored in sculpture and business administration at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. His wife, Kim, is a jewelry artist who studied marketing.

At the atelier, they both work on their artistic ventures, as well as running the company. It is, for them, a labor of love.

“This is a creative process, not an industrial one,” Bollinger said. “We’re an extension of the artist’s studio. We help them realize their vision. All the employees involved in the creation/production of the sculptures are called artisans.

“Each area, or skill set, has an additional subtitle. The wax department would include pouring, dressing, gating; the metal department would include welders, fabricators, chasers, etc. Some areas are simply descriptive of the process involved, such as patina artisan, foundry pour, sand molders, etc.”

Each artisan specializes in one main area, based on their aptitude, hand-eye coordination or ability to focus, Bollinger said, “but most all of the artisans are expected to cross train in most other areas when needed.”

The atelier's main competitors in the United States are in the east, near New York City, and most of its business comes from New York. But the artisans get to meet and work with the renowned sculptors who do business with the atelier when they come to work with the atelier artisans for approvals in wax, metal, or patina.  

“The young people who come here from ASU studied these famous artists and are now working on their work,” Bollinger said.

Stepping into the workrooms of the atelier is like stepping into a mixture of past and present. Ages-old activities such as pouring molten metal exist side by side with computer-generated work such as enlarging designs.

“We’re an anachronism,” Bollinger said. “Few businesses require the skill levels as we do here. It’s very hard work. It requires a lot of thinking. This is not just labor. Every step is dependent on the previous step.”

Have the ASU interns and BFA graduates come to the atelier prepared to jump into this high-level “art” work?

Bollinger said, “I believe the interns, and recent graduates, have had a general understanding and therefore expectation of the work. We want them to all succeed.”