A Cast of Sculptures

When you're pouring 2,100-degree molten metal into a mold, it helps to have a right-hand man.

"I have different friends that come over to help when I'm doing bronze pours," sculptor Tad McKillop says of the buildup behind his creations. "Generally I do everything else by myself. I have poured by myself...But my wife really hates it when I do that."

The Ann Arbor artist who specializes in nude figurative work has about 60 unique designs, all cast in bronze. Each starts out as a sculpture designed from clay, followed by two molds: first, a flexible rubber mold around the clay sculpture. Then, in what's called the lost wax process, the mold is filled with wax, creating a wax replica of the object. A second mold is then made around the wax copy, the wax is melted out, and the bronze is poured. The rubber mold is reusable so multiple copies of the same work can be made. (McKillop makes seven editions of each design.) The second mold is destroyed as soon as the metal cools. Large pieces require multiple molds, followed by bronze chasing to clean up the welding marks.

"There's some modern technology involved in it, but it's essentially done the way it was thousands of years ago with the same basic principles as the Greeks and Romans used," McKillop says.

McKillop is also a perennial fixture of college classrooms, teaching sculpture part-time over the years at U-M, Hillsdale College, Washtenaw Community College, and Toledo-area colleges.

He does the casting at his Ann Arbor foundry, both his own designs and those of other artists. Many sculptors don't cast their own work because of the space and costly equipment needs. McKillop, who studied figurative sculpture at the University of Michigan and the New York Academy of Art and also ran Daedalus Art Foundry for ten years, made his own kilns and bronze furnaces.

"As most artists would I think agree, you have to live by your wits because we tend to be the hardest-working poor segment of the population. And so if you can't afford it, then you have to make it yourself." A bronze furnace close in size to his goes for $25,000, but he built his own for $600.

And he builds motorcycles (choppers) primarily for himself and friends. This he does in exchange for body art – until he runs out of skin. "It's mostly been for barter. I'm friends with lots of tattoo artists and we've done some barter for tattoo work. At a certain point you run out of room for more tattoo work, so you have to start doing other sorts of trades or getting paid for it."

To do the design and casting work for which he's paid in dollars, McKillop rises at 4 a.m. He creates four or five new designs each year and also does commissions – his Tenbroeck Memorial outside Ann Arbor's First United Methodist Church, and Good Shepherd on the Northside Community Church premises – for example, but the bulk of his work is on spec. It sits in private collections from Missouri to Germany.

Work can be viewed at his Ann Arbor studio, where he usually has 50-60 pieces on hand. The region offers the ample affordable physical space that artists, who work ten to a shoebox in New York and other large cities, crave. And, "especially in southeastern Michigan we're near the automotive industry...They need a lot of the same materials that I need. It's very convenient for me to find materials to do what I do." Yet, "on the artistic side, on the gallery end, I would say one thing that Ann Arbor is really sadly lacking is a gallery that offers good representation to artists, or even opportunities to get into shows and group shows."

You won't find him at the Ann Arbor art fairs, either, as his nude works attract a narrower clientele than what typically roams the fairs. Instead, McKillop sells many pieces by traveling to shows and amassing a patronage of collectors over the years. A 17- or 18-inch tall figure starts at $1,700 and goes up, depending on the complexity. Half life-size figures, about 36 inches tall, go for $6,000 to $7,500. Life-size pieces are anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 and up.

Many, such as Anubis & Nehekbet, are crosses of bipedal and bestial. "My primary source of inspiration is mythology, whether it be Greek, Roman, Egyptian, native American," McKillop says. "But I also work from literature sometimes. If I'm reading a good novel, sometimes that will inspire new ideas." In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, for instance, "he makes these gods contemporary or essentially modern. He puts them in modern clothing."

His Greenman, a twist of man and tree, calls to mind the live trees from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. "I was in Europe, in Germany specifically and on the capitals of columns I'd see green men. I think they refer to them as foliate heads. Sometimes they have leaves coming out of their mouths. They're really kind of bizarre looking, but they're really pagan...I've always been fascinated with what's been referred to historically as pagan myth and how it's represented or presented in cathedrals."

Meanwhile, Clotho, a fleshy woman bound in rope, is part of a mythological trio representing birth, life, and death, as depicted by the activities of spinning, measuring, and cutting, respectively. McKillop also takes mythology a step further, with his aesthetic philosophy. During the conception of Clotho, he recalls, "I had this model working for my school for my classes, and she was a large person, a terrific model, and so I thought I should...have this spinner sort of figure be very abundant, very full, a very big figure. I have several friends that are sculptors as well as painters, and we all agree, whenever we meet a model of someone whose body is very different from what's normally considered acceptable or beautiful, it's always fascinating.

"I think some people would look at that and they might think this is a fat person and this is terrible, this is gross, or whatever, but when I look at a human body, I see form."

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature column was, "Hands on Deck for All Hands Active".

All photos by Doug Coombe

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