Lebanon, Pennsylvania is about two hours west of Philadelphia. Surrounded by farm land and old-fashioned silos right out of a calendar, it’s not too far from Amish country. It has a shopping mall of sorts whose anchor tenant is Sears. It has a Ruby Tuesday, where I’d advise against ordering the New Orleans Seafood platter that includes, at no extra charge, fish and shrimp that are shriveled under a heat lamp for an indeterminate time before finding their way to your lunch table. Most importantly to my son, Nick, a sculpture major at Philly’s University of the Arts, Lebanon is home to Pennsylvania Precision Cast Parts.
PCCP, noted on the water tower that can be seen from blocks away, is a foundry, where, on a typical day, a dozen or so guys with upper bodies like NFL linebackers and the gift of bullshit pour molten steel into superheated ceramic molds to make machine parts, water valves, and assorted other widgets that unobtrusively make our world better. As you might imagine, it is a hot, dirty, and stunningly dangerous place to work.
Liquid steel, like solar flares, occasionally roman candles from the small furnace that heats it to about 2,700 degrees, landing all around the workers who load and unload molds into large kilns to prepare them to accept the glowing stuff that magically cools into intricate shapes of various sizes. Clad in lightweight, fireproof jackets and facemasks, the workers--such as Shawn and Paul and Dickie and Jerome--move in practiced choreography, seemingly oblivious to the orange globules that could burn a hole into the back of their necks faster than you can say, “Philly cheesesteak.” When they’re not dodging liquid death, they break up the morning until lunch time by jerking each other’s chains, espousing eloquent epithets: “Hey, Dickie, ya fat ass, go ta work or bite me!”
On this day, though, this little carnival of casting will see a break in the routine of valves and flanges. Today, the muscle men will get to try their hand at sculpture.
Nick is one of about 2,500 art students at UArts but one of only 60 or so majoring in sculpture. Our middle child, Nick exhibited an artistic bent when in middle school, drawing highly detailed and accurate versions of superheroes, especially Spiderman and Spawn. By the time he was in eighth grade, some of his stuff looked almost photographic. My wife and I always encouraged his endeavors; but back then he would shrug and tell us he wanted to be a paleontologist or a herpetologist, who, contrary to what one might think, studies reptiles, not sexually transmitted diseases. Yessir, dinosaurs, past or present, that was the ticket for this seventh grader.
His room housed a terrarium for his small python, to which he fed live mice once a week, and a floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas “condo” he and I built for his iguana, a reward for keeping his marks up in fifth grade. The critters fit right in with the room.
Ah, the room. Still the subject of conversation among those who attended our parties and mistakenly wondered in looking for the bathroom. Every inch of the walls is covered with posters of horror movies and shelves of memorabilia pertaining to their murdering, back-from-the-dead stars. (When an actor who had been Bub, the zombie, 20 years ago in “Day of the Dead” moved to town a few years ago, Nick couldn’t wait to meet him and get autographed pictures he proudly framed for his little museum of the macabre.)
Nick's Niche in the Nick of Time
In high school, Nick discovered the art department. Perhaps it was a refuge from his struggles as a classified student with a learning disability in math, or perhaps his utter lack of interest in sports other than tae kwon do and skateboarding led him there. In any case, he found a niche where it was okay for Nick to be Nick, which is to say he strolled to the rhythms of a peculiar percussionist.
He was particularly taken with photography, and my heart soared like a hawk. Photography is one of my passions and very nearly became a career choice in college. Nick’s photography mapped his increasingly ironic and sardonic look at life. A lover of animals, he often photographed dead ones, borrowing my macro lens to get up close and personal. He took pictures of the interiors of abandoned buildings in such a way that you could almost make out the ghosts of former inhabitants. Sometimes hard to look at, his photos always had a composition and a haunting quality that nevertheless made you look carefully. They coincided with his interest in horror movies, which, for him, are treatises on the ephemeral nature of life and what could be possible beyond it.
Then he took a class in three-dimensional art—and the thunder clapped and the Gregorian chorus accompanied his epiphany while messing with mud on a potter’s wheel. Sculpting otherworldly creatures and anatomically correct figures--more specifically, body parts--suddenly consumed him. He knew what he wanted to be: a special-effects artist for the movies.
When it came time for college, we knew that conventional universities were out of the question. The drudgery of a structured classroom was torture enough in high school. Four more expensive years of that made no sense for him. Art school was the only avenue to pursue. One of the high school’s photography instructors had taken a special interest in Nick, photographing Nick’s sculptures and helping him select photographs for a portfolio to present to the University of the Arts, one of four art schools in Philadelphia where the instructor had contacts. Not only was Nick accepted, but he was awarded a 25% scholarship.
What? No Skateboarding in the Halls?
Other than getting kicked out of the freshman apartment building in downtown Philly for skateboarding down the halls and throwing bits of sculpting clay out his second-floor window at friends below when some uptight administrator happened to be passing by, Nick took to the school like a bird dog to water. He made it through freshman survey classes easily, though art history was a slog for him—too much book learning, no tactile stimulation.
By his sophomore year, he was getting noticed for a fearless, almost scary willingness to challenge propriety and societal belief systems. He manufactured a large steel Bible that opened to reveal writhing serpents. He molded perfect female breasts for himself and posed for photographs taken by a photography major, blurring the lines of gender and “normalcy.” One of the photos was selected for a special exhibition in the university president’s office.
With a sophomore assignment to illustrate famous sayings, he chose “You are what you eat” and sculpted a hideously beautiful bust called “Pig Man.” Inspired by Ron Mueck, the hyperrealist sculptor of human figures, Nick also entered in the sophomore show a severed arm complete with finger nails, arm hairs, and faint blood vessels created from a silicon casting of his own arm. It was no coincidence that Mueck, who had started out doing prosthetics for movie effects before becoming world famous for his figures, struck a chord with Nick.
Silicon Arm, 2007
Combining his love of movies and newfound skills in silicon casting, Nick sculpted in his junior year an old man’s hands and face from which latex masks were made. He applied these to himself and dressed as a decrepit homeless man and barged into various locales in Philly—the symphony hall, a Starbuck’s, a bank—hacking and coughing, all the while being filmed for a video project that examined our knee-jerk revulsion to men of the streets. Even though the cameraman was mere feet away, not one person captured in the film ever caught on that Nick wasn’t a homeless person; and their shock, even anger at his presence was riveting. The little movie was a big hit among the faculty.
Nick Poyner, Filmmaker
Speaking of movies, he made another video, a parody of the "Rocky" movies in which a young man, his childhood friend and roommate, is in training—to become homosexual, culminating in a graphic scene of oral sex involving a penis sculpted by you know who. This film, along with his severed arm and a decapitated head of himself tossed in a Styrofoam cooler like a donated organ, was accepted as part of a multimedia show in a gallery in North Philly. Nick invited us down to the show and forewarned us the video might be a little hard to take. As parents we watched it, alternately amused and horrified, desperately trying to rationalize its grotesque nature as having some artistic merit—but it was a tough assignment.
A Philadelphia art blog gave Nick a big writeup, entitled "Nick Poyner in Your Face in Your Space," and perfectly captured his sensibility, his prickly satire, his nose-to-nose challenge of things you sometimes wish might not be challenged. Even though Nick is straight, there seems to be a chromosome from Mapplethorpe in his DNA.
Over his years at UArts, we’ve met many of the talented friends he has made at the school. Some look the role of art student: tattoos, hair in hues not found in nature, body piercings—just like Nick except for the piercings, thank god. They are all disarmingly soft-spoken, articulate chroniclers of a world gone mad. What is touching is that they meet us and look at Nick with great affection and admiration.
“Man, I thought I was out there until I met Nick,” one told us with a laugh.
In short, Nick is fascinated by what makes “normal” people uncomfortable—and why. He doesn’t hesitate to push the envelope, but he’s not a shock jock per se, as the writer in the art blog points out. When asked, he can succinctly explain what he’s up to. We knew from way back he was wired differently, cunningly mischievous but ultimately without a mean bone in his body. (As an April Fool's joke a couple of years ago, he got a friend to drive him in the middle of the night from Philly to our home, where he carefully covered the stairs to our bedroom with about 200 Dixie cups filled with water before returning to his apartment, sight unseen. We awoke the next morning to find it impossible to get downstairs without tipping some of the cups over. We easily could imagine his wicked giggle.) A favorite babysitter used to call him “the child from the Planet Xenon.”
Topping off his junior year were more scholarships and two awards normally given only to seniors, one as the top molding/casting student in the sculpture department, the other a schoolwide award that was wonderful affirmation from the faculty, all professionals in their chosen fields, of his vision in the context of a school that has produced many successful photographers, dancers, actors, illustrators, and sculptors.
Skulls on the Brain
For his senior year, Nick locked in on skulls, human skulls. There is nothing abstract about Nick’s approach. He applies the exactitude of his drawings and photography to his clay work, but then he creates an abstract context around his pieces that invites more than a cursory glance at something merely well crafted.
For the senior sculpture show, he planned two pieces, one involving several skulls cast in foundry wax, the other a single skull in metal, a material he has not used in the past. Bronze and aluminum casting are readily available at the school’s foundry; but Nick took an instructor’s advice and sought out the more industrial look of gray steel, which requires a foundry capable of handling the much higher melting temperature of more than 2,500 degrees.
For most of the semester, he worked on three clay sculptures, a skull base with accurate detail both outside and inside, a separate lower jaw bone, and a skull top that would fit perfectly like a lid on the skull base. Furthermore, he was separately sculpting individual teeth that would be placed into sockets in the jaws. These sculptures would then be used to make molds for both his wax piece as well as the steel casting.
The office administrator of PCCP calls for Paul over the intercom. A nice guy who looked to be in his mid-30s, he shows up wearing safety glasses and escorts us to the warehouse-like building, asking Nick questions about how he had made his ceramic molds. Then he asked what the molds were of.
“It’s three pieces that form a human skull,” Nick shouts over the roar of fork lifts and the torch that was heating up a ceramic bucket that would be used to carry molten steel from the furnace to the pouring station.
This Ain't No Easy-Bake Oven
Paul matter-of-factly curls his bottom lip and nods his head as if skulls went through his little plant every day. He introduces us to Jerome, who handles loading molds into a preliminary kiln. Clad in a silver fire suit, dark face mask, and huge “baking” mitts that would fit Shrek, Jerome puts a variety of molds along with Nick’s into what looks like a large pizza oven in order to melt out the wax filling the molds. (In what is called the “lost wax” process, a clay sculpture of the piece to be cast is carved from which a special rubber mold is made. Foundry wax is then melted and poured into this hollow rubber mold, creating a wax version of the clay original. The wax sculpture is then repeatedly dipped in a special silica solution that resembles limestone when dry, forming the ceramic mold that goes into the kiln.)
Paul hands Jerome one of Nick's molds to load into the first kiln.
After about 10 minutes of watching flaming wax drip from the bottom of the kiln into a pool of circulating water, Jerome pulls out the smoking molds with tongs and inspects them for cracks. One of Nick’s molds seems to have a hairline crack, which is repaired with a thick ceramic paste before being placed into a second, large kiln that will heat the molds to a glowing temperature close to that of molten steel, typically about 2,700 degrees.
This takes 45 minutes, then the real fun begins. When the second kiln is opened, we can feel the heat from 30 feet away. Dickie, who looks to be one of the youngest workers, nonchalantly dons his fire-proof jacket and helmet and uses a fork-like pole to hook the molds and place them into a sand pit with the open end of the mold up.
Shawn, a burly guy whose heavily tattooed arms remind me of Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, has been feeding the furnace with pieces of scrap steel. He instructs Dickie and another worker to grab the preheated ceramic bucket with a cross bar that is carried over to the furnace and connected to an overhead pulley system. Shawn operates the tilt mechanism of the furnace, which pours the molten steel into the bucket a few gallons at a time. Then Dickie and the other worker man each end of the cross bar and slide it over the molds in the sand pit and pour steel into each one as if pouring iced tea from a pitcher. In our street clothes, Nick and I feel a blast of heat with each pour.
Filling the ceramic ladle with molten steel from the furnace.
Filling Nick's molds with molten steel.
My excitement at seeing the lava-like substance fill up Nick’s little molds prompts me to nudge the sculptor, grinning. He watches intently as little flames flicker on top of the cooling steel.
After 20 minutes or so of cooling, Paul takes Nick’s molds out to a water barrel and finishes the cooling process, something not done with structural parts that must cool gradually outside in open-air bins. He uses a geologist’s hammer to chip away the ceramic.
The moment of truth.
Steeling Ourselves for Failure
The skull cap looks perfect; so does the lower jaw. But something is wrong with the skull base. Steel failed to completely fill in on one side, but it’s difficult to assess until the pieces are sand blasted thoroughly to remove the remaining bits of ceramic. Paul’s disappointed face, however, suggests we won’t like the results.
He walks us over to the saw station, where another burly guy using a massive band saw cuts off the excess steel formed in the molds’ pour spouts, then we walk across the street to another building, where Paul and another much-older fellow take turns sand blasting every speck of ceramic off the three pieces.
After a process that has taken almost four hours, we have a steel skull that looks as if acid has eaten through part of one side. Nick looks at me in the office, where we pay $200 for about 10 man hours of work, and says, “Well, that was a semester down the drain.”
I feel terrible for Nick. As we leave the office to get into the car, Dickie runs up to see how the finished product turned out. When we show him the malformed skull base, his shoulders sag a bit. “Aw, man, too bad,” he says, fingering the pitted places. “The mold failed. That sucks.”We thank him for his efforts and stop at the Ruby Tuesday we saw on the way in for lunch. Nick, never one to dwell on defeat, loads his plate up twice at the salad bar before inhaling a bison burger into his 145-pound frame. Between bites we discuss what might have gone wrong with the mold, but he concludes, “I’ll figure out something to do with it.”
The next evening I’m back in Philadelphia for the senior sculpture show. After eight hours of driving the day before related to the casting misadventure, I let my wife, Anne, take over the wheel.
The Most Expensive Wine in the World
The senior show is being held at a large, new gallery space in a former mill of some sort 15 minutes from the school. As we walk up, a big crowd is going in. We pass through double doors and are offered glasses of wine, which I conservatively calculate cost us about $50,000 apiece. I look down the gallery, about 40 yards or so long; and I’m immediately dazzled by the variety of projects on display. You breathe in the creativity and vision and ingenuity—and the wine tastes great.
Sculptors, I realize now, are the cosmologists of the art world. They get to work in a third dimension that painters and photographers and illustrators don’t have. They get to envision entire universes from all angles. They have at their disposal any material. In fact, illustration, photography, painting, film may be a subset of their work. So many variables to juggle must be both exhilarating and daunting.
Of the 15 or so students with works on display, only a couple strike me as not bringing much to the party. The rest put me in Wonderland. And I realize that Nick is running on a fast track. If the economy’s currency were artistic expression, we’d be running a trade surplus right now. If we questioned convention and belief systems with the humor and wit that these kids obviously do, we’d undoubtedly have a smaller economy but bigger minds and hearts. I don't have a reporter’s pad to record all the names of the artists who slap my perceptions around this night, but I do have a camera. Behold:
Reminds me of the Invisible Man.
In an age of cloning and test-tube babies, this one's creepy.
Light is projected through sculptures of cardboard and wood and glue to show an ingenius recollection of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.
Nick helped studiomate Max Hartley cast a dozen human figures from expandable foam for this provocative piece.
The Piece de Resistance
About midway down the hall I spot a four-foot-tall metal stand in the center of the floor. Could it be? Perched on top is the steel skull, brutal in the light, with perfectly sculpted ivory teeth that seem illuminated from within in contrast to the gun-metal gray of the skull. The skull cap is tilted like a beret against the base. And here’s the unexpected part: the flaws in the mold, in the gallery light or, more probably, in the light of a proud father, work. The fine mesh of defects make the skull look like an archaeological find of a long-dead Terminator—who took really good care of his teeth.
Nick later tells me that he stayed up all night welding the stand, a little off kilter, reflecting either his “slant” on things or reflective of his exhaustion after being up the night before finishing the molds for the cast. He also cast the teeth out of resin from molds made earlier and mounted them that night. All in all, he pulled this one out of the fire, so to speak. It is thrilling to watch people, including faculty, come up and study it, nodding silent approval.
Steel Skull, 2009
There, on the floor a few feet away, is the second piece, a rectangular slab of wax into which several skulls have been partially melted, forming an eerie, apocalyptic tableau. In fact, unlike the steel skull, this one has a title: “No Fate But What We Make.” Fans of the “Terminator” movies will recognize that line.
No Fate But What We Make, 2009
Nick constructed a metal pan into which he placed the wax skulls then, while video-taping the process, heated the pan with a torch, slowly melting the skulls into a random pattern resembling a fossil find. And the wax’s color of dried blood only adds to the warlike feel of the piece. Under glass, it would make a helluva conversation-starting coffee table in any post-apocalyptic decor!
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man With Mom
A Vegetarian Victory Dinner
Still glowing from the show’s success, we drive back into downtown Philly intent on having dinner with Nick, his studiomate Max Hartley, Max’s parents up from Florida, and a gaggle of friends. Nick looks at the menu of one little French bistro I pick and frowns.
“Dad, this is $20 an entrée or more,” he says. “A couple of guys in the group are practically homeless.”
He spies a vegetarian falafel joint across the street, where you can make a pita sandwich from the fixin’s bar for $7 including a soda. The 12 of us pile in and fill the one long table. I notice Nick fills his pita like his friends, then eats half the filling before going back to refill it. He and his friends already are well versed in the tricks of the starving-artist trade.
In a couple of weeks Nick will graduate with a BFA degree in sculpture. The day before he’s winning another award to boot. After saving a little dough doing odd jobs with his Philly friends this summer, he hopes to join his brother, Noel, who graduated last May with a film degree from Syracuse, in Los Angeles. He wants to work with one of several special-effects labs out there, making monsters, blood, severed limbs, exploding heads—you know, the stuff that makes us all sleep better at night.
His brother, who dreams of directing his own independent film one day, has discovered the L.A. economy stinks at least as much as the East Coast's, maybe worse (that promises to be the subject of another post). Noel is making ends meet, barely, with a part-time job as a bouncer in a bar/restaurant and as a sometime furniture mover with a gang of musicians he’s gotten to know. Maybe by the time Nick makes his move, his brother can lend him a sofa to sleep on for a few weeks. Who knows? Maybe they’ll become a brother act in the ilk of the Farelleys or the Wachowskis.
Then they can take care of me and Anne in the fashion to which we never became accustomed.
All photos by James Poyner, copyrighted 2009.