Judith Ann Moriarty

The Hot Metal Industry of Art

At Vanguard Sculpture Services, they pour the bronze and industry meets art.

By - Jun 13th, 2012 04:00 am

At Vanguard, art is an industrial process. Dress accordingly.

During the tail-end of my interview with Mike Nolte, co-owner of Vanguard Sculpture Services, Ltd., an employee remarked that he heard tell that a naked chap recently scaled sculptor Jill Sebastian’s Eclipse (Lake Bluff Terrace) and managed to topple downward and into the interior of the thing, thus trapping himself in a superb work of art.

Nolte laughed, “Oh, we fabricated parts of that sculpture.”


We will resist the natural impulse toward “Need a hand?” jokes in photo captions.

And many more, parts and wholes, cast in bronze in the 21,000 sq. ft. converted 1937 machine shop, at 3374 West Hopkins St., Milwaukee. In 1989, six artists pooled their resources and purchased the property via land contract. Today, two of the original owners, Nolte and his business partner, noted sculptor Beth Sahagian, remain to run the place along with six employees, artists all.

Nolte graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 1982, MIAD’s first graduating class. He spent 18 months working at another local foundry, Hartbronze. He received no pay, but hands-on experience does count for something. On the day of my visit to the foundry, Sahagian was afield, measuring a bronze sculpture of a horse and rider, the end point being a possible contract for cleaning and waxing steed and man. Recently, I saw her hanging ten on The Birds of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a sculpture sited on Kilbourn Boulevard. More cleaning and waxing. But she’s way more than a cleaning lady. If you know sculpture, you know the name Beth Sahagian.


Bronze ingots at Vanguard.

Meanwhile, back at the shop…

“We are a copy facility for faithfully producing works of art in bronze,” said Nolte, when I asked him, ah ummm, what about artists who bring in really terrible sculptures for casting? “It’s not our job to be art critics,” he replied. He’s seen a work of art which he thought was terrible, but Vanguard cast it anyway, and the multiple copies sold very well. It’s said that “every pot has a lid.”

Over there, bronze husks and corn-stalk leaves wait in a box. Here a huge boot; there a hand. Plants slither snake-like from the high ceiling, washed in the east and west light from clerestory windows. The floors are original and made of wood, so as to not weary the feet of the many machinists who labored in the sweaty industrial past. While touring the space, I begin to appreciate wooden floors.

There are multiple rooms for the multiple processes leading to final casting and finishing. A foundry is no place for prissy wusses afraid of grit and grime. It looks like a jumble of stuff, but it isn’t.

Nolte fondly recalls a client bringing in the wing of a goose for casting and says it was one of the more unusual requests. We enter the room where bronze ingots are stashed and waiting for the next pour of molten metal. But the last room intrigues me the most, if only because it is pristine and slick. It’s Vanguard’s gallery. During the coming July 27-28 Gallery Night and Day, it will feature the sensational work of late Bernie Roberts, the same Bernie Roberts who taught my kids art at University Lake School back in the free wheeling ’60s. You won’t believe the wonders that Roberts wrought.

I end this on a sad note with news that Milwaukee County has recently ceased its % for Art program, and likely the same style of art-cuts will slash across the land. Some of our public sculptures under that program came to life at Vanguard, where art and craft meld so beautifully.

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Categories: A/C Feature 2, Art

0 thoughts on “Vanguard: The Hot Metal Industry of Art”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great review! I wasn’t aware of Vanguard, and I can see how it helped so many artists!

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