On a recent Saturday morning, Michael Wickerson was tending a hot fire in his backyard on a hillside near Wyandotte County Lake. At temperatures reaching as high as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, the fire was hot enough to melt iron.
Wickerson, an associate professor of sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute, said working with metal is a great joy for him.
“You catch it, you pour it, you can draw with it,” he said. “You can paint with it. You can sculpt with it. And you can certainly fill molds with it.”
That's what a dozen or so artists from around North America and Canada will do when they visit his studio next week. From October 25-28, around 300 artists will gather in Kansas City for the International Sculpture Conference. They'll visit familiar places in the local arts scene, such as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Crossroads Arts District and the Zahner Headquarters. A few will hop on a shuttle bus to Wickerson's sprawling, 14-acre complex for a two-day workshop on pouring iron. By the end of the weekend, each visitor will leave with an iron platter in a design of their own creation.
Wickerson was preparing for their visit by building a six-foot tall firebrick and clay chimney on top of a railroad cart: a hand-built cupola, a blast furnace that runs off of coal and air. Heating it up helps remove residual moisture that might interfere with the burn.
As the temperatures began to rise, Wickerson stoked his furnace with buckets of processed coal, or coke.
Wickerson said an iron pour is a dramatic experience — an elemental display of the power of fire. Once the iron melts, or slumps, sparks begin to fly. Wickerson will tap an opening to allow the hot metal to escape.
“It shoots like a stream and you have to catch it. The pressure of it is about 70 pounds,” he said, comparing that to 100 pounds of pressure in a typical garden hose.
“You have to imagine turning them on pretty full. When you tap that for the first while, you have to catch that metal.”
On his property, a sculpture-lined gravel road leads down a hill toward a cluster of roofless structures made of wood and clay brick. Wickerson calls this private outdoor exhibit “Forever Open.”
For Wickerson, the upcoming International Sculpture Conference is the perfect way to share his creative hamlet with other artists. In addition to workshop guests, Wickerson is hosting American sculptor Arann Schmidt and Polish-Canadian artists Wojtek and Ania Biczysko.
“To have people come from all over is fantastic," he said, "and I think that type of thing as a celebration of artists and celebrations of people are what this place is about.”
Students from the Art Institute come and go on weekends. Wickerson said he likes to encourage them to come out and work on projects of their own.
“This is where people gather,” he said. “This is where, all of a sudden, dialogues start and people keep coming back. And I like to think here you’ll meet people you just won’t meet in other places.”
Art Institute student Levi Walker is planning to work as a foundry assistant during next weekend's workshop, filling molds and breaking up recycled cast iron. A senior in sculpture and art history, he said Wickerson’s studio and his land encourage exploration.
“There are things you can just discover, like cast aluminum mushrooms growing along real mushrooms," he said. "There’s this really interesting barrier that’s being crossed between things that are naturally found in the area and what’s art and what’s here. You can just explore and create, and there’s just a lot of freedom in that.”
Rowen Foster, a senior in the sculpture department, frequently makes the drive to help Wickerson fire up his kilns. She said Wickerson’s open-air studio is a creative refuge from campus life.
“It doesn’t really seem like reality,” Foster said. “It’s not like a farm and it’s not like any sort of traditional artist studio, either.”
Wickerson might be just as inspired by his students as they are by him, said Annelise Kinney, a junior in the sculpture department.
“I think he really, really needs to work on things," Kinney said. "So, I think, being surrounded by other people who have that need, too, really adds to his fuel and adds to his fire and then it adds to ours too. It’s like a constant communal loop of artistic creativity.”
Wickerson considers each furnace he builds to be a work of art in itself. After next week’s iron pour, the furnace will become a sort of monument in his outdoor exhibit.
“It’s like building sculpture, but it’s also sculpture that makes sculpture — I think I realized that’s when art ceases to be concerned with artifice," Wilkerson said. "What I make is just real.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.