Hot Iron — very hot iron — will be the medium for making art on Saturday, November 3.
That’s when the Trenton based AbOminOg International Arts Collective returns to Grounds For Sculpture (GFS) to conduct its one of a kind art event: a workshop and spectacle using molten iron.
After conducting a morning program that gives anyone who registers the opportunity to create a mold for a work in iron, the group will then literally turn up the heat to 2,000 degrees to fill the molds and dazzle spectators with a red-hot spectacle that is becoming the group’s signature event.
The event connects to Trenton’s industrial history and the past work of the former iron foundry at the Johnson Atelier, located next to Grounds For Sculpture.
AbOminOg (pronounced ah-baum-in-og) is a group as unusual as the its name. It was born on the cusp of the 21st century. As part of a New Year’s Eve celebration in a Trenton backyard, a band of central New Jersey area metal artists — including former workers of the then recently phased out Johnson Atelier foundry — celebrated their appreciation of 19th-century technology by constructing a metal casting facility to produce artwork difficult to achieve outside of a commercial fine arts foundry.
Since the group involved artists of diverse backgrounds, age groups, and skill levels, the artists found themselves wanting to continue and create metal art “within an inspiring, supportive, and sustainable setting” and “to expand our positive impact on the community and the art world at large through increased capacity and outreach,” notes their mission statement.
The group’s practice is to bring artists and supporters together for iron casting events.
M. C. (Matt) Reiley, one of the founding members, says that the group’s name comes from a name given to the furnace the group used for its first pour. “We just liked the sound of it. It was a kick-ass name for a kick-ass furnace.”
Yet cofounder Scot Thompson has a more defined and humorous explanation. The ugly furnace, he says, reminded the group members of an ungainly looking participant who was first tagged with the odd name. It then moved whimsically to the furnace and then the organization.
As for the international reference, Reiley, who divides time between creating art in Trenton and New York City and working as associate director of preservation and conservation for the Central Park Conservancy, says it was just happenstance. Many of the group’s artists were foreign born and remained in region after the foundry at the Johnson Atelier ceased operations.
“Our group is comprised of multi-national volunteer force of artists. AbOmInOg encourages participation and exchange without borders. Additionally, we aim to take our work to international venues,” he says.
Headquartered in the former Scudder Foundry, part of the old Roebling works on Pearl Street in Trenton, the space is more an artists’ studio than iron works, although foundry work is integral to the art that its members create.
“I am a foundry man and have built a lot of furnaces. This is how I express myself. I love the material, and it adds the concept for me. When you get hit by one of my pieces you stay hit,” says Reiley who often serves as the group’s voice and face.
However, there is something deeper that he feels about the process. “I like to transmit ideas and I think that using hot metal is a great transmitter. It’s a material that is being more or less transmogrified from a liquid sort of hyper-active media into a solid. If you were to look into metal on some microscopic level in molten form you would see a lot of molecules in dynamic motion — fast and fast moving. When the metal becomes cool it is in a much more staid form. It’s part of my concept. Rather than just see how the piece appears, there’s a concept with the material itself. It’s pretty cool to take an element and alter it. The power of the act of creation is reinforced by making a metal art,” he says.
As with other early members of the collective — including Thompson and Kate Graves — Reiley’s connection to metal, Trenton, and the group involved some internal and external journeys.
Reiley says he connects his initial involvement with art to his father, who while running a liquor store and bar business in Manchester, CT, became an arms and armor expert. “He was doing restoration work, and I was exposed to different art forms and going to museums. I had an interesting keyhole into the art world.” That initial interest took him to the University of Connecticut where he studied art history and sculpture, but something was burning within.
“The metal has an effect on me. I don’t know how I could explain it. This is what you know from an early time. Early on I knew that I wanted to cast metal. Not what my father did, he did restoration. Casting would enable me to transform. It’s much different from having an item that you will need to restore. You don’t get much more tangible than heavy hot metal.”
In the early 1990s Reiley saw an advertisement in an arts magazine for interns at Johnson Atelier. He applied and became an apprentice. Two years later, he says, “they hired me as a multi-processed staff member. I was proficient at several phases of production so I basically learned the foundry profession on the floor.”
The attraction for many of the metal workers at the atelier was not high salaries but the opportunity to participate in the after-hours program where artists could work in the shop and create. “You had to pay the material cost, but you don’t have to set up the foundry,” Reiley says.
When the atelier began phasing out its foundry component in the late 1990s, Reiley had already started working independently and unconsciously organizing for the future. “I was maintaining contact with artists at the atelier. Others were attracted and got onboard; it’s always been on the precept of helping one another. It was not done for commercial gain, except for the reason that artists have to create their own works. So it was ‘let’s find a way to help to create work.’ ”
Around the same time, he decided to take a journey and visit the Burning Man Festival, the massive self-proclaimed “radical self-expressive” arts festival held annually in Nevada. “So I got in my truck, participated in Burning Man, and then drove around for five months. I was 31, so I made the jump. No regrets. I’m so glad that I did it.”
When Reiley returned to the Trenton area, he and other iron artists gathered for that New Year’s celebration that led into the new millennium.
It also led Reiley to a new phase of his life: he started his own business, signed a lease on the foundry shop, and joined the others in creating the organization that is now becoming regionally famous for its dramatic pours.
Thompson, who lives in New York and keeps a studio at Grounds For Sculpture, recounts a similar tale and credits working in his grandfather’s metal shop in Colorado for his interest in metal. His experiences as a soldier in Desert Storm intensified his interest in combining metals to explore “their violent reaction to each other and their desegregation, to express feelings and thoughts into tangible objects.”
He says that he came to Trenton at the suggestion of internationally known Johnson Atelier sculptor Isaac Witkin, apprenticed with respected artist Andrzej Pitynski, and later became part of the teaching staff at the institute’s sand foundry and Digital Stone Project.
It’s a comparable saga for California native Graves, whose travel to Tibet inspired her to work with metal and eventually brought her to the East Coast where she connected with Trenton’s history as a center of iron making.
As she writes in a personal statement about her move to Trenton and the Johnson Atelier: “The foundry was a sculpture Mecca amidst the urban detritus that rims this notoriously depressed city. Upon a cursory exploration to the East Coast, the history and accretion of civilization hit me upside the head. Taking the train from Newark, through Trenton, to Philadelphia I had really never seen anything like it. Staring into a pot of melting bronze, I could sense a blood level connection to those who had come before, those who melted and poured metal to make something. I felt like an alchemist.”
Just as Reiley, Thompson, and Graves seem to have been pulled to the area and iron, so too are others. And as the organization attracts more attention and more people, the founders see the need to strengthen the group both structurally and financially. “It’s an all-volunteer force. Anytime we needed equipment or upgrades to our process or production, I was paying out of my pocket. It wasn’t sustainable,” says Reiley.
In order to address needs they have non-profit organization status and accept tax deductible donations.
The group is now working on working to raise funding support — literally working.
Reiley explains how people registering for the GFS workshops and attending another event will provide funds to help the group purchase materials, conduct workshops, and continue to build a community of a particular sort of artist who needs more than an occasional trip to the art supply shop.
“The iron melting process requires a collaborative effort. My friends and other like-thinking people gravitated around it. What the collective offers is the opportunity to make cast metal art, if you’re willing to invest your sweat energy,” he says.
Reiley believes that workshops and events bring the art and regional history to life. “I think our workshops and events touch a lot of people and show it to kids who never were exposed to the process. I think our reach is far.”
The GFS mold workshop will be all about process. Reiley says, “People will come in and learn how to make their designs and then see it poured. They can take it home the same day.” In order to make that happen seasoned metal artists will suit up in protective outfits, stoke their handmade furnace which, organizers say, will roar, crackle, and spark with power as 500 pounds of iron is heated until it is white hot and poured into the scratched molds. The event will last until evening.
When the GFS day ends, AbOmInOg will gear up for an open house on Pearl Street the following Saturday, November 10.
A feature of the Art All Day event in Trenton, the collective’s artists will be on hand to display and sell cast iron works, greet visitors, talk about the process, demonstrate various techniques, and let visitors know how they can help them with their effort.
“We want people to watch us,” Reiley says, “But we also want people to participate.” That includes financial support through donations.
“There’s value for involvement,” Reiley. With a connection to the past, present, and future, that’s short and long term value.
AbOmInOg Workshop and Iron Pour, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Saturday, November 3, 10 to11:30 a.m. and noon to 1:30 p.m. $65 ($50 for GFS members). Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, and pre-registration is required. The iron pour will occur in the afternoon. www.groundsforsculpture.org or 609-586-0616.
AbOmInOg open house, 2 Pearl Street, Trenton. Saturday, November 10, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. abominog.org.