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A majority of the bronze sculptures in the downtown scavenger hunt project “Wildabout Walkabout” were made by students in Travis Graves’s sculpture class at ETSU. Professor of Sculpture and interim chair in the Department of Art & Design at ETSU, Graves was on site throughout the project to walk his students through the process since almost none of them had experience with bronze-casting.
Graves did not have much experience in casting when he was a student, either. He entered graduate school as a painter but left as a sculptor. His medium is mixed media, which often manifests as sculpture, as well as installations and video. Working in a foundry after graduate school was the beginning of his real education in bronze casting. He claims he’s still not an expert but is always learning.
“Bronze casting is not for spontaneous artists,” he says. “It’s a very process-oriented medium that often requires creative problem-solving.” There are dozens of steps and many technical requirements to consider throughout the design and fabrication of a bronze sculpture leading up to the few minutes it takes for molten bronze to move through channels built into the mold to ensure the metal flows properly. Capillary action shrinks the metal against the walls of the mold as it cools, resulting in a hollow object with walls that can be no more than ½” to ¾” thick.
Graves says he was there to help his students “navigate the process and solve problems” and he gives his students full credit for their work. As things began to shut down because of the Coronavirus Pandemic and students stayed away from campus, however, he had to take on more responsibility to bring the project to fruition. Some of the pieces needed quite a bit of work after casting and that required more of his time.
His own sculpture required about twenty hours to fabricate. He chose the crawdad because it was a challenge to create a design for such a complex and extraordinary creature.
The Johnson City Public Art Committee asked Graves to oversee production of the bronze sculptures for the animal scavenger hunt. Judging from the number of cards printed with clues that have been given out at the Johnson City Public Library, it has been a resounding success.
“A very small percentage of public art is created by artists who are at a point in a successful career where they can do their own work without any outside constraints,” says Graves. “The majority of public art is commissioned by a body that solicits artists’ creative ideas but imposes its own standards and preferences on the work.” In a very real way, public art is for the public, not the artist. Johnson City’s public art program is gaining vitality and visibility because local artists have volunteered their time and shared their creative skills with the community. Graves notes that “a person doesn’t have to understand art to appreciate it or find it emotionally or visually appealing.”