Bronze God

A Lyndale sculptor transforms a building - and a block - from his home foundry

Nestled in the Lyndale neighborhood, John Braun has crafted two life-size women from the 2000-degree molten metal with which he works in a foundry in his garage.

The bronze statuettes are what Braun calls Grecian-style "caryatids," defined in Merriam Webster's Dictionary as "a draped female figure supporting an entablature" or building column.

The women - made using an ancient, expensive Italian method of casting - are designed to blend into the beams of an artfully crafted front porch on Braun's newest condo renovation. The remodeler/metal sculptor's stake is aesthetic as well as financial; the house sits next door to Braun's home on the 3200 block of Grand Avenue South.

The caryatids are just the latest items that have captivated Braun's neighbors and inspired them to use their "brawn" to create their own, more artful home exteriors.

From liquid metal emerge two heavy ladies

There are many steps to the finished bronze product, from clay sculptures to wax and plaster molds, then a liquid-bronze pour and welding. Braun describes the process of creating the sculptures as tedious, time-consuming and occasionally painful.

The two caryatids took approximately 400 hours of work, he said. Braun starts with steel and aluminum framework filled in with clay; he then sculpts the clay. Braun used a live model, a professional dancer, as his inspiration.

Plaster is then formed around the clay form; the plaster mold is taken off the clay-filled framework when hard and its insides are evenly coated in hot wax. The battle scars from this process are evident in hairless patches on Braun's forearm that have been unintentionally bodywaxed.

The plaster is removed from the hardened wax. Braun then adds red tubes to the wax shell, allowing routes for the bronze to pour into the mold and for the air to get out. The wax is again surrounded with plaster to create the actual mold for the liquid bronze.

The plaster and wax mold is then fired in Braun's kiln for between 12 and 26 hours - using $400 worth of electricity. The wax melts in the plaster and drives out any water, leaving behind the mold ready for bronze.

After the plaster mold sufficiently cools (which can take almost a day) Braun prepares for the bronze pour. He buys bricks of bronze for $2.50 a pound - with each lady weighing 220 pounds, that's approximately $1,100 just for the bronze.

The melting process is done in a large ceramic cup inside a melting furnace set at 1,950 degrees. Each time Braun does a melting, he said it costs approximately $40 in natural gas. When the bronze is red hot at 1,950 degrees, two people pour the bronze into the plaster mold, which is buried in a sand tub to guard against spills and breakage.

Neighbor Cindy Skrien said she and her kids have been watching Braun's work in progress. "My kids have seen him do a bronze pour," she said, adding that other neighbors gather to watch it, too.

Pours don't always go as planned. Braun said two years ago he had a drip of bronze on his shoe at 1,800 degrees burn right through to his skin. When visited by the Southwest Journal photographer in December, a mold broke, which Braun said happens rarely, usually when even a tiny bit of moisture is left in the mold. The bronze spilled and spattered into the sand, and Braun had to start the process over again.

When the mold works and the bronze hardens, the plaster is chipped away and the bronze parts are welded together and polished. Braun said it took five men to lift the weighty ladies into place.

Becoming a metal sculptor

Braun, who grew up in St. Peter, Minn., attended Gustavus Aldolphus College, where he worked as an assistant to the late Minnesota sculptor Paul Granlund. Granlund had lived in Florence, Italy and studied mold-making.

Braun said very few bronze sculptors pour it in their own foundry - most send sculptures out to be bronzed. Braun said studying with Granlund he learned his old mold-making process, which Braun describes as "a very dusty, dirty process." He said he liked it because he retains artistic control and gets an appreciation for the material.

After college, Braun said he began renovating homes throughout Southwest - mostly in the Kingfield and Lyndale neighborhoods. He said he did metal work on the side as commissions or personal projects.

In 2000, he said he began to renovate his home, which had been a garbage house and meth lab. In 2002, he said, he began turning the rental property next store into condos, creating a wrought iron fence encompassing the front yards.

He said the next-door condo conversion is the first project wherein he's merged his art and renovation businesses. Braun said he wanted to have that attention to details, such as mini-wrought iron porches, because he has to look at it from his house. (And the owners of the new condos can look at similar porches on Braun's home.)

He hopes to recoup the cost of his distinctive labors when the condos sell; a two-bedroom unit is priced at $270,000.

Braun said he'd now like to abandon the life of home renovation and focus on bronze sculpting.

An artist on the block

Neighbor David West, who lives across the street from Braun, has a front-row seat for watching the creations take shape. West said Braun helped teach him to build a fence, and has worked hard with neighbors to encourage and excite them about artful home maintenance.

West said he's worked 40 hours on his fence with Braun and it's half done. He said the partially completed fence is about 48 feet long and contains more than 1,300 welds. "The concept is pretty easy, but the process of doing the welding is pretty tricky," West said.

Braun said such craftsmanship might seem out of place in the Lyndale area rather than, say, a more affluent lakefront neighborhood. However, he noted in Europe, such exterior art is everywhere, and Minneapolis should expect no less.

"It's much-needed eye candy in the metropolitan area," said Skrien, Braun's neighbor. "We appreciate good art, especially out in public where people get a chance to see it. It's wonderful."

West agrees and has enjoyed watching Braun's projects and his own hands-on participation. "It's been great to watch him single-handedly transform that end of the block," he said. "He's just a great neighbor to have."

To view more of Braun's work, visit his Web site at www.grajmahal.com. His work is also currently on display at the downtown's Premier Gallery, 141 S. 7th St.