The Fine Art of Pouring Iron

A team of local artists have built Peoria’s only cupola furnace at Bradley University.

by Emily Potts
 Black Dog Metal Arts
Watching an iron pour is not unlike seeing a fireworks display.

Iron casting is an ancient art that dates back to the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC–220 AD). But the process requires a special furnace called a cupola to melt the metal, and those are rare—the nearest ones reside at the Art Institute of Chicago and Six Mile Sculpture Works in Granite City, Illinois. That is, until now. 

Local artists Jamie Lovell and Danny Rohr own and operate Black Dog Metal Arts, an art foundry specializing in metal fabrication, woodworking and metal casting. The two are recent graduates, having received their MFA degrees in sculpture from Southern Illinois University in 2018, and iron casting is a big part what they do. 

cupola Black Dog Metal Arts
Taylor Fawcett and Danny Rohr construct the cupola
furnace inside the Heuser Art Center at Bradley University.

“We travel all over the country throughout the year to pour iron with our extended iron family,” Lovell explains. “No one was doing it in Peoria, so we decided to bring it here.” With the assistance of Bradley University professor Fisher Stolz and student Taylor Fawcett, they built a cupola furnace after receiving a grant last year from the Chicago-based Awesome Foundation. “The grant allowed us the means to begin building the cupola, which would open many doors for our business as well.”  

Not only is this unique addition good for Black Dog Metal Arts, it’s good for Peoria’s arts community and the local economy as well. “This cupola is bringing the cast iron community to Peoria and putting us on the map for iron pours,” Lovell notes. 

Where bronze and aluminum can be poured with only a handful of people, it requires a team to operate a cupola furnace—part of the reason they are so uncommon. “Iron takes a lot of preparation before a pour, and organizing a full team of people to do specific jobs,” Lovell explains. “It is a lot of hard work, but artists will travel from all around the country to do this because it is so rare.”

It is in part this aspect of community which drew Lovell and Rohr to the art form. “We have to rely on each other and trust that everyone knows how to do their jobs properly for the pour to run smoothly,” she explains. “At the end of each pour, everyone comes together for a group hug, and we share in a big meal. It truly is a family!”

Lovell, Rohr and their crew plan to fire up the new cupola furnace this spring for a public iron pour. Attendees are invited to purchase scratch blocks on which to carve their own images, then pour iron into the blocks, creating a one-of-a-kind cast iron plaque to take home.

In November, the new cupola will be used for Peoria’s very first all-women iron pour as part of ArtsPartners’ Citywide Celebration of Women in the Arts. “I have reached out to women in my iron family from all over the country to come to Peoria,” Lovell notes excitedly. “They will be able to assist and teach women in Peoria how to run a furnace, how to pour a ladle of metal, how to manage molds, how to load charges into a furnace, and all of the other intricacies that happen at an iron pour.” PM

Visit blackdogmetalarts.com for more information.

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