For 40 Years, GSU Iron Pour forges the spirit of holiday giving

Legacy of mentor and donor George Beasley takes shape in work of sculptor Martin Dawe

The spirit of giving forged one of Georgia State University’s most enduring traditions – the Annual Iron Pour at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.

On Saturday, Dec. 10, furnaces will fire up for the 40th year of this event that invites GSU students, faculty, staff and the public to create their own heavy metal sculptures of molten iron.

The flame of passion for this particular art form and signature event still burns within Regents Professor Emeritus George Beasley, who started the Iron Pour in 1971. Beasley, a longtime donor to the GSU Foundation’s sculpture fund, retired in 2010 and remains involved.

His legacy through GSU’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design can be seen throughout Atlanta and the United States in the work of such alumni as Martin Dawe of Cherrylion Sculpture Studios.

Dawe (M.F.A., 1980) credits Beasley with teaching him the technical skills needed to create large, gravity-defying commissions, such as “Landing Gear” a life-sized stainless steel abstract figure that anchors the Terminus commercial complex in Buckhead.

“Getting that much mud to stay up in the air was the feat of my career,” said Dawe of the mold-making process involving 3,500 pounds of clay balanced on a 5-inch base. “In all the months working on it, only one toe fell off.”

“Iron pouring, welding and stone carving, using new materials – all that was great exposure for me at GSU,” said Dawe, whose B.A. from Boston University had focused on figure drawing. “It helped me realize my first love – to live a creative life, and that I was better at sculpting than drawing or painting. . . . If not for that, I would probably be selling real estate today.”

The first spark

Those skills were forged in the studios that are now located at GSU’s Edgewood Sculpture Forum, the site of Saturday’s Iron Pour. In December 1971, Beasley’s students took part in an pour iron that was supposed to produce their creations in time for a semester-ending critique. When the molds cooled and Beasley opened them, the metal art did not match what Beasley had assigned. The students instead had created holiday gifts.

“Hey wait a minute,” he recalled telling them. “I’ll run an iron pour for you after classes are over. Meanwhile, get your tails back to work.”

The event grew from a few students and their circle of friends and then into the university and beyond, reflecting Beasley’s belief that art should impact public life, and artists should support that by giving beyond their art.

“As artists, we all like to leave a mark, and we have a horrible need to be appreciated – that’s why we write our name at the bottom of a painting,” he said.

“It can be difficult to contribute money when you’re struggling to build a career in art, but you can give in other ways, like the Iron Pour. However you can give back to your sponsors or patrons or university – these are the people who helped you get where you are.”

This belief came from his training at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he received an MBA. Cranbrook graduates helped create a wave of public art during the 1960s.

“The idea of a brotherhood or network to make sculpture in America happen came from Julius Schmidt,” Beasley said of his Cranbrook mentor. “He emphasized ‘the crew’ – the idea that you are responsible for each other in the studio. We are totally interdependent. The lone ego is not going to fly because there is too much work to do. The guy with a vision needs a whole crew to get the stone from a quarry, for example.

“That idea of connectedness is what leads to the idea of giving back,” he said. “If you have a sense of connectedness, you want to give back.”

The legacy of Cherrylion

Beasley’s teaching legacy continues six miles north of downtown campus, at Dawe’s Cherrylion Studio in west Atlanta.

Dawe is among the estimated 2 percent of sculpture graduates who make a full-time living at their craft.

“I got my first commission as a GSU student through George Beasley,” Dawe said of the eagle for an Atlanta high school that he cast in bronze. “He taught me how to communicate with the client, write the contract and the financial end of the whole process.”

Artistically, “George Beasley taught me the discipline of technique,” Dawe said. “He’s a practical guy who knows what will work and what will not . . . a sculptor is part structural engineer and part chemist.”

Dawe got his first big break when a GSU dean introduced him to local sculptor Julian Harris, who employed Dawe as an assistant. Early on, the job counted as class credit. Eight years later, Dawe launched Cherrylion.

Dawe honed his skills on commissions from Harris’s deep network of commercial real estate contacts from his alma mater, Georgia Tech. Often, the projects were inspired by a single donor, such as Woodward Academy’s statue of Michael C. Carlos (who was also a GSU donor). Dawe has designed donor walls or installations in many Atlanta venues.

“For the 50th anniversary of the Fox Theatre in 1979, I did three bronze plaques with donor names, and hand laid each letter of each name,” Dawe said. “It was really tedious, before rubber molds. When I sanded down the names too far, I had to start over.”

Including numerous names in sculpture is a special challenge.

“It’s very hard to do without clichés,” he said. “Every hospital has done a tree of life, for instance. Plaques are done a million times by trophy and sign companies…. But the harder the problem, the more exciting it is for me. The projects that seem the hardest are my favorite ones.”

To recognize the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s donors who helped raise $11 million, Dawe created colorful blocks and stacked them on the floor like cans in a pantry. “The trick is that the names are secondary to the celebration of what their funds accomplished,” he said. “It’s all about serving.”

The 40th Pour

The Iron Pour serves, out of necessity, as a platform for the university’s emphasis on collaboration.

“With the iron pour, there is danger and a need for a group effort,” Beasley said. “We’ve had a good safety record at Georgia State, and we’ve always had a buddy system. One sculptor is trained to look after the other.”

The Iron Pour is also a collaboration between GSU and the public.

“We tend to feel isolated as artists, and the Iron Pour was a cool thing that brought the community in,” Dawe recalled of what was originally staged on a campus courtyard just outside the ceramics department. “It was a whole social aspect that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and it had the effect of students talking about what we were doing.”

“When I began, art was the lowest priority at Georgia State, and we were running the Iron Pour in spite of that,” Beasley said. “Our students still learn a lot of self-sufficiency here – how to get things done by hustling. They know how to call industry sources to get materials, and now GSU has a great name in the community and people love to give and have their name on the Iron Pour program.”

Beasley and Dawe continue to use their skills to benefit GSU. Dawe has offered to advise students on the business side of sculpture. Early on, he helped pay his bills by waiting tables and renovating houses.

“Of all those who go to art school, if they don’t teach in college, making a living in art is very, very difficult,” said Dawe, who draws a third of his business from hotels. “Most sculptors are making props for television and trade shows, which have to be made fast and look good. I made a 12-foot diameter McDonald’s hamburger once.”

Beasley, 67, and his wife, Judy, helped prepare the furnaces and organize the materials for this year’s event. The Iron Pour relies on corporate donors, such as Alabama Byproducts Corp., which supplies the coke that fuels the furnaces.

With protective gear on, Beasley will be at the Iron Pour well before the event opens at 2 p.m. for the public. Furnaces will reach about 3000 degrees F, and the iron temperatures crest about 2500 degrees.

“Our sincere thanks and appreciation go to Professor Emeritus Beasley who started this wonderful event and is as involved today as he has been every year,” said Cheryl Goldsleger, dean of the Welch School of Art and Design.

“We have been fortunate over the years to have a number of high profile, internationally respected sculptors involved in our annual iron pour. The two guest artists this year are Michael Dominick, head of sculpture installation at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Kenneth Payne, head of sculpture at Buffalo State University in New York.

“Their participation, the sculpture faculty’s dedication to this event and the hard work of undergraduate and graduate students and staff draw artists from across the country to Georgia State and keeps this celebrated event growing every year.”

For more on the history of GSU’s Iron Pour, visit GSU Magazine.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424