Workhorse Bronze Foundry – Creating a space for artisans and artists

The term ‘craft’, when referring specifically to the niche recreation of a certain product normally already in existence, but reimagined and produced by someone or a group of people on a smaller but more artisanal scale, for example craft cheese or craft beer, solidifies the characterisation of the bronze sculpture work produced at Workhorse Bronze Foundry.

However, the more commonly used definition of the word craft, that is, a profession that requires the particular skills and knowledge of skilled work, is also pertinent to the work produced by, surprisingly, the only bronze art foundry in Johannesburg.

Located in Marshalltown, central Johannesburg, the traditional, independent and relatively small Workhorse Bronze Foundry is best described as a “collaborative fine art bronze foundry.” The four-storey building, that houses an art foundry where the owner is a sculptor and also a self-taught foundryman, is itself a work of art that effortlessly combines industrial space with the fine art bronze work of artists and sculptors.

Artist, sculptor and foundryman Louis Olivier at work in his Workhorse Bronze Foundry – a space created for artisans and artists

“Workhorse offers a unique space for artists to work with a team of specialised artisans, led by myself, to create limited edition bronze sculptures,” said artist, sculptor and foundryman, Louis Olivier.

“The workshop environment fostered in the building enables the artist’s vision to be realised from conception to a beautifully finished object.”

“There has been a growth in art foundries in South Africa while commercial foundries are dwindling they say. Cape Town art foundries have long dominated this field, although there are about seven in the Pretoria area now and there must be about 20 around South Africa.”

A furnace being prepared for a pour – picture courtesy Jurgen Marx

Olivier, who was born in 1976, in Vereeniging, grew up in Bethal in Mpumalanga. He graduated with a degree in Information Technology (IT) from the University of Pretoria in 1998. Olivier worked in the IT field for three years and then made a dramatic career change in 2001 to work as a full-time artist.

Olivier might hold a degree in information technology, but ever since he knew foundries existed, he knew that creating in one was what he wanted to do.

Establishment as an artist
Teresa Lizamore, a gallery owner, played an important role in his transition as an artist. Not only did she commission him for sculptures for RMB and Sasol, but through a mentorship programme she formally linked him to the artist Wilma Cruise. In 2009, Olivier formed part of the Artspace Mentorship Programme (now the Johannes Stegmann Mentorship Programme) and was mentored by Cruise, a prominent and established South African sculptor and visual artist.

Workhorse also casts Olivier’s work, which “explores the condition of man, our existence and the question of the afterlife and mortality. He works in various media such as sculpture, drawing and installations. He uses the body as a platform for the known, the unknown, the invisible, the tangible and the mystery of humanity where the viewer can reflect on the space we live in, in flesh and spirit.”

He has been commissioned to carry out corporate work for Sasol and Rand Merchant Bank (RMB). The popular ‘DIFFERENTLY THINK.’ bronze and concrete bench at the street level entrance to Merchant Place was RMB’s contribution to Sandton’s Benchmark Project in collaboration with Olivier. The piece features two life size bronze figures sitting on a public bench and this would be his first publicly located piece. He is also currently busy with the impressive Think Benches for RMB, a large-scale project that has been underway for a few years.

Artist and sculptor William Kentridge arranged for Harvard University students to visit the Workhorse Bronze Foundry. Picture courtesy Stella Olivier

As Olivier notes, to have a sustainable foundry one needs to have at least one “good, reliable” artist sending work your way regularly. And thus Workhorse was born out of a close working relationship with renowned South African artist William Kentridge. Workhorse was founded in 2010, and continues to produce the artist’s bronze sculptures, which form an important part of his work. More recent work for William Kentridge includes Lexicon 2017 that entailed the casting of 44 bronze sculptures. Currently Olivier and the Workhorse Bronze Foundry are working on Kentridge’s follow up – Paragraph II, 2018 – a bronze set of 23 glyph sculptures that only has an edition of nine sets. As a result of Olivier’s connection with Kentridge Olivier has found himself entering the international art world and gaining confidence.

Workhorse carefully knit their stable of artists together and takes pride in doing work for not only Kentridge, but also for Brett Murray, Norman Catherine, Haroon Gunn-Salie, Nicolas Hlobo, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Wilma Cruise, Johann Moolman, Joachim Schonfeldt, Nandipha Mntambo and Michele Mathison amongst others. Currently the foundry employs around 20 people, all meticulously carrying out their tasks in the collective process of producing the various works.

The Workhorse team have honed their skills in the lost wax method of bronze casting, otherwise known as investment casting. It is the process by which a duplicate metal sculpture (often silver, gold, brass or bronze) is cast from an original sculpture. Intricate works can be achieved by this method and Workhorse carry out every step of the process, from model making and enlargement to mould making and casting, with sensitivity and care. Their craftsmanship and artistry ensures fidelity to the artist’s original concept, while their creativity and critical eye allows for a process of exchange and collaboration, generating new and innovative outcomes.

Hot bronze that has been poured at Workhorse Bronze Foundry. Picture courtesy Rina Noto

“We keep clients completely informed of progress and always take responsibility along every step of the process. We provide creative and technical support to bring the collaboration to fruition. We maintain humility and accountability throughout the project process and we value our relationships with our clients and partners.”

“An artist creates an original model from wax, clay, or another material and hands it over to Workhorse to make a mould. A mould is made of the original model or sculpture. The rigid outer moulds contain the softer inner mould, which is the exact negative of the original model. Inner moulds are made of silicone, which is supported by the outer mould. The outer moulds are made from fiberglass.”

The Workhorse Bronze Foundry Gallery. Picture courtesy Rina Noto

“Most moulds are made of at least two pieces, and a shim with keys is placed between the parts during construction so that the mould can be put back together accurately. If there are long, thin pieces extending out of the model, they are often cut off of the original and moulded separately.”

“Following this molten wax is poured into the mould and swished around until an even coating, usually about 3mm thick, covers the inner surface of the mould. This is repeated until the desired thickness is reached. Another method is to fill the entire mould with molten wax and let it cool until a desired thickness has set on the surface of the mould. After this the rest of the wax is poured out again, the mould is turned upside down and the wax layer is left to cool and harden. With this method it is more difficult to control the overall thickness of the wax layer. This hollow wax copy of the original model is removed from the mould. The model-maker may reuse the mould to make multiple copies, limited only by the durability of the mould.”

The Bird II Head Facing Back Over Shoulder by William Kentridge and cast by Workhorse Bronze Foundry. Picture courtesy Rina Noto

“A sprued wax copy is dipped into a slurry of silica, then into a sand-like stucco, or dry crystalline silica of a controlled grain size. The slurry and grit combination is called ceramic shell mould material, although it is not literally made of ceramic. This shell is allowed to dry, and the process is repeated until at least a half-inch coating covers the entire piece. The bigger the piece, the thicker the shell needs to be. Only the inside of the cup is not coated, and the cup’s flat top serves as the base upon which the piece stands during this process. The ceramic shell-coated piece is placed cup-down in a kiln, whose heat hardens the silica coatings into a shell, and the wax melts and runs out. The melted wax can be recovered and reused, although it is often simply burned up.”

“The shell is reheated to harden the patches and remove all traces of moisture, then placed cup-upwards into a tub filled with sand. Metal is melted in a crucible furnace, then poured carefully into the shell. The filled shells are then allowed to cool.”

Finishing – fettling
“The shell is hammered or sand-blasted away, releasing the rough casting. The sprues, which are also faithfully recreated in metal, are cut off, the material to be reused in another melt. Just as the wax copies were chased, the casting is worked until the tell tale signs of the casting process are removed, so that the casting now looks like the original model. Pits left by air bubbles in the casting and the stubs of the spruing are filed down and polished.”

Artisans in action at the Workhorse Bronze Foundry. Picture courtesy Rina Noto

Finishing – patina
“After final polishing, corrosive materials may be applied to form a patina, a process that allows some control over the colour and finish. A wide range of chemicals, both household and commercial, can give a variety of patinas. They are often used by artists as surface embellishments either for colour, texture, or both. Patination composition varies with the reacted elements and these will determine the colour of the patina.”

“The final display, mounting and installation of a sculpture is a crucial aspect of our process. We give meticulous attention to the individual details of each object. This is done with an acute understanding of the composition and the material used. We install artworks with the aim to understand and create the perfect aesthetic and a safe environment for the work of art.”

Besides the industrial space of the foundry The Workhorse Bronze Foundry includes a gallery space and serves as a kind of artistic hub. Olivier has been quoted as saying: “As an artist you want people in your studio. There’s always work in progress, so it’s almost like you feed from people’s reaction and how they respond to works.”

The Workhorse also sometimes presents viewings of the casting process and has even created a viewing platform for safety reasons. “I love to take people through the process because to me it’s almost an artwork in itself,” said Olivier in a previous interview.

For more information contact Workhorse Bronze Foundry on TEL: 011 334 0657 or visit