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See Inside The 85-Year-Old Astoria Foundry Where Famous Sculptures Get Made

By Jeanmarie Evelly | May 19, 2017 2:25pm | Updated on May 22, 2017 7:06am
 Modern Art Foundry has produced works like the famed Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.
Modern Art Foundry in Astoria
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DITMARS — The Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, Louise Bourgeois' spiders, and the hulking Sophocles sculpture in Athens Square Park: these works ended up in different places but all got their start at the same decades-old art foundry in Astoria.

Modern Art Foundry, a family-run fine art foundry tucked away among auto body shops on 41st Street off 19th Avenue, has been casting bronze and other metal sculptures for what will be its 85th year this summer, according to the owners.

The business — located in a building that was once the horse stables for the landmarked Steinway Mansion on the same block — has worked on thousands of pieces over the years, from actually creating the sculptures to doing maintenance and conservation work on pieces that were cast elsewhere.

"We've done 50,000-plus jobs over the years. A lot of people have passed through our doors," said Jeffrey Spring, who runs the foundry alongside his sister Mary Jo, making them the third generation of owners in their family.

Other well-known pieces made at the site include the Hans Christian Andersen sculpture in Central Park, as well as artist Judith Weller's "Garment Worker," the large statue of a man at a sewing machine that's displayed on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan .

Modern Art Foundry A foundry worker doing conservation work on one of artist Ai Weiwei's zodiac sculptures. (DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly)

The foundry mostly works with artists who are creating "small editions" of their works, meaning there's usually one or a handful of the pieces in existence, often bound for museums and galleries.

"When you do small editions like that, each piece is considered a unique work," Spring explained.

Modern Art Foundry specializes in a process called "lost wax casting," a multi-step process that uses a wax pattern copy of an artist's work, which is then encased in a mixture of plaster, silica flour and water.

The whole thing is baked in an oven for anywhere from a few days to two weeks, during which the wax version of the sculpture melts out, leaving behind a negative impression mold of the artist's original model.

Workers then melt metal, heated at about 2,000 degrees — usually bronze, but sometimes aluminum, tin or other materials — which gets poured into the plaster mold. Once it cools, crews break open the plaster to reveal the metal sculpture inside.

"The process is a series of positives, negatives," said Spring.

Once the metal casting is made, workers will make finishing touches, and then the piece will go on to the coloring or "patina" phase, depending on what the artist has specified.

This will involve applying chemicals like acid to the surface of the work in order to change the composition of the metal, which changes its color.

"It's usually done hot," Spring explained. "The traditional method is to heat the piece up and apply the chemical so you can start making greens,or browns or blacks or combinations."

A standard sculpture will take between eight to 12 weeks to complete from start to finish, he said. How many projects they work on in a given year depends on the size and complexity of the pieces.

Modern Art Foundry A worker at Modern Art Foundry finishing a sculpture. (DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly)

"We could make a hundred small pieces and we could also just make two really big pieces," Spring said. "It can vary."

On a recent weekday, workers at the foundry were doing conservation work on several large sculptures by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The pieces — intricate animal heads mounted on pedestals, to represent the signs of the zodiac — had been cast at a different foundry but came to MAF to be touched up and restored.

In July, the foundry will celebrate an important anniversary, marking 85 years since Spring's grandfather, John Spring, founded the business in 1932, originally at a different location on the Astoria waterfront, near what's now Socrates Sculpture Park.

The foundry moved to its current site in 1947, and has been creating sculptures for artists ever since, with the exception of a period during World War II when it made parts for the Navy.

Spring says his grandfather chose to put down roots in Queens when he came to America as a young man from Poland because he had relatives in the area, and initially worked at different foundry before starting one of his own.

In addition to creating sculptures for famous artists, Spring and his other family members each dabble in their own creative pursuits, including music.

"We all do a little bit," he said. "It's hard to be in this kind of atmosphere without having some impulses."