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Crucible fires burn for those practicing, learning metal arts

By Erika Kelly Daily Planet correspondent
Saturday August 18, 2001

The Crucible’s barren Ashby street facade belies the fires burning inside the brick warehouse.  

Yet a planned mural depicting orange flames and metal machinery, and a towering neon sign, will soon offer a glimpse of the fire arts – welding, metal casting and jewelry design, among others – that are practiced there. 

The mural, designed by local artist M.S. Hove, is expected to get under way this month and will further establish the Crucible’s presence in the community, said Crucible founder Michael Sturtz. 

Sturtz, a sculptor and teacher, launched the Crucible in 1999 in a quest to bring the art and industry of metal work together in one place. 

Beginning with a $1,700 grant from Levi Strauss and Co., the facility has grown from 6,000 to 17,000 feet in less than three years. A team of artists and craftspeople now offer  

hundreds of classes a year and complete  

commissioned metal works for clients throughout the Bay Area. The city has given the Crucible a grant of $42,000 for its vocational education efforts. 

“This place is very much connected to the real world,” said Sturtz. “This place is very accessible. We’re promoting creativity on a bunch of levels. Not everyone is going to become a metal sculptor.” 

A recent peak inside the Crucible revealed a lively hive of artists, students and craftspeople working in a variety of metal media. Jewelry students manipulated tiny pieces of copper and silver, while a group of women welded a car sculpture destined for the Burning Man festival, near Gerlach, Nevada. 

Another group of students crafted wax molds that will eventually be cast in iron. Aryana Gauder, a young artist, worked intently on her giant wax cockroach, every tiny hair and tentacle lovingly carved. 

“Michael (Sturtz), on the first night, was saying these things are going to be around a lot longer than we are, so I thought – cockroaches,” Gauder said, explaining the inspiration for her sculpture of the famously indestructible insect.  

Jim Wilson carved a dog-shaped urn to hold the ashes of his late golden retriever, Otis. 

“Right now he’s sitting in a box on the mantle, and I decided he deserved something better than a box,” said Wilson. 

The molds will serve as foundations for ceramic casts, which in turn will be filled with molten iron. To melt the iron, the class will fire up the cupola, a giant metal furnace.  

Lighting the cupola is a day-long event that Crucible staff say should not be missed. Forced air and a steady diet of iron and coke, or coal waste, feeds the furnace, which emits a volcanic flame from the top opening and a river of molten iron from a hole at the bottom. Students and staff stand by to catch the flowing metal and pour it into their molds. 

“If you like fire, it’s one of the most intense experiences you can have,” said teacher Nick Diphillipo, grinning widely. “You’re very involved with it. You’re not a spectator; you’re dancing with it.” 

The allure of playing with fire and the earth’s other elements has drawn a diverse group of people to the Crucible. 

“We attract a lot of people who are in the midst of changing their lives in some way,” said Sturtz. 

David Sands, a career electrical engineer, became a Crucible student and volunteer after he quit his job with a Santa Clara start-up that hadn’t paid him in six months. 

Searching for his dream job, he began creating metal elements for interior and exterior designs, including the new San Francisco restaurant Maurice. 

“Hopefully it will make me rich and famous, or just rich. Or just famous,” Sands said about his new career. 

He volunteers his electrical engineering skills at the Crucible, and in return finds inspiration for his own work. 

“All of the people I’ve met here are quality. They’re craftspeople, they’re not just artists. Every time I come here I see someone doing something amazing that makes me say, ‘Oh my god, I want to learn how to do that,’” said Sands. 

In addition to teaching, Crucible artists also take on manufacturing and sculpture jobs. They were responsible for the bronze plaque commemorating Barry Bonds’ 500th home run, which was recently installed at Pacific Bell Park. The Bonds plaque, which is detailed down to the ball player’s famous earring, was a challenge, admitted sculptor Alex Smith. One of the legs cracked, and attempts to fix it left the illusion that Bonds was wearing a garter belt. Smith amputated the leg and added a new one, leaving no sign of the metallic lingerie. 

Lucky Thomas, who interns with shop manager and artist Mark Metz in return for class time, has been inspired by his experiences. 

“It’s one of a kind. It’s a resource that we don’t have around here. This could be a startup for other people to look at.”