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Arts & CultureThe Seven Gifts: The mold maker and the metal sculptor

The Seven Gifts: The mold maker and the metal sculptor

by Edith Cody-Rice 

When you see those lovely animal sculptures at the Seven Gifts site at Riverfront Park on Spring Street in Almonte, you will be amazed to learn of the many steps required to bring them to life. An artist does not just take a hunk of metal and shape or sculpt it to form the animal, 7 distinct steps are required:

  1. carving an intricate shape in wood,
  2. creating a silicone mold around the carving,
  3. covering that silicone mold with a protective plaster cast,
  4. creating a wax figure of the animal in the silicone mold,
  5. making a ceramic cover for the wax figure,
  6. melting out the wax once the ceramic figure has hardened and
  7. filling the cavity with metal that will become the finished art. This is called the lost wax technique and its stages are illustrated here on metal sculptor Dale Dunning’s website. 

The three artists involved in the creation of the animals for the Seven Gifts project are Nish Nabie (profiled on this August 2, 2023 Millstone article ), mold maker Darlene McLeod and well known Almonte metal sculptor Dale Dunning.

Darlene McLeod

Born in New Brunswick, Darlene McLeod grew up in Almonte (she now lives in Richmond) and has been the studio assistant for stone carver Deborah Arnold for many years. Using her hand tools she finishes alabaster, marble & soapstone sculptures. She was also a studio assistant for Stephen Braithwaite’s large sculpture project in Regina Saskatchewan.

Darlene studied visual arts with a major in sculpture at York University and is the recipient of many awards and scholarships. She became involved in the Seven Gifts project when she came off maternity leave and wanted to get back into the community. She finds this project current and necessary and believes that it is groundbreaking. “Almonte is a place that likes to take a stand for humanity and we need to do this, it will be part of the community for generations”, she said. She feels that the Seven Gifts project teaches by gentle and relatable guidance.

She was surprised to find a source of local marble at the Tatlock Quarry. She said even though she grew up here she had no idea it existed and she felt she was in Italy when she visited it with Nish and Deborah to select the marble for the plinths.

Darlene is touched to be working with Nish Nabie, Deborah Arnold and Dale Dunning. She feels it is an honour to work closely with these fine artists. She particularly appreciates the original wood carvings by Nish which have a touch of whimsy and such character.

Working with his basswood animal sculptures, Darlene coated them with a universal mold release to protect them, let it dry then mixed silicone and applied 4 coats to the sculpture while it was hot, drying each coat for at least 6 hours or overnight before proceeding with the next.

She then poured plaster, reinforced with burlap, over the silicone mold to a depth of 3/8 of an inch or so and allowed it to set.

Once it was set, she carefully undercut, or sliced seams, in the plaster and silicone to very carefully remove the silicone mold from the sculpture. This was done in 3-5 parts and the sections are then carefully bolted together.

3-4 coats of melted wax were poured into the silicone mold, each coat being allowed to harden before the next was applied. In the case of the bear, the wax was poured in through a hole in the feet. Once hardened, the silicone mold was removed and the wooden carving was recreated in wax. The silicone molds will be stored at the Mississippi Mills Textile Museum.

Darlene’s work was overseen by artist Deborah Arnold and she collaborated with both Nish Nabie and Dale Dunning throughout the process.

Dale Dunning then took over and his process is described below.

Dale Dunning

Well known metal sculptor Dale Dunning became involved in the Seven Gifts project through his relationship with Deborah Arnold whose art he has cast. Dale has made a career of casting art for other artists in addition to creating his own work. He is now increasingly focusing on his own work. He studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts from 1964-1969 at Mt. Allison University. In his third year, he was told that a group of people were coming to take a look at his work and the next thing he knew, he was notified that he had received a Canada Council grant. After graduating he went on to undertake a Master of Fine Arts at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. It was the beginning of the 70’s, a lot of his friends were being drafted into the Vietnam war and he decided, with his wife, that he did not want to stick around in the United States, so he moved to Toronto where they occupied a basement apartment for $30 a week and worked as a welder. He simply couldn’t afford studio space.

Dale saw an ad for a teaching position in Algonquin College in Ottawa and applied. Once he arrived, he was disappointed to find that the department did not have supplies or indeed criteria. The couple found their now home and studio in Almonte and moved here, Dale resigning his teaching position to concentrate on his art.

Dale picked up work on the totem sculptures from the molding process completed by Darlene. He coated the wax figures several times in a slurry to which sand is applied. Each coating was dried before the application of the next.

The ceramic stage of the creation of the bronze replicas of Nish Nabie’s basswood carvings. Left to Right: the front of the eagle, the back of the eagle and the feet of the eagle.

Once the resulting ceramic had dried, he heated it to melt the wax inside, then poured bronze into the cavity left by the melted wax. Once the bronze cooled and hardened, he cracked off the ceramic to reveal the completed figure in all of its detail. He will finish and polish the sculpture to create the totems you will see in Riverfront Park.

His goal, he said, is to faithfully replicate the original artist’s ideas.





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