by Natasha von Kaenel
Denise Snaer-Gauder still remembers the first class she ever took at The Crucible, way back in 2001, when Crucible Founder Michael Sturtz and Hopi Breton were still teaching in the Foundry Department. Denise’s daughter, Aryana, had convinced Denise to take Iron Casting with her, and even though she had some initial reservations, Denise says once she looked down into the fire of the cupola, she knew. She was addicted.
Denise continued to take classes in Foundry, while also experimenting with performance art, incorporating the pyrotechnics of iron pours into larger performances at both national and international conferences. When she retired from her career as a landscape architect, she joined The Crucible’s faculty in our Foundry Department.
We chatted with Denise about her performances, her favorite memories, and what has kept her around The Crucible for so many years.
What attracted you to performance?
I knew of other people doing it, like George Beasley, who builds these incredible organic nest cupolas made out of branches, and lined with refractory. So when I heard George Beasley actually poured iron into wood, I started doing it, through trial and error.
What’s different about pouring iron into wood?
It’s reactive, which means it has pyrotechnical qualities from the iron. Some people carve directly into a tree trunk and that’s extremely reactive and explosive and it just blows up. But I pour into a flat form, which is reactive, and when you turn it over, you get the charred wood effect in the iron, making it unique. So I actually do a performance, and then I have a finished piece.
How did your performances develop?
I started making my own sculptural wooden forms, and it was just fun, something that you do after you do a production pour. Then Hopi and I did a big performance, where we made a six-foot iron wheel with wooden paddles. We poured iron into it, so the wheel became a Ferris wheel of iron. I tried to treat iron like water, approaching it from the lens of landscape architecture. I would make iron fountains, and unexpected things would happen. When iron was poured into a fountain made of bamboo, it started to pop like explosives, because bamboo has chambers. We didn’t really think that out, but that became part of the performance.
What inspires you?
Just about everybody here inspires me, that’s what keeps me coming back, but the youth especially. I always tell the kids who come into my class, ‘This isn’t something you are going to do for the rest of your life. This is only going to open doors for you, because knowledge is the key to getting ahead in life.’ And a lot of these kids are so motivated, all you do is light a little fire under them, and they get inspired, and start to challenge themselves. I’ve seen this time and time again, and am flabbergasted by some of the things they come up with. A lot of these kids go on to get full scholarships to really good colleges. That inspires me.
What’s something you saw at The Crucible you will never forget?
The Fire Odyssey at the Fire and Light Festival. That was a phenomenal performance produced by Michael Sturtz. It was really pushed to limit. They had opera singers sitting in these 30-foot sculptures from American Steel; there were tesla coils; the Oakland Fire Department was involved; Kinetic Steam Works was involved; Nick was doing a pour…but I think what really struck me was when they had a 90-foot crane pick up a wooden oil derrick representing the Trojan horse. The crane dropped it on the stage, and all of a sudden the whole Blacksmithing Department walked out!