Petrified beauty

Casting—the depth and history of an undervalued art

Kate Melton

Six thousand years ago, humans discovered a revolutionary process. By pouring molten metals into molds, within hours they could create tools, dishware, and jewelry that would have otherwise taken days, weeks, or months to craft. Since then, the technique has evolved from its foundation in basic ores to include all types of metals, plastics, ceramic, and glass. The process, and ways in which artists bend the rules, continues to grow every day.

Jen Townsend explores the brave new world of casting in her breakout coffee table book, CAST. Compiled with her longtime friend and fellow maker Renee Zettle-Sterling, CAST reveals the overwhelming prevalence of the art form in our everyday life. And though I looked through the book before we talked, it’s not until I meet Townsend that I understand what that really means.

As she speaks passionately about the craft, I become increasingly aware of our surroundings: The brick walls in the cafe, the chairs we’re sitting in, the mug from which I’m drinking my latte, the ring on Jen’s finger, toilets, sinks, and tile, are all cast. The list—quite literally—never ends. “It drives my husband crazy,” laughs Jen. “Since reading the book, he walks around the house pointing out things that are cast. It totally blew his mind.” 

Every page of CAST reveals a new aspect of the art form, as rich text supports sprawling high-resolution photographs. Chapters are sectioned into the history, impact, and process of casting before splitting into sections based on the various mediums: metal, ceramics, glass, and jewelry followed by a peculiar chapter called (Im)material, dedicated to materials used in original and meaningful ways. Marc Quinn’s series Chemical Life Support, for example, “is composed of recumbent figures, each cast in polymer wax with a unique combination of pharmaceuticals mixed in.” In other words, each figure is physically made up (in part) of the drug that saves the life of the model, like Quinn’s Nicholas Grogan—Insulin (Diabetes), which incorporates insulin into the polymer wax. 

Despite the beauty depicted within the pages of CAST, a schism exists within the community. “Artists who cast kind of get a bad rap from other craftspeople,” says Townsend, “because it’s seen as a tool for mass production. And mass production is generally considered the opposite of art.” Flipping through the book, it’s impossible to ignore the differences between captivating works like Marlene Rose’s Buddha Wall and the cinder blocks that support buildings. It’s surreal that two vastly different objects are created through the same process. It’s the difference between Leonardo DaVinci’s work and that of an everyday house painter. 

But, as Townsend points out, such titles are arbitrary. “We look at them differently because of their functions,” she says. While one is designed for aesthetic, the other is for practicality. In the end, we decide what’s attractive or valuable. And, as CAST demonstrates so well, anything has beauty if we simply admire it. 


John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester.

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