A friend of mine teaches art at the University of Tennessee, and I pick his brain from time to time about art. I’m really interested in art but don’t really know much about it, and knowing an artist is really neat, though sometimes I worry that by turning chat so often to art, I’m being sort of a jerk (maybe he’d like to talk about sports or politics or parenting or television sometimes). I’ve also always been fascinated by industrial things. For example, I’m really interested in things like factory tours, although I never actually manage to go on any. Mechanization — or really human innovation in general, with things like mechanization as just one example — is really amazing to me. So too is the fact that one day somebody figured out probably more or less by accident that molten iron could be molded into useful forms and that, as our species began to be able to allocate more resources to culture than to survival, people started practicing this skill with a more artistic than pragmatic purpose. So when my friend mentioned that the UT sculpture club was going to be holding an iron pour, all my little fascination alarm bells started dinging.

wpid-wp-1415497957489.jpegIron pours, it turns out, are a pain to put on, and so they’re fairly rare. Some sculptors will basically go on road trips from one iron pour to the next, and so sculptors from at least as far away as Minnesota were visiting to help throw this shindig. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when we (my family came with) arrived. There was a big kiln or perhaps you’d call it a furnace, maybe a bit smaller than a 50 gallon drum, sitting on a stand. A few people stood around while others began loading the furnace with what I guess was maybe coke. It would be a couple of hours, my friend told us, before they would begin pouring any metal. Other people were filling sacks with salvaged iron and still others were breaking larger pieces of salvaged iron into smaller pieces that would then be put into the sacks.

The club was making sort of a fund raiser of the public event, selling shirts and the opportunity to make scratch tiles. This stuff wasn’t set up yet when we first got there, so we walked to an anthropology museum on campus and let the kids run around some in the lovely Fall weather and came back a couple of hours later to get started making scratch tiles.

To talk about scratch tiles, I first have to talk about how you make a mold to begin with. I imagine there are several methods, but the one in evidence today used molds made of sand. What? Yes, sand. Well, it’s sand mixed with some kind of chemical that makes it hold its shape and that I suppose might impart some properties to the sand that prevent it from turning to glass under extreme heat. The artists pouring iron had brought many molds, some of whose shapes you could discern and some of whose shapes were buried inside the molds with holes for pouring the iron in. So, say you’re making a bowling ball: the whole thing has to be encased in a mold with something like a periscope hole for pouring the metal into; a piece with a flat exposed surface (like, say, a relief) needs no such contrivance, and so its negative shape can be seen in full; these tend to look like oddly misshapen bowls. A scratch tile uses a shallow square mold with a recess in it, as if you had taken a square brick of hardened light brown sugar, which is what the stuff looks like, and pressed a tile into it. You then scratch your design into the recessed area, and when the iron is poured in, it fills the scratched design and leaves you with an iron tile basically scarified with your design.

We’re not accustomed to carrying much cash and were ill prepared, but borrowing four bucks from my friend (which made me feel like a real tool — some patron of the arts I am — though he was very gracious about it), we were able to scrounge enough cash to let the kids each scratch a tile.

wpid-wp-1415497959578.jpegSince our departure and return, a bunch more people had showed up, many of them wearing what looked like suede protective outfits and helmets with face shields. The furnace shot a point of bright orange fire out its top, and one of the holes near its bottom spit occasional sparks. When I say a jet of fire, I don’t mean that it was a flame; I mean that it seemed like the kind of thing that you imagine shooting out the back of a fighter plane’s engines. One guy climbed a little platform beside the furnace occasionally and dumped in buckets of iron scraps. Things were really getting exciting! Well, they were exciting for me. My kids were pretty bored by it after they were done designing their tiles, which sort of blows my mind. At some point, some of the folk working the event turned what I guess is probably called a crucible upside down over the fire, I suppose to heat it gradually so that the sudden introduction of super hot iron doesn’t break it, though I’m really not positive that’s why. And then all of a sudden, two people in their fancy suede duds were carrying the crucible on a pole between them over to some of the molds. They pretty casually poured the iron into the various little periscope holes like some thick psychedelic orange juice. They didn’t get much of a pour, it seemed to me, but then I suppose that’s why the event was scheduled to last all day.

Before and between pours, some people worked on keeping the crucibles hot by pointing what seemed like basically an industrial hairdryer into the vessels, only instead of air, it blew flaming gas until the inside of the crucible glowed.

My daughter in particular was really sick of the affair by now (both kids were put off by the smell, which was a little acrid but not so bad, really), but I wanted to see one more pour, and they were going to pour the scratch tiles next, which I thought the kids might find interesting since they had more of a stake in it. I was wrong. It took a few minutes to get the iron back up to temperature, but when they did, they had two crucibles going for a couple of minutes, and watching those carrying the hot metal navigate around one another and around the various obstacles (people, pallets of molds, the ground made irregular by mounds of sand used for dampening any spills) was like watching a sort of dance.

The tiles flamed as they were poured and even after, and we could see the orange molten square glowing for minutes after. I’m not sure how long it takes them to cool and harden, since we left shortly after this second pour. We’ll retrieve the tiles later.

Watching this event made me wish I were artistic. Or, as I said wistfully on the drive home, I’m artistically inclined but not artistically talented, so that while an event like this has a whole lot of appeal for me, it’s not the sort of thing I could ever have hoped to attend as more than an interloper. Interloping was fun, though. I would have gladly stayed and watched, pretty well mesmerized, for the whole time. If there’s another iron pour in the next few years, I’d love to go and would for sure make a scratch tile of my own. I’m grateful that my friend let me know about the event. It was a real treat.

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Earl doesn’t usually hang out with me very much. When he was brand new (he’s about two years old now), he spent much of my workday napping in my office, often enough bundled up inside my sweater to keep warm in the winter chill. Now he won’t deign to sit on my lap or even on the same piece of furniture as me. So of course I crave his attention and follow him around the house to pick him up so that I can hug him and pet him and squeeze him and name him George. (Actually, full of self-conscious humor at the silliness of it all, I do smoosh him and nuzzle him and kiss him and call him love muffin and snugglepuss.) This morning, he hopped up onto my new desk for a quick rest and then moved in for a closer look as I typed. It was a rare treat.

Over the spring and summer, we tried to sell our house, but it didn’t work out. We’re still not sure why. We’ve fixed up a bunch of things since we bought the house, and the place really is quite pleasant (we’re trying to get a jump on moving school districts before high school). Anyway, it didn’t work out, and the new plan is to stay for a little longer. The remaining carpet was original to the house and pretty gross, so we’ve replaced that (we had previously installed nice wood and tile elsewhere in the house). We also decided to make the bonus room more useful. We had hidden most of our books in storage and gotten rid of the rickety old book shelves we’ve been carrying around for years, but now that we’re staying, we need space for our books, which I’ve really missed for the past few months. So we had a carpenter build in some cabinets and bookcases for us, with bonus window seats in the dormer windows for extra storage. Our daughter is especially delighted by the prospect of curling up with a book in one of the window seats. Here’s what the process looked like, and the final product. Now we need only to get the rest of our books out of storage and the room will be quite lovely.

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A couple of times now, coworkers have commissioned some of my art. Here is a piece I drew for a coworker frustrated by her dog’s habit of pooping any time she leaves him alone in the house. I proposed (to be clear: in absolute jest) the installation of a colostomy bag and two cones of shame — one at each end — as a resolution to the problem. She asked for an illustration and I came up with this, which I will confess I drew somewhat hastily.

We have here a dog in shoes and with a cone at each end of his body. He is pointing with one foot like a hunting dog, and because he’s such a cool character, he’s got sunglasses mounted on his head cone. The spiked collar adds to his cool factor as well, I think. But he’s more than cool. Observe the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall behind him; this fellow has culture as well! The cat clock adds a touch of whimsy and marks the passing of time, which really sums up the artistic thesis here. Although I drew a happily erect tail, I might have done better to draw marks demonstrating its wagging motion, which would have reinforced this pup’s zest for life in spite of — or perhaps precisely because of — the ever-present awareness of the passage of time (carpe diem, etc.).

A careful observer may pick up on subtle hints of a lament for the bow-tie in this piece. Others may try to impose on it a meaning pertaining to firearms; art belongs to the interpreter as much as to the maker, of course, but I cannot (nay: will not) claim to have tried to imbue this piece with any subtext pertaining to firearms.

The tape measure is an inside joke. Enjoy!

Over the last year or two, we had started to be visited pretty frequently by a beautiful stray cat with large paws, snaggle teeth, an ear nicked from, we presumed, fighting, and thick brown fur. He visited so regularly last fall and winter that he wore two paths in our yard between our fence and our back deck, where we would feed him when we found him peering through the windows of our back door.

When the temperature dropped down well below freezing last winter, we took him in one night for fear that he’d die of exposure, and he spent the night snuggled up among our feet in bed, purring. The next day, he took a foul and aggressive dump on our son’s bed, and we knew that the arrangement couldn’t continue (also, one of our other cats hates him, and there was a persistent fear that they would fight). Still, we made what shelter we could for him on the deck and continued to feed him and let him in for brief supervised visits to warm up during the cold months.

Then he disappeared for a good long while. We had been on a mission to fatten him up a bit but feared that we had failed. Of course, we also hoped that perhaps someone else might have taken him in.

A few months ago, he showed up suddenly well groomed (he had begun to accumulate big mats in parts of his fur) and wearing a collar naming him “Chance.” He had been adopted after all! His visits were less frequent, but we felt at least as if he was being properly taken care of.

A couple of weeks ago, he showed up again, still wearing the collar and still reasonably well groomed (if clearly still largely an outdoor cat) but shockingly thin. Perhaps, we thought, he had shat his new owner’s bed as well and had been turned out. We loaded up on fatty food to try to help fatten him up again, as he would visit two or three times a day. We called the number on his new tag and learned, thankfully, that he was still being cared for and was being fed three or four times a day by the folk who had taken him to the vet. They suspected a thyroid problem and were looking into medication for him.

We’ve since learned that the thyroid problem has been confirmed, and he’s on medication. He still stops by a couple of times a day on a lot of days, and he eats ravenously. Hopefully now he’ll begin to put on a little weight (he weighs about half what he should). It’s really pitiful how you can feel each rib, feel his shoulder blades, and tell that he’s mincing about rather than slinking as a cat should. We had discussed with his new owners (to the extent that one can really own a wandering cat) the mercy of putting him down if the thyroid medicine didn’t work out (things like cancer had proven negative), but now we can have at least a brief hope that he might get better.

I’ve never really been a cat person, though I’ve now owned cats for some 16 years of my life. Still, I’ve grown to enjoy Robin’s (for I can’t make myself actually call him Chance) visits. The kids sure love seeing him around. I hope we can fatten him up indeed, and if improving his health means we see less of him because his voracious appetite diminishes, I’ll be glad to see him any time he does drop by our back door with his snaggle teeth and nicked ear.


I spent last week in Park City, Utah at the Canyons resort with coworkers. I had my first fly fishing experience, took a couple of short hikes, helped a few of my company’s support staff refine some technical skills, and spent more time talking to real live people than I do in probably an average month (which was both rewarding and overwhelming). The mountains of Utah are really gorgeous, as pictured below.


A couple of weeks ago, I found a freshly molted cicada on our front porch. A few days later, we encountered the one pictured above emerging from the shell. The bug was so still that we figured it might actually have baked in the sun and died. I meant to check back the next day to learn about its fate, but I forgot, and now I suppose it’ll remain a mystery for the ages.

Last Monday, I happened to be in downtown Knoxville and ran across this neat scene. It’s apparently an annual occurrence in which folk from the community bring their sunflowers and weave them into a big sunflowerish circle in one of the little parks. It was really lovely. We used to have a few sunflowers growing off the corner of our back deck, and they tended to draw goldfinches into our yard, and they were lovely.