Johnny Green and the FoundryBy CECILY BATEMAN,
In the past, I featured local artisan Johnny Green who was, and is, turning tons of wood. Monstrous and magnificent, it makes an impression, especially once you have had the grand tour of his wood shed. But Mr. Johnny was just getting started. And the expansion of his artistry began with a dragon.
At the time of my first tour in the spring of 2017, Mr. Johnny had a bronze Foundry in the works in Franklinton. Previously his pieces had been comprised solely of wood, ranging from sweet gum, found locally, to walnut, sourced from Illinois. Cherry, magnolia, pecan, cedar, and mesquite were also used in his titanic wood turning. But one thing led to another, and in Johnny Green's case the sky is the limit. As he explained, he had created a dragon which incorporated bronze - a mixed media piece. That was back in 2015 when he worked with an artist in Gulfport, Mississippi, to apply bronze castings onto the wood, comprising the dragon. An unusual piece, it struck a chord with Johnny, kindling his interest, so he hired the artist to do more, similar work - seven or eight pieces. The artist failed to perform, but Mr. Johnny was undeterred.
With his only other option to go to Houston or Atlanta to commercial foundries to have this casting done, he made a prudent plan. Working on a fish at the time, he would build his own Foundry so that he himself could incorporate bronze onto the fish. It is notable that while 80 percent of artists do the artwork and then take the molds to a foundry which does the metal casting, Mr. Johnny creates the whole kit and caboodle, right here in Franklinton.
With the opportunity to buy the necessary casting equipment out of a foundry in Texas, Johnny sagely built his own in an old warehouse which he had owned for half a century. He ran his Foundry there, next door to Cargill and Thigpen Concrete, for two years until Cargill wanted to buy the land. Selling the property, Mr. Johnny was in the process of moving the Foundry equipment to a new location when we last talked. Humbly explaining that while he wasn't formerly familiar with artistic casting, experience with steel castings was in his repertoire, from his career in the sand and gravel business. Just as with the wood turning, his professional background provided the foundation for his art.
The complex process used for artistic casting is known as the lost wax process. Unfamiliar, I had to see it to understand it. First, Mr. Johnny makes a clay structure like a bust, and then he makes a flexible silicone mold of the clay. Now, he has a duplicate of what was in the clay, but there is a void where the clay was. Into this void he pours hot wax. Once it hardens, he removes it from the mold, adding a ceramic shell. A time-consuming process, it takes two to three days per coat, and typically ten to fifteen coats are applied.
Back to the casting process, once the product has dried, it is placed in the furnace, at 1000 degrees - this hardens the china and melts the wax away. Then, the piece of china is heated to 1500 degrees, and the melted bronze is poured into it. Once it cools, Mr. Johnny painstakingly breaks off the china which leaves the bronze metal. Once he cleans it up, the pieces are welded together and incorporated into exquisite wood turned pieces.
With the Foundry work a two-man job, Johnny has folks, with experience in pouring bronze, to help him. One of these experts is Larry House, a blacksmith from Picayune, Mississippi. The men are always clad in safety gear, including protective suits. The process is not without risk. And it takes perseverance. One piece, start to finish, can take up to a year. Most pieces have multiple castings. For example, the fish featured 15 different castings.
The tour of the wood shed, which followed, cemented in my mind all Mr. Johnny had told me. I got a glimpse of the clay work for a hummingbird that his good friend Jim Creel from Hammond assisted him with. And I toured the wax room and the area for the ceramic slurry system. Mr. Johnny added this space off of his wood shed at his home, where he resides with wife Dianne, since my previous visit. Parts of the casting process, which were formerly done at the Foundry, they are more easily conducted on the premises where he can monitor them. Reiterating, it's a time-consuming process which explains the substantial cost.
Johnny's work is on exhibit, and for sale, at the St. Tammany Art Association Art House in Covington and in a Santa Fe gallery.
Skilled artisan Johnny Green pointed out that his first pieces were one of a kind as they were made to fit the wood. Though he may be able to reuse some of the future castings, the pieces will be limited editions of ten or less. That is the plan, along with designs for a grand eagle which I can't wait to see. Purchased on impulse in the mountains of North Carolina, an eagle with a wing span of four feet, carved from mahogany, rests above the French doors leading to our patio. It is sans bronze, and now I understand why.