There was a bonfire in the parking lot of the New Mexico School for the Arts. A beat up old truck and a huddled group of people stood near the flame. Piers Watson, a lanky, bearded man in dusty cowboy boots and a dingy yellowish-brown canvas jacket, was the master of ceremonies as he prodded a shallow pit of glowing coals with a set of long, steel clamps. Watson was conducting a student workshop on the centuries old technique of luted crucible metal casting – a process he has been avidly studying and advocating for neary a decade. He travels the globe teaching the process, and today he is in Santa Fe.
Watson, 47, began casting bronze in 2006 with small clay crucibles and homemade charcoal. He spent the next couple years developing his technique, but with mixed results. The London native said he embraced the passion he was quickly developing for metal casting.
“Following your intuition is very important, if you can feel that something is the right thing to do, then that is already half the battle, the next bit is to act on it,” Watson said.
And act on it he did by traveling to Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh, in central India, in 2008. Watson lived with a family of hereditary tribal metal casters for a month to study the luted crucible technique under their guidance. This proved to be a profoundly inspirational trip for Watson, but his immersion into this new culture overshadowed his learning, which led to a return trip in 2012.
“ I learned so much about the family, their culture, their way of life and a whole lot about my own limitations. I tried to get the technique to work for the next four years but had pretty much 100 percent failure rate. On the second visit I paid more attention to the process.”
The origins of the luted crucible metal casting can be traced back several centuries to pre-industrial India, as well as western Africa, where the technique is still locally practiced in both. Living and studying in the birthplace of his beloved artform gave Watson deep insight into the craft’s history.
He said the three defining aspects of luted crucible metal casting is that it is inexpensive, safe and flexible. The raw materials of beeswax, sand, clay and scrap metal are relatively cheap and, according to Watson, are safe and easy to work with, allowing for the production of pieces to take place nearly anywhere.
“The kitchen table or around a campfire by the lake are perfectly acceptable ‘studios’ in which to work,” Watson said.
The ancient met the cutting edge when Watson created a wax mold of a nut and bolt using a 3D printer and then cast it in bronze using the luted crucible process. The contrast in technology and the breadth of evolution between these two products was aptly displayed in a before and after comparison; the wax 3D mold was fluroescent pink with smooth, clean lines, while the final metal cast product was a soot-covered black with rugged, dulled edges, yet fully functional.
Since 2013, Watson has devoted much of his career to leading workshops that showcase the history and technicalities of this craft. He encourages people to understand that this ancient process is also taking place in other parts of the world and focusing on this shared human experience of luted crucible metal casting is central to his mission, especially in a tech-driven modern era.
“Right now all I want to do is teach the process,” he continued, “I think it’s important to re-establish a sense of connection to people, not just as it is dictated by social media, but in a deeper way. I hope to open them up to the idea of how to reconnect with nature as a source of materials with which to do extraordinary things and how to help it rather than just taking from it.”
Watson says that with heightened global awareness of environmental and human rights issues, luted crucible metal casting is one way for people to move away from the “Industrial Answer.”
“Metal casting is one of the technologies that moved people out of the stone age but it has become a specialized industry where only specialists are allowed to know how it works. I think putting the knowledge back into the hands of the non-specialists, regular people, is extremely important. Democratizing metal casting!”
Watson lives in France, but his passion for this craft has him perpetually traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe for exhibition openings and workshops. 2015 is another busy year for him, with events booked in London, New Mexico, Kansas City and Brooklyn. Watson is also publishing his first book later this year, “The Luted Crucible, A Pre-Industrial Metal Casting Process,” which will be available on his website, www.pierswatson.com.
Watson’s sincere passion for luted crucible metal casting is evident is his work ethic, his enthrallment for the art form, the way he speaks of the process with sincere, poetic conviction. Watson spoke of the lessons he took away from those trips to India, but his words also seemed to apply to the people he meets during his travels and the one-of-a-kind figures each person creates in Watson’s fire pit.
“It’s so important to try and see what’s there in front of you, not judge them as good or bad and simply respect them for who and what they are in the moment.”
Watson has happily dedicated his life to his art, but he couldn’t have it any other way. Watson spreads the luted crucible message wherever he goes, not only for himself but for others. He is a missionary of metal casting who strives less to elevate the luted crucible process itself, but rather bring people together through the craft and its process. He may be showing people how to cast metal figures in a fire, but his greatest work is forming personal relationships amongst his fellow man.