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Arcosanti: A Life of Discovery in the Bronze Foundry

Arcosanti: A Life of Discovery in the Bronze Foundry

When Andy Chao, the manager of Arcosanti’s artisanal bronze foundry, first moved to the architecture project and community in 2007, he was fresh out of architecture school, keen to get to work, and not exactly one for metalwork! Fourteen years later, nearly twelve of them have been leading the foundry, and he’s gone beyond his architecture training to become a self-described materials nerd, in addition to a jack-of-all-trades for the artisanal endeavor.

Although he’s usually one to avoid the spotlight, Andy kindly indulged Kinship + Craft (and one of his old employees – Hey boss!) with an interview nearly two months ago. Below, he provides insight into what it’s like running the bronze foundry at Arcosanti.

If you’d like to learn more about Arcosanti, check out our other article about Hamaila Qureshi of Hamaila jewelry, also currently based at Arcosanti.

A special assembly Arcosanti bronze bell featuring a Paolo Soleri original carving. | Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.

First Impressions + “learning by doing”

K+C — What first brought you to Arcosanti and motivated you to stay?

I encountered Soleri’s concepts whilst laboring over a pretty extensive paper on Frank Lloyd Wright in college. A couple of years later, I was studying architecture at an actual architecture school through a cooperative program with my college. Their library had generous materials on Soleri and Arcosanti, including a first edition of the “Big Black Book” (City in the Image of Man), which just blew my mind away. I guess I filed it all away in my head and spent about six unsuccessful months job searching after finishing that year of school. I feel like I made a good effort, but there weren’t any jobs on the horizon. Meanwhile, I had been thinking about the workshop experience at Arcosanti often, and this seemed like a good time to give it a try. 

I attended the first workshop of 2007 in February for five weeks, and then I came back to Arcosanti to live and work here as a graphics intern during Juneteenth the same year. I don’t know if I can fully explain (or even remember) what motivated me to come back and stay here, but I imagine it was at least partially to avoid another soul-crushing round of job searching. To me, there had always been something really nice about the old workshop program here — it’s an alternative to creating this abstract rendition of yourself in the form of a resume with which to seek employment. The workshop gave leadership here a chance to gauge your skills, work ethic, and temperament while you were busy “learning by doing.”

“I don’t think I really appreciated what I had stumbled into — all the things that make the job wonderful — until later.”

K+C — How did you get involved with the foundry? 

I spent about two months as a graphics intern [in the Planning office] if I remember. I also took on a part-time job staffing the bakery on the weekends during that time. This made for a pretty full week, work-wise. I would take Monday as a weekend, but I think that wasn’t really enough, and I was getting worn pretty thin. For the foundry, late summer is when the big push begins to complete production for our Fall Sale at Cosanti every year, and my predecessor was recruiting heavily and persistently around then. Again, this is a stretch for my memory, but I believe I switched to working in the foundry mostly to escape the nonstandard work schedule I had gotten myself into… I don’t think I really appreciated what I had stumbled into — all the things that make the job wonderful — until later.

K+C — Had you had any prior experience with metalwork before you started?

Yes, I took an introductory course as a junior in college. I want to make it clear that the instructor was one of the best I’ve ever had… nevertheless, I found myself having very little patience for it and swore I’d never attempt metalworking again.

Managing the bronze foundry

K+C — You’ve been the Foundry Manager for nearly twelve years now and were part of the foundry for a little over one year before that, if I remember correctly. What was it like starting in the foundry?

Taking your first steps in the foundry is a very humbling experience for 99% of us. There’s a major physical adjustment: endless shoveling, a lot of awkward lifting, and plenty of standing tensely in front of a bench grinder until your neck and shoulders are one big knot. There’s a whole lot of goofy minutiae you have to remember about each different product you’re making, like durability considerations, seemingly arbitrary aesthetic peculiarities, and which order of operations avoids extraneous labor. And it’s a workflow where, if someone more experienced isn’t keeping an eye on you, any of the mistakes you make can easily be repeated 50, 100, 500 times before you get corrected. The media, green sand, is very unfamiliar for most people, and you have to screw up a few hundred molds before you really get a good sense of how it works. And despite all this being the case, you learn to navigate a lot of your job in three to six months because it’s just what you do for eight hours every workday. 

The Arcosanti foundry crew does two to three bronze pours a day. Each pour requires two people to pour the bronze and two people to shield the other molds from molten bronze splashing out in the process of pouring. | Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.
K+C — Although crafting the bronze wind bells, bowls, and tiles is an extremely laborious undertaking that allows the team to experiment with the designs that adorn the surfaces individually, there are times during the process that require a team effort. You seemed quite mindful of encouraging a positive mentoring environment for everyone that worked there from my experience. Where did these ideas of mentorship and a healthy work environment first develop for you?

I’m going to deflect that praise a bit and point out that there’s really no way that the experience you’re describing happens unless the entire team is each self-motivated to share what they have learned with less experienced staff. I can’t really say why this is so common within the foundry, but I’m not ready to take credit for it. And this is definitely a consistent thing. Everyone who has ever worked in the foundry, including me, has had the advantage of asking any staff member for help learning how to do anything we do. I guess it just makes the job easier for all of us the more knowledge we spread around.

Balancing work + family life

K+C — You’re married and now a father of two. How has your experience as a dad inspired your work, and vice-versa?

Family life can be pretty chaotic, but it also offers quite a lot of tangible meaning to whatever your livelihood is. I can remember not having that years ago, and I think that after my first son was born and I felt that sense of purpose, it really grounded me and gave me a caliber of focus I was not familiar with. The level of quality in my work jumped significantly around that time. 

Laughing as I say this, but I think being a provider for your family makes it a lot easier to adjust to being a “cog in the machine,” so to speak — the way we teach art in this country and even our culture, in general, tend to push against this mindset. Still, in the foundry, it’s essential because of the nature of the work involved. In reality, all the foundry team works as providers for this place and the nonprofit foundation that maintains it. It can be a real struggle for some of the staff when there’s an opinion that foundation leadership is misguided or there’s a lack of tangible appreciation for the labor we put in … and while I’m not proposing these opinions are invalid, it really helps to get above them and get the work done with focus instead of frustration if you already have experience being responsible as a provider on a more micro/personal scale.

An artisan in the foundry uses various tools to press designs into the sand molds to stylize the bells’ outer surfaces. | Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.
K+C — How has work at the foundry and home life changed during the Pandemic?

Our entire company shut down for about a month last spring. During that time, we had to develop new workplace protocols to try and abide by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations once we reopened — to keep employees six feet away from each other all day, wipe down surfaces, and that kind of thing. This was all not something most of the foundry staff took to very naturally. For many at Arcosanti, the community here is pretty closely knit, and there’s not much point to staying outside of your friends’ bubbles during work if you’re just going to throw off those restrictions at the end of the workday and hang out. But the community as a whole hasn’t experienced an outbreak, and in fact, to my knowledge, there is no one here who has contracted the virus. That’s pretty interesting to me, even if I think there was some luck involved.

Creative challenges + discoveries in the foundry

K+C — What have been the most practically and creatively challenging aspects of your work in the foundry?

I suspect the most challenging task for me has been and continues to be in the role of foreman, to somehow bridge that gap between what the foundry crew needs from and can do for the company and what the company needs from and can do for the employees.

I have to have enough skill in all the foundry tasks and techniques to effectively train anyone to do any of them, which means doing it myself frequently enough to not get rusty. In addition, I need to know enough to maintain the environment we work in: enough about pipework to maintain the compressed air line, enough about electrical to swap out toasted equipment or repair loose plugs, enough about mechanics to keep all these essential but weird machines from the early twentieth-century functioning… carpentry, welding, brazing, machining, mixing cement, hardware considerations, etc.

I also need to have a good pulse on resource allocation and consumption — we use various raw materials to make our products, namely bronze, and we also rely on an assortment of tools and safety equipment to get the job done. Having a firm grasp on all of these things helps inform me what and how to ask from the company on behalf of the crew. I’ve been pretty lucky these last several years to have enough experienced staff who can take some initiative in helping me track all this.

On the other hand, I also have to disseminate safety directives and enforce adequate work performance from the staff (the latter probably being my least favorite aspect of the job). I require a good comprehension of what aesthetic criteria production needs to follow under the Cosanti Originals brand. I need to know enough about what’s happening with sales. I need to have a reasonable understanding of what’s being produced (or not) at our sister foundry at Cosanti in Paradise Valley so that our operation is not wasting energy in the wrong places. I have to understand the financial cost of materials and equipment and work time and what’s essential versus what’s extraneous in this regard. Having a thorough understanding of all of these aspects informs me of what to ask from the staff on behalf of the company.

In the meantime, I also try to make a lot of bells, like everyone else here.

I had no idea I was such a materials nerd — there’s always so much to learn. I don’t remember enjoying chemistry much in school, but maybe I should have stuck with it a little longer.

Arcosanti’s bronze foundry manager Andy Chao provides an inside look at what leading the artisan team of metalsmiths in the alternative community entails.
The liquified bronze is poured by two artisans from the crucible into the sand molds, while two other arisans shield the other molds from drops of bronze that can potentially splash out during the process. | Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.
K+C — What has your work in the foundry led you to discover — creatively, about yourself, or about others?

I had no idea I was such a materials nerd — there’s always so much to learn. I don’t remember enjoying chemistry much in school, but maybe I should have stuck with it a little longer.

K+C — What have been a couple of your most memorable foundry moments that you’ll likely keep with you for a long time to come?

Lindsay, do you remember Soleri critiquing our bells? And he picked up one of yours and said, “Hmmm… this one is… lazy…” I can’t remember how long you had been with us at that point, but I remember he was right — you made many impressive bell designs during your time with the foundry, but that one you put up for the critique wasn’t one. [Thanks for the reminder, Andy 😉] I might be remembering that because you’re the one asking, but I think what stuck with me about the critique was despite how old and reportedly senile he was, he nailed every bell we lined up for his review. Even once he knew who had designed a particular bell, he could pick out every other bell that artisan had designed that was in the line. That was really amazing to me. It was the only critique he ever did with us.

Another memory, not really a specific moment so much as realizing an achievement of sorts, but the eldest son of the man managing the foundry when I started has been working here for many years now and has really become just a fantastic artisan and member of the crew. His father passed away battling cancer when he was just a teenager — that’s actually how I got this job (it was more a move of desperation than recognition of any skills I had thus far demonstrated). At any rate, there was something really fulfilling and satisfying to me about passing the knowledge I had gleaned from him on down to his son once he joined our crew years later.

Last one: we often give a spiel to groups of kids that come to Arcosanti to tour the site and end up watching a bronze pour. It involves talking about the true composition of a penny (zinc) and tossing one into the sprue top of a bell mold after it’s been poured to watch the material flare-up. Certain artisans become really good at giving this talk, and sometimes before a [bronze] pour with a group of kids waiting, I’ll ask them to “be the professor.” My favorite spiel was from an artisan who was with us about eight or nine years ago, maybe — he did the pour and then afterward took off all his leather protective clothing and face shield to reveal a full three-piece tweed suit with bow tie and commenced with a very fine rendition.

A detail of one of Arcosanti’s larger bronze bells. Arcosanti bronze foundry artisans deftly press surface designs into the sand molds, which then come to life when molten bronze fills the negative space. | Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation. Photographed by Jessica Jameson.


Music to play while working in the foundry?

We have a policy now where the artisan with the most successful day of casting the previous day gets to choose the music on the stereo. If I can identify what my team collectively despise the most, that’s what I tend to prefer when it’s my turn.

Time of day and year to work in the foundry?

Morning in the summer, afternoon in the winter, and never do I ever like working in the spring (because of the winds).

Aspect of living at Arcosanti?

I hate driving anywhere, so I love the commute to my job — after all, that’s what Arcosanti is all about, right?

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