Why the world’s artists gather in Walla Walla

The Walla Walla Foundry cast the skeletal figure and the door for Matthew Day Jackson's bunker, Hauta, 2012. Credit: Matthew Day Jackson Studio

On a cool, overcast July morning, Dylan Farnum receives his guests in the work clothes of a foundryman.

Mr. Farnum, who the Seattle Times called a George Clooney look-alike, is president of the Walla Walla Foundry. The art powerhouse, located in the foothills of Washington’s Blue Mountains, is quietly earning an international reputation.

Dylan Farnum, President of the Walla Walla Foundry, with a work in progress. Photo: Ella Shaw

This morning, an enormous, menacing metal tree looms just behind Farnum as he chats with a co-worker. The Oz-like tree is weathering (or patinating) in the normally sunny, southeastern Washington climate. It is awaiting its real day in the sun — an appearance in artist Paul McCarthy’s controversial art show, “WS,” for "White Snow," a re-imagining of Snow White.

McCarthy’s WS art performance would appear on the front page of the New York Times arts section under the headline: “Here’s Snow White: Don’t Bring the Kids.” The chatty New York Observer wrote that "the only major difference between what Mr. McCarthy has done before and the work we are seeing now: the new stuff is bigger and takes longer to make."

Farnum, 47, barely mentions the New York City media attention, which includes photos of the sculpture trees that were produced in his foundry under his observant eyes. Many of the most ambitious, biggest thinkers in art today turn to the Foundry because of its ability to take highly complicated concepts — involving many metals, natural materials and synthetics — from the sketchpad to beautiful and believable reality.

Artists as varied and acclaimed as Maya Lin, Deborah Butterfield, Dale Chihuly, Jim Dine, Kiki Smith, Matthew Barnet, Robert Arneson and others have worked closely with the Walla Walla Foundry. Kiki Smith’s silicon, bronze and forged steel sculptures, or Maya Lin’s reclaimed silver or Deborah Butterfield’s horses wrought in metal and wood require a flexible and open foundry partner.

The foundry works with surprisingly few Seattle-area artists, but its objects are on display at the new federal courthouse in Seattle (Pillar Arc) and in Tukwila at the Sound Transit station (A Drop of Sustenance).

Several years ago, just before the Great Recession set in, Farnum and founder Mark Anderson, made the decision to shift their business focus from public commissions (think courthouse statues) to more complex, intricate and lucrative art shows and performances. The gambit paid off. Not only did the Foundry survive, it thrived, growing from 50 employees in 2008 to 125 today. Those staffers, according to their artist clients, are among the most talented designers, casters, fabricators and metal workers in the world.

“Artists are attracted [to Walla Walla] like moths to a flame,” renowned young artist Matthew Day Jackson told me by phone from his studio in Brooklyn. Jackson is inspired by big ideas like the evolution of human thought, technological advancement and faith, the myth of the American dream. He works with scorched wood, molten lead, pearl, precious metals, formica and found objects like axe handles, t-shirts and posters.

A native of Orono, Maine, Farnum was a kid who liked to build things. He ended up in New York City as a history grad from Columbia and became an apprentice. His break came when American painter and sculptor Judy Pfaff asked him to help her create an 85-foot tree installation in Portland, Ore. It was his introduction to the Pacific Northwest.

By the time he sought out Matthew Day Jackson, Farnum was a rising artist; one who liked to combine a lot of materials and required a wide spectrum of approaches and techniques. The more complicated, the better.

Matthew Day Jackson's "Hauta, 2012," while under construction at the foundry. Concrete, bronze, steel, glass, Pinus sylvestris, Betula nana, Picea abies, raindeer antlers. Photo: Walla Walla Foundry.

I asked Farnum to reflect on how he approaches new artists. Typically, he said, he likes to meet with potentialclients like Jackson at his or her studio. He does his research, studying the artists’ designs, processes and materials. He wants the artist to feel sure that the foundry can handle whatever challenge is thrown at it: 3D manipulation and modeling, mold-making, casting, Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) design.

“I will take images of our work on an iPad and riff on his work," says Farnum. "We want to make sure we show work that is representative of his work. We want him not to have to make the leap.”

Meetings between Farnum and prospective artists are supercharged, free association brainstorms. “The artist will say, ‘We are thinking of this,’ and then I go, ‘Well, we could project it on a tree or do it in formica.' That is usually effective because it shows an interest in the work and that we have a range. It points to a nimbleness of mind.”

Farnum cannot point to a favorite piece of art from the foundry. Instead, he remembers challenges or solutions that he felt were “revolutionary.” Robotic sand milling, digital operations like two- and three- dimensional surface data captures. The foundry’s success lies in being more than just a fabricator, but Farnum is careful not to take too much credit.

“We are not a collaborator, but an enabler," he says. "Artists are trying to realize an idea. They want technical proficiency, but also excitement about their idea. This frees the artists from being concerned about how to get something done. Instead it opens them to what is possible.”

There are only a handful of artistically-focused foundries in the world with the client list and in-house talent of the Walla Walla Foundry. Competitors like Polish Tallix, just an hour-and-a-half drive from Jackson’s New York City studio, have a geographic advantage. Yet Jackson enjoys his time in Walla Walla. In fact, summoning his spiritual side, Jackson said that heaven is somewhere between the Foundry and the Jim German Bar in nearby Waitsburg, Wash. After a productive, if sweaty, day in the foundry, artists and metal workers shuffle off to Jim German for music, drinks and snacks.

Walla Walla, with its farm movement, wineries, universities and artist community, may well become the rural response to Richard Florida’s "Rise of the Creative Class," which in part focuses on the benefits of attracting creative workers and Bohemian lifestyles to more urbanist settings.

“The climate, the geography, the topology of this place … that is what influences various artistic entities to come together,” Farnum told me. “There is some kind of vibe or quality to this place.”

Artists describe the brightness and clarity of Walla Walla as being Tahoe-like. The big sky is Montana-like. They talk about the horizon, the ease of getting around, the fields.

But it wasn’t always so civilized. Walla Walla was a picturesque outpost, removed from the bright lights and art hubs of big cities. 

“We had to colonize," says Farnum. "The empty buildings became studios. The yogurt [eventually] came.”

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