On a warm morning last week, Steven and Stewart Wegner poured molten bronze into more than a dozen molds.
The twin brothers opened Wegner Metal Arts foundry in a former Farmer’s Creamery building downtown in 1979, and have made more than 10,000 sculptures—that’s just how many they’ve logged in their computer system since 1996.
They’ve done their dangerous dance of pouring 2,000-degree bronze so often that it comes off without a hitch. They lift a weighty graphite crucible and tilt it slightly, pouring a stream of liquid metal into the filling tube of each mold.
It’s a demanding process, and by the time it’s over, the two men have red faces and are trying to catch their breath.
Look a little closer and you’ll see why the Wegner brothers will close the foundry once they fill their remaining orders.
Steven’s got a bad knee that needs replacing, and both are at an age when their bodies are struggling with the physical demands of casting bronze. No family members are interested in carrying on the business, and the brothers say the process is so dangerous that they wouldn’t want them to.
“We’ve been doing this so long that we don’t even need to speak while we’re doing it,” said Steven. “But there comes a time when you realize you can’t do this forever.”
To that end, the foundry building is up for sale.
“It’s hard, because we love what we do. The creative parts of the job are really rewarding,” said Stewart. “But many of those galleries have closed now, and the same thing is happening to foundries all over. So much work goes into each piece that it’s a tough business.”
It was a different brother, Mark, who got the Wegners into the foundry business. A successful bronze artist, he needed a foundry to cast his pieces. Their father, a nuclear engineer, said he’d help with the finances to launch all three sons into the foundry business.
Mark eventually went elsewhere, while Steven and Stewart launched a business where they made and cast their own pieces while forging work by other artists.
For a while, Steven and Stewart Wegner—who always complete pieces together—were in search of a defining line or style at a time when most bronze work called for creating busts of famous people or horses.
Their father noticed an undersea piece the brothers had created and suggested they make a series of sculptures dubbed “Ocean Bronze.”
It was a smart decision, as the crabs, fish and other underwater creatures they’ve brought to life in bronze were popular. Musician Jimmy Buffett bought a jellyfish that sits on a coffee table in his home.
“Nobody was doing fish at the time, so that made us unique,” said Steven, who said he and Stewart extended the nautical theme to include reefs filled with different sorts of fish and other creatures. “The reefs are fun because you can add different pieces to each, and it’s interesting to figure out where to put what.
“But they’re a challenge, because it can take 60 hours or more to get it all done. Adding a patina alone can take two whole days.”
Steven said they’ve sold their artwork to all sorts of celebrities, from Amy Grant and Vince Gill to former Chief Justice Warren Burger to golfer Greg Norman.
They did Smokey the Bear statues for the National Park Service, and The Free Lance–Star’s statue of Lance the paper boy. One of their biggest pieces is an eagle with a 21-foot wingspan that went to a client in Atlanta.
The partners said the recession hit them hard in 2008, leading to a slow drawdown from a staff that once numbered 20 to the two brothers and one part-time employee.
“And staff took so much pride in their work,” said Steven. “They became like family to us.”
Steven suffered a heart attack just before COVID-19 hit last year—one sign that the long run might need to come to an end, though it’s been a busy stretch since then.
The brothers worry a bit about what happens when they’re no longer spending so much time together, though they still expect to see each other, and hope to have more time to play music together.
“Everyone keeps asking us what we’re going to do with our time,” said Stewart. “I tell them yardwork.”
“I’ll continue to paint,” Steven said. “I have nine grandchildren, and I’m one short on that doing portraits of them. I do paintings of my friends, and Stewart wants one of him and my brother, but they’re not gonna pay me, so there’s no rush on that.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415