A journey into the New York fine art foundry where the most famous statuettes of all time and the visions of great artists are brought to life. Here, where master craftsmanship and technological innovation meet, the magic begins.
There is great anticipation every year for the Oscar night. Aside from all the predictions about the most and least beloved movies, which will keep the worldwide audience in suspense, one thing is certain: the winners in the various categories will clutch the most famous statuette of all time in their hands. The knight first sculpted in 1928 by George Stanley and nicknamed Oscar in the 1930s because of its resemblance – legend has it – to a relative of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences employee, was first made in bronze by a California foundry. Over the decades it has undergone transformations in workmanship and materials, thus also becoming a symbol of the changes taking place in society and show business.
Since 2016, the statuettes have been produced by UAP Polich Tallix, a historic New York fine art foundry that gives shape to the visions of the greatest contemporary artists, from Jeff Koons to Louise Bourgeois. “We are honored to be casting the Oscars because they are iconic pieces. We often have visitors on site, and every time they recognize the statuette on our craftsmen’s work table, they light up and say ‘Wow, I never thought about where they came from.’ They connect the dots and it’s a magical moment”, says Jake Joyce, General Manager of the foundry. Together with him, we discover that behind the glitter of the small gold-plated sculpture, just over 34 cm high, lies painstaking and highly specialized work, bringing together the finest tradition of craftsmanship with technological innovation.
Joyce tells us that, for this new commission, the Academy wanted to return to the original cast bronze method of manufacture. In addition, they wanted to keep the character of Stanley’s statue, combining it with a more modern one. 3D scanning, digital modeling and 3D printing allowed the foundry’s digital artists to work alongside the craftsmen to achieve a design that would enhance the qualities of both models.
Producing the 60 annual statuettes from the prototype requires a laborious step-by-step process that, oversimplifying greatly, leads from the creation of the traditional rubber mold to the wax copy, from the ceramic shell to the sandblasting, from the draining of excess material to the 13 layers of coating, and from firing to cleaning. Then the bronze is cast and poured into the ceramic shell with expert temperature control and cooled overnight. At that point, the shell is cracked open and the sculpture appears in its raw state. But it’s in the finishing department that much of the work takes place. “We have to flatten the base, check that everything is aligned perfectly, then we stamp the serial number and the Academy’s initials. The surface undergoes a very fine finishing process before it’s covered with gold.”
So how long does it take to make a single Oscar? Seventy-five hours, if all goes well. As Joyce points out, the calculation is approximate because it doesn’t take into account two determining factors: a super-skilled team, and it takes generations to perfect those skills, and an exceptional facility. Specifically, the magic of the Oscars comes to life at Rock Tavern, 60 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. In the huge 5500-square meter facility you can see overhead cranes sliding back and forth carrying tons of materials. Inside, 85 people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, are employed. There are no restrictions or mandatory qualifications, but all of the makers have unique skills and experience needed to anticipate the problems and challenges of bringing to life the projects of great artists. “Some of them have been working here for 50 years. We’re fortunate to have 80-year-old master craftsmen who pass on their knowledge to younger people.
It’s a fantastic place to work; those who join the team tend to stay for a long time. We’re one big family.” The foundry was created in 1968 by master metallurgist Dick Polich, who with tireless curiosity and experimentation found revolutionary solutions for artists such as Frank Stella and Alexander Calder. He thus helped to open up the conversation about the figure of the art fabricator who, though working behind the scenes, is as much of a protagonist as the person who conceived the creative idea. With his retirement in 2020, the foundry became part of UAP (Urban Art Projects), a global company that realizes architectural and design projects. To manage the expansion of the team while maintaining excellence in specializations, an in-house trade school was established at Rock Tavern. Those arriving for the first time in the wax room (where the models for lost-wax casting are made, including for the Oscars), embark on a path that will take them to learn from the experts in each department, proceeding by successive steps. The School of Making is so effective that it has recently opened its doors to some of the foundry’s own artists as well, as observing up close how the works take shape can breathe new life into their creative process.
Similarly, will knowing where the Oscars come from transform our experience of Academy Awards night?