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Laran Bronze Is Turning Clay Into Metal Art in Chester

Photos by Jim Graham

Run by a father-son team, Laran Bronze Fine Art Foundry & Studio in Chester teams up with artists to create spectacular bronze art.

The rambling old brick building stands in an almost deserted section of battered, post-industrial Chester. To fully appreciate what goes on inside, it helps to first visit some of the lovely cultural oases of the region—places like Mt. Cuba, Brandywine River Museum of Art and Longwood Gardens. There you’ll find bronze statues of fatted pigs, nuzzling Nubian goats, boys with hawks, coursing greyhounds, cud-chewing cows, frolicking foxes and even a 13-foot winged samara. All were initially carved in clay by regional sculptors like J. Clayton Bright or the late André Harvey and Charles Parks. And all were given their first breath of life in the glowing furnaces of Laran Bronze Fine Art Foundry & Studio.

“We’re pouring Clayton’s hounds today,” says Lawrence “Larry” Welker III, who co-founded Laran Bronze four decades ago and still runs the place. He has some assistance from his son, also named Larry but who sometimes answers to “Lawrence” to distinguish himself from his dad. The two operate the foundry with a staff of nine, turning out bronzes of all shapes and sizes, many in signed and numbered editions that will fetch thousands of dollars and wind up in private homes and public spaces worldwide.

Larry Welker

Laran Bronze founder Larry Welker

On a recent morning, the elder Welker consults his notes. “Right now, we have about 70 works in progress from about 15 to 20 different artists,” he says.

Sitting just inside his office door are ceramic figures made by Japanese artist En Iwamura—monochromatic, globular, emoji-like heads swept with weaving corduroy lines not unlike those of a raked gravel garden. “En flew in here on a private jet, and we started working on turning these into bronzes,” Welker says.

Laran Bronze

Some were being transformed into eight-foot bronzes either destined for Ross + Kramer Gallery in East Hampton, New York, or Art Basel in Miami Beach. “We would scan one, then mill it,” Welker says, referring to Laran’s use of 3D computer programming.

Laran Bronze is located in a structure that was once occupied by a shipbuilder at the height of Chester’s manufacturing era. Its vast parking lot has more weeds than cars, accessed through a small arch in a free-standing brick wall that has no apparent function. Scruffy exterior aside, the rambling open space inside is a cosmopolitan crossroads of production and creativity. Off to the left, furnaces are filled with random finished works, including a larger-than-life boxer, a sword-wielding patriot and many works in progress. The rest of the first floor is carved with more on two upper floors. Many serve as sanctuaries for sculptors with works in progress.

bronze statues

Welker’s son offers an impromptu guided tour, starting on the top floor. One room is devoted to 3D scanning and digital design, while another houses a machine shop featuring a five-axis CNC milling tool—about as far away from the primitive, cauldron atmosphere of the foundry downstairs as one can imagine.

Not all the equipment is for client use. The Welkers both create elegant, futuristic sculptures. The son also makes jewelry, and the father furniture. “He’s been doing furniture since 2008,” says Lawrence, whose preferred jewelry medium is silver. 

Laran Bronze

Bronze has been favored through the centuries for its relatively low melting temperature, malleability and resistance to corrosion. Although there’s more than a single process for making metal sculptures, the standard one is for the artist to create the original in clay. From this, rubber molds are made. Those are then filled with wax to make a duplicate of the clay version, either whole or in individual parts. The more complex the sculpture, the more parts.

The wax sculpture is repeatedly dipped into liquid porcelain until a one-inch shell builds up. After drying, the porcelain is fired, melting the wax (the lost-wax process) and creating a mold of the original. Molten metal heated in the furnace is then poured from pots into the porcelain molds, which are anchored to a bed of sand on the foundry floor.

In a series of finishing steps, the channels (or sprues) where the metal flows into the molds are removed, the parts are assembled and finished and a patina is added. All of this is time-consuming, with the artist (in most cases) working closely with the craftspeople to ensure that the finished bronze is in harmony with the clay original.

On this day, J. Clayton Bright has driven in from his Unionville studio to witness his work being poured. “I never try to redo a piece at the foundry,” he says, noting that it’s not a place to extend the creative process.

art in Brandywine Valley

One of his hound sculptures is a consignment. For another creation, he’s doing a limited-edition series of eight. All are in the finishing stages. “I work at Laran in three two-hour segments,” he says. “I discovered that it’s best to do segments, because if I make a mistake, it helps me from repeating it.”

Bright has been with Laran from the beginning—or even before it. “I’ve been working with Larry since 1976, when he was freelancing and hadn’t yet established Laran,” says Bright.

bronze molds

Molds filled with hot bronze

Welker grew up in Shippensburg and graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Art in Pittsburgh. Seeking to better control his own output, he founded Laran in 1984 with his wife and his brother, Randy (the “ran” in Laran). The place has been busy ever since—perhaps busier than some might like these days. Since the pandemic, production has run months behind due to continued demand, delivery delays for materials and a shortage of qualified employees. The staff also includes Welker’s daughter, Taryn. All in all, though, it remains a popular place with artists. “André started working with Laran in 1999,” Bobbie Harvey says of her late husband. “He had a particularly difficult piece called Morning Glory—a robin and its nest—that needed casting. There was an edition of 60, but it sold out fast. They did a beautiful job. André was a perfectionist, and so were they. He was there so much they gave him his own working bench.”

bronze sculptures patina

Taryn Welker with a torch she uses to apply a patina to bronze sculptures

Fortunately for Laran, there’s a new generation of sculptors who love working in bronze. Many are growing to appreciate the facilities at Laran, along with the father and son who operate it. At a time when large statues of bronzed men with feet of clay are being removed from public places, it’s reassuring to know that these new bronzes are dedicated solely to beauty and esthetic appreciation.

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