Larger than life: Sculptors build a business in Kalona

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Steve Maxon flipped on the light in a cluttered room.

“Lincoln’s here,” Maxon said, pointing. “That’s from 2009. Irving Weber’s here — he’s a little beat up. Hayden Fry, he’s from last year.”

Those figures, as big as or maybe a bit larger than life, now stand on the Illinois College campus in Jacksonville (that would be young Lincoln, open book in hand), at Iowa Avenue and Linn Street in Iowa City (Weber, the city’s official historian, doffing his hat), and at First Avenue and Ninth Street in Coralville (Coach Fry in his 1980s sideline attire of aviator shades, baseball cap and sweater with dress shirt).

But all three and many more landmarks in towns across the Midwest got their start in a warren of connected buildings at the east end of downtown Kalona. The figures there now are the wax masters used to make the molds into which bronze is poured to cast the statues.

Maxon and his wife, Doris Park, both sculptors themselves, started Max-Cast in 1983 on a rented farm between Iowa City and Kalona. Maxon was a few years out of the University of Iowa’s graduate program in sculpture where he studied under Julius Schmidt. Schmidt was memorialized as the “grandfather of cast iron sculpture” when he died last June at 94.

“I was kind of interested in being an illustrator and I just walked into one of his classes,” Maxon recalled. “It’s kind of fascinating, all the things you can do.”

Maxon’s discovery coincided with a decline in industrial foundries across the Midwest.

“A lot of foundries were closing around then, so I got a lot of equipment,” he said. “The foundry was just set up in a chicken coop in the backyard of the farm.”

Max-Cast moved to Kalona in 1988, when the buildings on B Avenue came up for sale. Maxon recently purchased the buildings next door.

“I guess we’re going to start fixing them up a bit, and rearranging things,” he said. “Maybe we’ll make one of those buildings into a little museum and keep all of our sculpture efforts over there, the clay molds. They’re kind of charming, and we don’t want to cut them up and throw them away because we’ve put a lot of work into them.”

In addition to full-sized statues, a product line launched in 2004, Max-Cast has developed a niche replicating vintage hardware.

“For a couple years we were doing a lot of restoration work for the (state) Capitol in Des Moines,” Maxon said. “Hinges, door handles, all sorts of little doodads.

“We would make a rubber mold on it, then do lost wax for the shell. High-fidelity stuff. Sometimes we make stuff from a drawing.”

A St. Louis company specializing in antique lighting — “streetlights, chandeliers, that sort of thing” — is a regular customer.

“We do a lot of repair work on damaged sculptures, too,” Maxon said. “Fix them up, re-patina them.”

And then there was the dead cat.

“They wanted it memorialized, so they brought in their dead cat,” Maxon said. “We made a sand mold of the dead cat. It looked pretty good.”

Maxon and Park still do their own sculpture when they have time. On a quiet Monday afternoon, Maxon worked in the front office while two of the business’ six employees — that number includes Park — worked on a couple projects.

“It’s always pretty slow,” Maxon chuckled. “But we’re having a pretty good year. A lot of work, and things have gone really well. It’s sort of feast or famine.”

The craft has changed — Max-Cast often works from computer-assisted design software these days — but the deliberate pace remains. It takes at least six months to produce a life-size statue.

“We have to model it, decide what people want, do drawings,” Maxon said. “Then we do a little miniature of the cast to work out the 3-D problems in miniature before we do the big one.

“We go through a series of approval points, then we start making the full-sized clay model and make a rubber mold of that and do waxes from that.”

CAD software can cut speed the process a bit.

“Make it out of foam and cover that foam with clay” to make a mold, Maxon said. “It’s a lot easier to make this stuff than it was in the Renaissance. They had to pin parts together, they didn’t have MIG welders.”

Still, Maxon said most visitors are surprised at “how long it takes to do things.”

“It’s really labor-intensive and takes a long time to run stuff through here,” Maxon said. “It’s not a push-button thing at all. It’s pretty time-consuming.

“You really have to go over things and be careful with every little step.”

Visitors can buy small art objects displayed in the front room, and Maxon often is willing to conduct tours of the work areas where all those life-size figures live. He’s glad young people still seek out the trade.

“I’ve got good people right now who are younger,” he said. “One of them’s doing a really crackerjack job. I’d like to get more people interested — I’d like to get someone here who’d take it over.”

At a glance

l Owner: Steve Maxon, Doris Park

l Business: Max-Cast Inc.

l Address: 611 B Ave., Kalona

l Phone: (319) 656-5365

l Website: http://www.max-cast.com

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