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Did you know there is more to the Ice Dragon Arts & Sciences Pentathlon than the competitions? The Pent area hosts the competition entries and judges, of course, but it also makes room every year for general A&S displays. Not everyone is interested in judging feedback, and to accommodate those artisans the Pent organizers will reserve several tables, to display with pleasure, without pressure!

One display which had everyone a-buzz – and not only because one of the shoes had a honeycomb pattern – was set up by Master Robert of Ferness (then THLord Robert) at the 2019 Ice Dragon Pent. Master Robert brought a plethora of medieval shoes of all different styles; needing to use three tables to set them all out! His display drew the attention of all those visiting the Pent area, as well as some gentles who came especially to take a look at this famous Flight of Shoes.

The Flight of Shoes A&S display by Master Robert of Ferness at the 2019 Ice Dragon Pentathlon

Not everyone realizes the Pent has two types of Display. One is meant for our dearest works in progress and treasured works of art. The other is meant for A&S disasters we’d honestly rather quietly bury in the backyard…

Quite a few years ago, Master John Michael Thorpe started the Failure Display at the Ice Dragon Pent. As the then-Kingdom A&S Champion he had been asked by a Crown Tournament autocrat to enter something in their A&S tournament. He felt it would not be appropriate to enter his Champs project, but that he could bring his current project that had just been placed into the kiln for display: thinking if the experiment worked it would be a fun display, and if it failed he would display the failure. Master Thorpe, the then-Kingdom A&S Champion, ended up displaying a failure – which contrary to expectation was very well received! Many gentles talked about how important it was to make it acceptable to sometimes fail, and this sparked the idea to add a Failure Display section to Ice Dragon, and to encourage Fleurs and Laurels to display their failures as a source of inspiration – and fun! – to the Kingdom at large.

Failure: a necessary part of the research and learning process.
by Master John Michael Thorpe

One concept most often left out of the A&S display and competitions is the process of learning, especially re-creating lost techniques and arts, and the failures that are a necessary part of true physical research. Over the years as I have taught people crafts and arts, the one thing that seems to come up over and over is the implication that my ability to do things comes from a talent that mysteriously sprang fully formed out of the void. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! I find that people who are new to arts and sciences (especially those outside of the normal A&S genres) look at the work on display at Ice Dragon, and similar venues, and then try their hand at what they saw and become discouraged. The point of this display is to highlight the work that nobody ever sees, the learning and discovery process.

My goal in what became this failure was to try to recreate period casting techniques for high temperature metals (silver and bronze) using clay molds as described in Theophilus (lost wax, Theophilus chapter 30: Casting the Handles for the Chalice: Theophilus, On Divers Arts,Translated with introduction and notes by John G. Hawthorne and Cyryl Stanley Smith. New York: Dover Publications,1963) and Dress Accessories (ceramic mold for mass production of buckles pp122, illustration 80 – Egan, Geoff, and Frances Pritchard . Dress Accessories. London: The Boydell Press. 1991). My process for the lost wax mold was to follow the directions in Theophilus, carving a chalice handle in beeswax (darned impossible stuff to carve, I need to see if sun-bleaching it makes it less sticky). I figured that a clay with a low vitrification temperature would be susceptible to thermal shock when the metal was poured from the burnout process vitrifying it, so I chose a high firing clay to avoid vitrification. I followed the instructions in Theophilus, coated my wax and the vent and sprue, then as they dried built up more layers.

I kept getting shrinkage cracks, so I figured that I should support and encapsulate the mold in powdered clay so that any leaking would be contained. I made the mold for multiple castings shown in Dress Accessories from 2 slabs of the same high fire clay; carved sprues, vent risers, mold cavities etc. in the clay, and let it dry. As it dried I got shrinkage, and cracking, ultimately one side of the mold split in half right at the main feeder sprue. The next morning I put both molds in a bread pan of powdered clay and put them in a kiln for preheat (and burnout of the lost wax) When I went to check on them at lunch time the big mold had shattered spectacularly all over the inside of the kiln, and although the lost wax was not yet fully burned out, it was missing it’s top.

The exploded lost wax clay molds in the kiln.

My friend ABS Mastersmith Kevin Cashen once said that you can tell more about a knife maker by the pile of blades under his workbench than you can by his display pieces. The experiments that didn’t work are often more valuable to the craftsman than the easy successes.

The next step is going to be trying to figure out what I can do to the clay to minimize the shrinking and cracking as well as figuring out a way to keep the whole thing from blowing up when I heat it. I have bounced one idea off of a couple of potters and they think it might have possibilities: elsewhere in Theophilus (Bell casting I believe) he mentions including dung in the clay mix, and in a documentary I watched on church bell casting they mixed horse manure in their casting sand as a binder, and have been doing it that way since the early 1800s, so the next experiment will be mixing some strained horse manure into the clay. I am hoping it has the same effect as the chopped straw I mix into the clay I build my smelters out of. So far I have learned that my off-the-shelf high fire clay does not work. That failure means that I will have to explore other materials and techniques. Sooner or later I will hopefully find a mix that holds it’s shape and doesn’t crack in the drying process, then I will work on modifying that until I have a mold that survives the casting process. Typically, a process oriented project like this will take me 2-5 years to develop.

Would you like to display a work in progress, an unassuming, or even spectacular failure, or two? There is no sign up or pre-registration required for the Displays – although if your display will take up a table, or three, it might behoove you to let the Pent coordinators know beforehand!

For more information on the Pent, take a look here

Have questions? Need three tables?! Contact Cori or Elska by FB or email.