HAATz Off to Pioneer Teachers of MPS Column:
By Taki S. Raton
When we think of cast iron or metal art objects as noted in the January 8 Milwaukee Courier featuring the bronze caste works of MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design) graduate Care Ekpo, an employee of Vanguard Sculpture Service, Ltd., 3374 West Hopkins, we very rarely if ever are of the mind that metal casting has been in use for over six thousand years, a method that has been virtually unchanged since Classical ancient times.
The term “Classical” is used here to denote samples of the highest level that a civilization achieves. Made of gold with inlays of colored glass and semiprecious stones and standing 54 cm. (21 in.) high, the gold mask of King Tutankhamen, dated 3,344 years ago around 1333 B.C.E. would be a documentation of the continuing accomplishments in metallurgy during the Classical ancient Egyptian era.
Clyde Ahmad Winters in the November, 1979 edition of the “Journal of African Civilizations” would further point to an East African origin of iron smelting. A specialist in African and Islamic history, Winters says in Indus Khamit Kush’s work “What They Never Told You in History Class” that upon examining archaeological data, there exists “an independent origin for iron-smelting technology in preheated furnaces in East Africa’s northern Tanzania around Lake Victoria more than 2,000 years ago.”
And right here in Milwaukee, Ekpo carries on this tradition at one of the finest bronze casting plants in the city.
He was in the first graduating class of the newly formed MIAD. A graduate of Whitnal High School in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, Michael Nolte received his B.A. in Sculpture from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 1983.
“Bronze casting was not available when I completed my degree,” says Nolte. “Upon graduation, I worked as an apprentice under Joe Mendla at Heart Bronze who taught me everything about bronze casting,” he adds.
This position was with no pay. But the young apprentice hung in there for nearly two years. He says that he worked an eight-hour day as a film processing technician in a local Milwaukee photo plant to pay the bills and with Heart Bronze after work, a total of 16 hours per day, a combination in his words of “paid and unpaid work.”
“It was a very dirty and dusty task pouring metal bronze at 2000 degrees,” recalls Nolte. After his apprenticeship ended a year later in 1984, he was hired full time and worked at Heart Bronze for nine years until the plant’s closing in 1993.
With a touch of genius in devising a plan to move forward, Nolte and five friends set up an assembly line in their respective residential basements, garages and studio apartments. This five crew partnership performed all the prep work in bronze casting with the final pouring stages completed in a commercial foundry.
After five years of a “make shift” separate address production line, the crew found rental spacing in the Third Ward where all processes of bronze casting was on site. They then had the room to pour their own metal which no longer required the use of an outside commercial foundry.
Nolte’s one year of on-thejob training with no pay was beginning to reap highly respectful rewards. He was able to purchase his new building, the now Vanguard Sculpture Service, at the Hopkins address.
Area sculptress Ekpo, also a MIAD grad, is one of Nolte’s six employees. His goal is to serve both the artistic and corporate communities, transforming material into a final caste bronze creation.
Vanguard was approached to produce the sculpture cast of Weber Kettle Grill restaurant founder George Stephen Sr. Stephen’s creative invention of the widely used dome shaped barbecue kettle grill is yet another story:
“It was one of my hardest projects and it took many months to get everything just perfect,” recalls Nolte.
The finished product is a grill equipped with utensils, steaks and Stephen proudly preparing a barbeque feasts on his world famous potbelly grills. Nolte has over 30 years of experience in the metal casting business and has the distinction of sharing that he has “learned from every project.”
A direct connection of Vanguard Sculpture Service to our community is the link of Care Ekpo and Vicki Singh’s HAAT project. Ekpo, as noted in the previous “Courier” writing will be designing and casting the HAAT sponsored Gerald Wallace and Harry Kemp Lifetime Achievement Awards at the March 26, 2011 “Historic African American Artistic Director” award ceremony at Serb Hall.
Singh is founder and director of HAAT, established to recognize and celebrate the exceptional efforts made by African American educators who were the earliest pioneers of African ancestry to be formally hired as teachers in the MPS system.
HAAT (Historic African American Teachers) has sponsored monthly Saturday luncheons at Serb Hall to honor what will be a total by this coming June of 144 African American educators and administrators who were the first to start with Milwaukee Public Schools as late as 1934.
“I knew that I wanted to give Care my original sketch ideas. She is a master artist and sculptress and I knew that my vision was in good hands,” says Singh. But now after visiting the Vanguard facility and meeting Michael Nolte, I am just overly excited and indeed honored to have Vanguard Sculpture Services and the talents of Care Ekpo associated with this most rewarding and highly anticipated HAAT project.”