This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.
WALLA WALLA, WASH. — In this valley nestled between the Blue Mountains and Palouse Hills, there is a sleepy warehouse neighborhood where giants are born.
At the Walla Walla Foundry, all sorts of artistic behemoths rise: a 36-foot-high Venus de Milo by Jim Dine; a squad of liberated caryatids by Wangechi Mutu; the two-ton head of a forest spirit by Yoshitomo Nara; the playful pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama.
While Walla Walla Valley has become known as a wine destination, many of the world’s leading contemporary artists know it as the home of this fine-art playground — one that has engendered relationships as intimate as they are professional. The sculptor Deborah Butterfield likens the foundry to “a chocolate factory for artists where pretty much anything you can think of can be made.” Mr. Dine has called it an “extension of the artist’s hand.”
The work it has produced has been exhibited, collected, and installed around the world, from MoMA and Central Park to the Palace of Versailles and the Venice Biennale. Yet, if you’re not directly involved in the business of large-scale art, you’ve probably never heard of the place.
“We’ve always been passive and let the work speak for itself,” said Lisa Anderson, a co-owner.
Walla Walla Foundry is one of the largest contemporary fine-art foundries in the world, spanning a cluster of buildings that house facilities including a traditional bronze foundry, wax and silicone workshops, 3-D printers the size of bedrooms, and a 40-foot-long paint booth.
Originally established as the Bronze Aglow, Inc., in 1980 by Mark and Patty Anderson, it began as a small family affair where the couple raised their kids Jay and Lisa around visiting artists. Since 2008, the foundry has doubled in size, and now employs 100 staffers — artisans, craftspeople, engineers, designers, and administrators — who help artists create their visions, commissions with price tags anywhere from the tens of thousands to the millions.
The foundry has helped fabricate large-scale artworks for dozens of artists: Hank Willis Thomas, Jim Hodges, Isa Genzken, Simone Leigh, Takashi Murakami, Louise Bourgeois, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Maya Lin, and Matthew Barney, to name a few.
In an interview for a 2004 book on the foundry, “Extending the Artist’s Hand,” Mark Anderson, who died in 2019 at 65, explained the ethos that makes it such an artistic beacon: “Word of the foundry has always been spread by the artists who were here. We have never advertised.”
And except for some educational outreach and limited tours, the campus is closed to the public.
Since Mr. Anderson’s death, the foundry has gone through a transitional period, with Patty, Jay and Lisa Anderson as owners; Jay and Lisa also run the family’s sister business, Foundry Vineyards, two blocks away, where Lisa curates a gallery with a roster of shows that have included Ai Weiwei and James Lavadour.
The next as-yet-unnamed exhibition, which opens Nov. 4 and runs through January, is dedicated to Mark and “his relationships with many of the artists he served at the Walla Walla Foundry.” Work by Mr. Dine, Ms. Butterfield, Nancy Graves, Keiko Hara, Manuel Neri, Lynda Benglis and more will be drawn from Mark and Patty Anderson’s permanent collection.
Jonathan Follet, a Walla Walla native who became the foundry’s president in late 2020, said staff and leadership have been thinking about legacy and the future.
“‘Reflection’ sums it up best,” he said. “It’s just this moment in time where we can look at what we have and where we want to go and you know, sort of capitalize on the history. This place has dominated for 40 years.”
Today, the foundry is in a sustained era of consistently receiving large-scale sculpture commissions from artists and galleries. Niki Haas, of the Haas Brothers, an art-design team that has used the space to create large-scale woodworks like an in-progress walnut table and bench set, said that the foundry is leading a phenomenon as a behind-the-curtain “mega-fabricator” of increasingly bigger art.
“Making monumental sculpture has a lot to do with places like Walla Walla,” Mr. Haas said. “They are nameless and faceless, and that makes it all the more intriguing to me.”
From the street, the Walla Walla Foundry campus is unassuming: a handful of warehouses with stretches of lawn and trees. On a tour of the grounds with Mr. Follet and the younger Andersons, glimpses soon emerge of the alchemy that happens within.
One grassy corner is the home of a 2013 40-foot bronze tree by Paul McCarthy. Circling the tree, Mr. Follet, who has a master’s in architecture, says it’s one of the first foundry projects that embraced extreme seismic engineering, providing an added layer of security for collectors and the long-term viability of their investments.
“This particular piece could essentially go anywhere in the world and satisfy structural codes just because it’s so robust,” he said.
More glimpses: Across the lawn, are two massive organic-looking bronze lumps — part of the “Hill and Clouds” series by Ms. Benglis.
Inside one workshop, amid the buzz of drills and sanders, a team has erected a shimmering 20-foot-tall stainless-steel creature by an artist who Mr. Follet couldn’t name (thanks to a non-disclosure agreement with the foundry). “They’re checking the footprint,” he said. “There’s multiple figures in this work and their orientation to each other is really important.”
These spaces, filled with the disembodied heads and limbs of giant creatures like some sort of bizarro art slaughterhouse, can get crowded. Some of the larger sculptures, like Mr. Dine’s 23,000-pound “Cleveland Venus” (2003), require fabrication while recumbent before being erected outdoors.
That will soon change, said Jay Anderson, with the groundbreaking for a new building, scheduled to open next summer, creating room for the foundry to create multiple large-scale projects at once, projects that can take anywhere from a few months to years.
“It’s supposed to able to accommodate a 50-foot sculpture inside,” he said.
Outside the Art Orbit
When the Andersons established the foundry in the ’80s, it was not with the express goal of building monumental art. Back then, the campus was one building and the small team focused mostly on life-size bronze casts for a handful of artists such as Mr. Neri and Robert Arneson. Word spread to Mr. Dine and Ms. Butterfield, and so it went.
Ms. Butterfield and Mark soon became fast friends and their families grew close. Thirty-seven years later, Ms. Butterfield has a studio space at the foundry and comes to work on-site several times a year, driving a truck full of sticks from her home in Montana for wax-cast burnouts.
“It totally changed my life,” she said. “I don’t think anybody can compete with the quality.”
That quality is born out of a specific environment. There is the historical knowledge and expertise of 40 years of pouring bronze, creating wax molds, and woodworking, combined with newer technologies like the polymethyl methacrylate 3-D printers and CNC machine, an automated machining tool which, on this visit, was in the middle of a 1,000-hour job polishing a massive steel disc to an impossibly seamless mirror finish.
Matt Ryle, a project manager who used to be the chief fabricator for Mr. Barney, says the quality and boldness of the work is also a direct result of the remote, laid-back location, far away from the art-world orbit with plenty of room to experiment.
“The foundry is not jaded by the art world or civilization, you know, the crowd of city living and well-worn paths of industry,” Ryle said. “They understand the artist and give artists room to explore.”
Going the Distance
Standing next to one of Isa Genzken’s 33-foot-tall orchid sculptures — which is slated to travel to Gstaad, Switzerland, in November — Mr. Follet and Jay Anderson pondered if the best way to install it would be by helicopter, avoiding the headache of navigating narrow, winding mountain roads with such large cargo.
Some of Jay Andersons’ fondest memories from youth are accompanying his father on install trips, like the one to an Idaho forest in the early ’90s to install Ed Keinholz’s “Mine Camp,” which reproduced in bronze a 1950s hunting scene, complete with casts of a 40-foot-tall tree, a full-size pickup truck, a deer carcass, hunting accouterments, a campfire and Keinholz himself. (This spring, the foundry installed Ms. Kusama’s “Dancing Pumpkin” at the New York Botanical Garden.)
Mr. Follet said the foundry is attractive to artists because it is a one-stop shop, from conception — educating artists on the best materials and methods to achieve their visions — and fabrication to crating and site installations.
While the foundry’s reach is global, it has also left an indelible and intimate impact on Walla Walla itself. Whitman College has an outdoor sculpture walk featuring foundry creations, such as Ms. Butterfield’s “Styx” (2002) and Mr. Dine’s “Carnival” (1997).
At Pioneer Park, in the heart of the city, Lisa Anderson walked up to a sprawling London plane-tree and patted an enormous low-hanging limb; it emitted a hollow metallic ring. Now cast in bronze, the original branch was beloved, a place for kids to climb and residents to have their photo taken. When it began to rot and the city removed it a few years ago, Mark Anderson donated the services of the foundry to make a cast. On Arbor Day, the city and foundry unveiled the tree’s new bronze branch. Mr. Anderson didn’t live to see it.
“My Dad played on this tree when he was a kid,” said Lisa Anderson, as she traced with her finger the bronze groove of initials and hearts carved by locals into the original tree.