As a young graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, cast-iron sculptor Kelly Ludeking toured the country pouring molten metal mushrooms for Rainforest Cafes, a Minnesota-grown restaurant chain that, like him, was just coming into its own in the late 1990s.
Since then, his professional metalwork has taken him as far away as Scotland, as close to home as Chicago and back to the family farm in Decorah, Iowa, where he hosts an annual iron pouring festival that draws fellow artists by the dozens.
Old radiators are smashed, thrown into Ludeking’s hand-built furnaces and recast as literal works of art. His nine-foot-tall elephant made of trucking and farm machine parts will soon stand guard over a sculpture park in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
ST. PAUL STUDIO
In his St. Paul studio, Ludeking shows off a lengthy cast-iron mailbox fashioned to resemble a whale, an Absolut Vodka bottle whose glass exterior has been smothered in molten metal, and smaller glass bottles purchased from a dollar store and converted into something more akin to Roman goblets.
He’s taken advantage of his blacksmithing travels to meet up with master craftsmen — many of them students of former University of Iowa professor Julius Schmidt, considered by many to be the grandfather of modern cast-iron sculpting — and glean what he can from the men and women who embraced Schmidt’s love of the genre.
Schmidt, something of a 1960’s icon within the discipline, died in 2017, and many of his students are now retired or have themselves passed away. Ludeking, who turns 50 on Friday, acknowledges he’s on his own way toward becoming what some in his industry deem a “gray beard” — a veteran metalworker seasoned by age and experience, defiantly continuing an artistic tradition at a time when many universities have mothballed their iron-pouring programs.
Ludeking, who opened his studio last year with the help of a STAR grant from the city of St. Paul, lives with his wife at the Schmidt Artist Lofts, which Dominium opened a few years ago within the old Schmidt Brewery on West Seventh Street.
The site holds special meaning for him as he used to host iron pouring events outside the brewery’s sizable Bottle House, long before the vacant brewery began welcoming new restaurants and residences.