Memorabilia from a 44-year career at the University of Minnesota plaster the walls of Wayne Potratz’s office.
The foundry, just outside the sculpture professor’s office door, is arguably one of the finest college metal casting facilities for sculpture in the country.
The space retains a warm and welcoming feel, perfect for getting hands dirty making molds and pouring metals for sculpture.
The large, industrial space includes a ventilation system, induction furnaces, a large kiln, two cupolas used for melting metals, a pit containing sand for sculpture molds, an industrial crane overhead for heavy lifting and a teapot resting on a gas stove.
Potratz has been casting metal and teaching sculpture at the University for nearly half a century, but his last pour as a professor and foundry master is Tuesday.
Potratz made his first cast metal piece in the basement of his house in 1959, when he was a high school senior. He went on to study sculpture at Macalester College and was a sculpture-foundry teaching assistant as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I just kind of fell into it in a way,” he said. “It’s something I liked a lot and just kept pursuing.”
Potratz was born in St. Paul, Minn., and spent the majority of his career in Minnesota, but his passion for the craft took him around the globe to study with metal casting masters from many cultures.
“He’s a walking, talking foundry man’s dictionary,” Chris Groth, Potratz’s teaching assistant, said. “He’s a wonderful teacher and a great artist.”
Students consider him an inexhaustible source of knowledge, and the University has yet to find a replacement for his position for when he officially retires in the spring.
“It’s going to be horrible when he leaves. It’s going to be a big loss to the University,” Jeff Lohaus, a Bachelor of Fine Arts student, said. “How they’re going to fill those shoes, I have no idea. It’s going to be really tough.”
Potratz said because of University budget constraints, he isn’t sure if his position will be filled. He said the art department is also trying to fund a printmaking position, and it’s hard to get two positions filled in one year.
“There’s a whole cadre of people who would be very eager to have my job,” he said. “Whether that’s going to happen or not is another matter.”
In the meantime, assistant professor Chris Larson will teach a class associated with the foundry next spring, and Potratz plans to assist with one of the metal pours. But Larson is not the full-time foundry professor and will be teaching other additional classes.
Groth said Potratz was a big draw for him when he was deciding whether to come to the University for a Master of Fine Arts degree.
Groth first heard about Potratz from one of his undergraduate professors about four years ago, but he said he truly realized the magnitude of Potratz’s reputation in the casting community this spring at the National Conference on Cast Iron Art in Birmingham, Ala.
“He’s not the first, but everyone kind of pointed to Wayne as one of the big people in the country who got the cast iron art movement rolling,” Groth said. “At that moment I just kind of stepped back and was like, ‘Wow.’”
Potratz said he operates his classes like an old-fashioned workshop. He’s the advanced practitioner who conducts research, oversees the shop and refers to the advanced students as journeymen.
“Students actually see me working, solving my own aesthetic and technical problems,” he said. “So I demonstrate through my work ethic, through what problems I come up against and my failures.”
Groth said Potratz is always in the shop, ensuring that his work and the work of others is completed.
“The man’s a workhorse,” he said. “He’s got a lot of passion for what he does.”
Lohaus, who identifies as a “perpetual student,” said he has been coming back to the program for the last eight years specifically to work under “one of the great masters at the University.”
He said he admires Potratz’s skill and knowledge and values the team mentality he instills in his students year after year.
“Nobody comes in here and gets away with pouring a little metal,” he said. “He emphasizes the teamwork that it takes to work in a place like this. If people learn anything in this class, it’s how to work together.”