A Business Built to Last as Long as Bronze Sculpture
There’s a DNA, an origin story, that bridges the Iwo Jima Monument, the crucifix Pope John Paul II leant on during mass, the coiled muscles of Arturo Di Modica’s Bull of Wall Street, the folds of Lynda Benglis’ sculpture, and the figures who march behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral carriage at his Washington monument. These bronze pieces, along with countless other monuments, adornments, and portraits scattered across the globe, were all made with the same tools and cast in the same furnace in Brooklyn. Bedi-Makky Art Foundry has lasted as long as the sculptures, a company passed down from partner to friend, father to son, producing bronze art work for over a hundred years.
The bronze business has changed dramatically since the golden age of foundries in New York City, however, and the demand for public sculpture, the bread and butter of the industry, has shifted. But Bedi-Makky’s current owner, Bill Makky, still carries on the tradition, filling commissions designed to become iconic public symbols. The foundry’s most recent project? A bronze hockey glove as big as a sea turtle, designed for Madison Square Garden as a good luck symbol for Rangers fans.
Bill Makky wearing his fireproof apron.
Bill’s foundry, where the liquid bronze for the sculpture is poured, is one of several businesses that emit a cacophony on Greenpoint’s India Street. Auto repair shops line the street, with gleaming classic Lincolns hiked up on the pavement. The gritty whine of sanding and the pop of an air compressor blend with the roar of the furnace in the foundry workshop.
The noise is intense, but the space feels sacred. “More than one sculptor has come in here and called this place ‘the Cathedral’,” Bill says. The outer room of the workshop is a luminous nave under a peaked skylight. A layer of fine dust silts the floor. It captures the details of shoeprints that cross from the tool bench, to the man-high ovens, to waiting plaster molds that Bill will cover in more sand to make a cast. In the room next door, the furnace Bill uses to melt down bronze for castings is so hot it makes the bronze inside glow green.
On a pouring day, usually a Monday, two assistants help Bill tip a crane away from the furnace to drain hypnotic gold rivulets into molds. “No running,” Bill orders to anyone skipping out of the way, like he’s a lifeguard overseeing the deep end of a pool. Drops of liquid splash onto the sandy floor. The bronze gurgles like a stew. “Sounds good.” Bill can tell the temperature of the molten bronze by the sound. One of the assistants leaning close to the heat waves simmering off the equipment wears a mask. Bill wears only an FDNY baseball cap.
The foundry itself is both functional and beautiful. Tools hang like a museum display on the wall. A Colonial figurine glares down from a top shelf, as does a bird with wings spread like a rising phoenix. Beside them are rolls of duct tape, repurposed Chock full o’ Nuts cans, tubs of oozing rubber, hanging ladles. Nudes are stacked on filing cabinets. An extension cord coils around the legs of a knee-high bronze girl. A crucifix staff leaning in a corner is a cast of the one Bill made for the Pope.
The models and bronzes aren’t aesthetic and they aren’t clutter. They are core to the long-term business models of Bill’s industry. Business-savvy artists request that Bill make multiple castings of one sculpture. The first is the commissioned work. The rest are an investment in the hope that later buyers will want replicas. Bronze is a big commitment – to make, to buy, and to display – a lifetime commitment at least. “We have customers for fifty or sixty years,” Bill says of his artists. “They’ll sell one bronze edition, then maybe twenty years later, they’ll sell the second. So, we have everything in storage.” Even when an artist passes away they’re still Bill’s clients. He keeps their casts for the estate, in case they can get a buyer. “It’s an old-fashioned business, like life insurance,” he says. The Bedi-Makky foundry is itself a product of old school models of intergenerational business planning. Bill is the fourth generation of owners – the last one being his father, István – that stretches back to the foundry’s start at the turn of the century.
Bronze art foundries mushroomed in New York at the end of the 19th century under the umbrella of a nationwide financial boom. Capital from railroads and factory network poured in. The time was called the Gilded Age, and in celebration of its namesake and the extra cash flow, burnished ornamentation became the new craze. Sculptors like Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederic Remington led the trend, setting out to create a particularly American sculptural identity. Marble spoke to a European tradition, so Gilded Age sculptors chose bronze as their medium – setting a gleaming Diana atop Madison Square Garden to catch the light and a somber President Lincoln in Chicago to contemplate the state of the nation. The labor that went into bronze work – lost wax and French sand casting, mold making, the application of patinas – required new expertise and new labor. Leaping into the emerging space, a new industry of bronze casting art foundries blossomed in New York.
A Hungarian immigrant named Kunst was one of many entrepreneurially minded founders who launched with the new era. Before arriving in New York, Kunst had labored in the foundries of France. There, he had learned a technique called French sand casting that he hoped would differentiate him from his New York competitors. For it, he needed one ingredient, unobtainable in New York City – French sand. Kunst made his way to the docks where French ships were offloading goods onto the piers. He tore into the ballast bags that stabilized ships on the rolling crossing from Europe. A fine dust was packed inside. When the sand was moistened, it took on a dark, earthy quality that could almost keep the shape of a fingerprint – perfect for building a mold. Kunst gathered several five gallon buckets worth, and hauled it back to his foundry on York Avenue. He was now uniquely able to offer the process of French sand casting as a product – at no capital outlay cost to the business.
Seventy years later, another Hungarian immigrant disembarked in New York. István Makky had escaped the Soviet workhouses of Communist Hungary at the age of eighteen. Had he stayed a few more months, he would have witnessed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when citizens revolted against Soviet influence on elections and troops in their cities, demolishing statues of Stalin, and ripping the hammer and sickle emblem from the Hungarian flag. Soviet tanks hammered the revolution into submission in just five days, sending waves of Hungarian emigres to the United States.
István joined two other Hungarian immigrants – Bedi and Raccy – who had worked under Kunst and bought the business from his widow. The foundry moved to a sunny side of Brooklyn in 1940, where it is today. István eventually bought out the two second-generation owners in 1970 and re-christened it the Bedi-Makky Art Foundry. His son, Bill, worked alongside him for decades. Now Bill runs the business on his own.
With his vast knowledge of foundry history and granular familiarity of the artists he casts for, Bill might feel like an embodiment of all four generations of owners, but he is not running a museum. He is as conversant in his foundry’s competitive space as he is in the history of the business. Corporate foundries have spread from upstate New York to Kentucky and dramatically changed the landscape of New York local manufacturing. In the old days, Kunst employed a fireman to monitor the temperature of the coals overnight to ready it for pouring.
Now foundries employ heat technologies like the same ceramic shells used to cast spaceships. Then an even newer technology emerged. “When the computer first came out, I couldn’t compete,” Bill admits. “But now,” he grins, “They’re getting wise guys.” Bill says "wise guys" like he’s in a James Cagney film. “There are generations now where people don’t know how it’s done the old-fashioned way.” Bill’s point? An experienced manufacturer with a new technology is a formidable competitor. A technician who knows the technology but is untrained in the medium or the craft is not.
But Bill has been shouldered out of the big public art contracts - like the Iwo Jima Monument renovation last year -that used to go this father. Those go mainly to corporate bids now. When pressed on why the foundry didn’t try to integrate new technologies, he smiles like he’s answered the question a hundred times. “We said, ‘we’ve been doing it for so many years, we’re making money, why switch it?’” Bill doesn’t want to compete at the scale of corporate foundries. In a fireproof apron and work gloves, he’s a hands-on CEO and he loves working directly with his clients. “I’m just an extension of the artist,” he says. “That’s the way we want to keep it.” He loves artists who are as hands-on as he is, the ones who Bill saw working alongside his father back when István ran the workshop. Dealing with artists in this capacity requires wearing a variety of hats: craftsman, manufacturer, artist, alchemist, engineer, businessman – and when interacting with New York creatives – a psychologist. “I do everything,” Bill says.
Just as it was at the onslaught of computers, the Bedi-Makky Foundry is currently at an inflection point. István died unexpectedly in a car crash last year. In December, Bill was hit by a car and broke his back. “I was on the ground with a broken back,” Bill recalls, “And I wasn’t thinking ‘I almost died.’ I was thinking, ‘I have to earn a living.’” The foundry didn’t do a pouring for three months. Under his purple, sweat-soaked shirt, Bill’s wrapped up in a back brace. It’s covered in plaster dust. “It gives you a new outlook,” he says. “It used to be that just doing the job was hard. Now, I say, ‘thank God I’m doing it.’”
For his first pouring after the accident, Bill and his assistant create a set of pieces called A Cry for Freedom. The sculptures are representations of the Hungarian flag from the 1956 Revolution – the flag with a hole in the center where the Russian hammer and sickle were torn out by demonstrators. These are presented at a ceremony at the Permanent Mission of Hungary to the United Nations on the Upper East Side, the old Gilded Age territory of Saint-Gaudens and Remington. The Cry of Freedom statue recipients are allies of the spirit of the 1956 revolution. At the ceremony, Bill examines the final products resting on a grand piano. Glasses of champagne clink in the background as ambassadors from the Philippines, Australia, and Denmark arrive.
“I had no idea Bill was Hungarian,” the Hungarian ambassador, Katalin Bogyay says of her first visit to the foundry to commission the piece. “I was in the car, looking out the window at the mechanics, and I think: Where am I?” During the ceremony, she reads a quote from Bill, which she has included in her book on the revolution: “My job memorializes events into bronze, a medium made to last many lifetimes. A Cry for Freedom deserves to be remembered.” Bill stands up and smiles to the applause and fingernails tapping on champagne glasses. He’s as at home surrounded by ambassadors as he is with his foundry-workers.
Working with bronze, like the medium itself, is a longer-than-lifetime commitment. It is an exercise in centennial thinking and legacy planning – from the artists who leave unsold editions to their estate, to Kunst, Bedi, Raccy and both Makkys who passed their warehouse and clientele down through the generations. Bronze sculptures will last even longer – centuries of weathering atop spires and in public parks. The oldest bronze sculpture is dated to 2,500 BCE.
Bill’s business may not be designed to last quite so long, but hints of its foundations in multi-generational longevity are everywhere in his workshop. There’s no sign of planned obsolescence in any of the equipment. The tools scattered on benches are heavy – totally unlike today’s lightweight tools. “Tools made past the 1960s go bad,” says Bill. The foundry furnace and ovens are similarly maintained through the years. Bill repairs them himself. “If something goes wrong with the furnace,” he points to the flaming green roar. “I can’t really call an oil guy or a home heating guy.” Like the sand that sits cooling under a tarp, everything is used over again ad infinitum. The recycling of materials leads to an ontological legacy that attracts artists to Bill. “This sand made the Iwo Jima Monument,” Bill explains, showing his fingerprints in a dark handful – the same sand, he says, that Kunst brought up in pails from the docks. “It made the Bull on Wall Street. It’s making statues today.”
The next sculpture the sand will make is the hockey glove for Madison Square Garden, which once supported Augustus Saint Gaudens’ statue of Diana. The commissioners hope that generations of fans will rub it for good luck, constantly burnishing a new gleam into the piece so that it shines for many years to come.
More about Emily Ludolph
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.